Which Children’s Book Was It?!

Where The Wild Things Are

While at dinner the other night, I overheard a young lawyer at the next table telling stories from the depths of probate court. I’ve always thought that the distribution of a decedent’s assets is interesting stuff—there’s often a lot of drama around the inheritance of wealth—but this woman made it sound far more entertaining than I imagined it would be.

One tale was about a wealthy woman’s missing will. It remained lost until someone found it stuck between the pages of a children’s book the woman had given to her granddaughter (who, as it turns out, was the person who inherited the woman’s fortune).

I wanted to stop the conversation right there to ask: WHAT CHILDREN’S BOOK WAS IT?! What book had this grandmother loved so much that she not only gave it to her granddaughter but also used it to transmit her estate? Was it a family heirloom? Was it something I’ve read?

But, of course, I didn’t ask these questions. I was eavesdropping, after all.

The probate court discussion happening at my neighboring table reminded me of a recent legal dispute over Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a children’s book that’s among my favorite classics. My Dad read it to me, and now we both read it to my daughters (see above for the inscription in our copy).**

Sendak died in 2012, leaving behind a contentious will that, as reporters have described, has left lawyers “gnash[ing] their terrible teeth and show[ing] their terrible claws.” Of course, assuming the recent lawsuit filed by Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum against Sendak’s estate isn’t frivolous, this round of lawyers wouldn’t have do any of that “terrible” stuff had the terms of Sendak’s will been crystal clear. (The “terrible” lawyers were the ones who drafted those ambiguous terms).

I haven’t been able to find a copy of the complaint (filed in the Fairfield County, Connecticut Probate court), but I’ve gathered from various news sources that the lawsuit stems from the estate’s decision to withdraw more than 10,000 original artworks that Sendak lent to the Rosenbach Museum and Library. The lawsuit challenges the estate’s interpretation of the will, claiming that the Estate has not followed Sendak’s intention to bequeath his valuable rare-book collection to the Rosenbach or to keep his own artwork on display.

For more on this lawsuit, check out The Philadelphia Inquirer (11/11/14), The New York Times (12/1/14), and The Hartford Courant (12/14/14).

Without a copy of the complaint and the filings, I won’t opine on the likely merits of the case. I’m looking forward to seeing how this matter resolves. Probate court is just as fascinating as my neighbor in the restaurant said it was.


*Wouldn’t it be funny if the missing will had been in a copy of Where The Wild Things Are?

**In 2009, my third daughter hadn’t been born yet. Every time we read this book, she asks why her name isn’t there!

***For other “Literary Estates Behaving Badly” posts, see (1) When An Author Quotes You, Say “Thank You,” Not “F-You”; (2) Faulkner’s Literary Estate “Works Hard” (At Staying in the Limelight?); and (2) The Conan Doyle Estate Loses Its “Quixotic Quest” to Control Sherlock Holmes.



  1. My experience with probate court is in dealing with different issues (relatives seeking legal guardianship of children and parents seeking to regain custody of their children who are in legal guardianship). I can just imagine the complexities of estates and wills.

    I’m ashamed to admit I don’t have a will. My husband and I always talk about drawing one up, but we have yet to do it. 😦

    1. I don’t think there’s anything shameful about not having a will. It can be helpful to have one, when it’s drafted properly, but intestacy rules also work well for lots of people. I do recommend talking to a lawyer in your area about it. I hope you’re doing well and that a very happy holiday!

  2. Now I know where to store my will! 😉
    I guess that woman didn’t use a lawyer when she wrote it (otherwise SOMEONE would have a copy, right?).

  3. Wow, what an interesting story! Wouldn’t the lawyer have had a copy as well? That’s only assuming, I suppose, that the family knew who the lawyer was. But that’s going to stay with me, which book could it have been?!

    1. Part of me wishes I had just interrupted my neighbor’s conversation to ask which book it was. Oh well! It’s possible that the will wasn’t drafted by an attorney or that the attorney no longer had it in the file. Who knows!

  4. I don’t worry an iota about the “stuff” in my condo, but I wonder might happen to my royalties after I die. They continue to come in whether I’m breathing or not, and I’d like them to go to a worthy cause. Can I write my own will if I have it notarized?

    1. Hi Theo! Each state is different when it comes to what’s required for a valid will. I think Florida requires two witnesses (and doesn’t require notarization), but you should talk to a lawyer familiar with this area of law. Wills need to be drafted appropriately to avoid ambiguity and other problems. Many people never end up writing wills, and their property then gets distributed through intestacy rules.

      As for notarizing documents, I will be so glad when we finally get rid of this archaic system. I had to fill out an affidavit for the New York Bar (for one of my former interns) that had to be notarized. What a pain!

      1. To me it seems notaries are simply another way to send money into the system. Anyone can become a notary who wants to pay for it. There are no special qualifications other than being able to pay for it.

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