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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Sendak's Concoctions of the Night Kitchen

Yesterday was a very sad day in the world of children’s literature.

On May 8, 2012, Maurice Sendak passed away at the age of 83.  He had suffered a stroke a few years earlier.

Hearing about Sendak’s death really got to me.  As someone who has wanted to make an impact in the world of writing, I’ll admit that I had quite a few role models to look up to for inspiration.

Maurice Sendak was one of those role models for me.  I used to read his books back in elementary school, as did all the other children in my school.  His books were unlike any other book by a children’s author, with dark, grotesque imagery and bizarre storylines.  Come to think of it, I think those were the reasons why kids gravitated towards the works of Sendak.

(Well, the fact that parents were opposed to his works because of content and sought to have them banned, thus making us children want to read them more.)

I initially had another topic planned for today, but I’m going to put it on hold for now.

This blog is going to be a celebration of the life and career of Maurice Sendak.

Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 10, 1928 to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents.  Sendak had described his childhood as being particularly unhappy, largely due to the fact that a lot of his extended family ended up dying as a result of the Holocaust.  At an early age, he was forced to face death and mortality...something that would inevitably influence his later works.

What was interesting about Maurice Sendak was that he initially didn’t want to be an author at first.  Although he loved reading as a child (they had kept him entertained while he was bedridden due to a childhood illness), his real passion was animation and illustrations.  After seeing Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” at the age of twelve, Sendak made it a goal to become an illustrator.

TRIVIA:  One of Sendak’s first jobs involved creating window displays for the New York City based toy store, F.A.O. Schwarz.

Beginning in 1947, Sendak’s illustrations began appearing in the textbook “Atomics for the Millions”, written by Dr. Maxwell Leigh Eidinoff.  Shortly thereafter he began illustrating various children’s books for various authors during the 1950s, including the “Little Bear” series written by Else Holmelund Minarik.

It wouldn’t be until the late 1950s that Sendak would begin writing his own stories in addition to providing the illustrations for them.  Some of Sendak’s earliest works included “Kenny’s Window” (1956), “Very Far Away” (1957), and “The Sign On Rosie’s Door” (1960).

And then in 1963, Sendak created his most famous work.

I’m sure most of you have probably heard of the book “Where The Wild Things Are”.  It was later adapted into a motion picture in 2009 featuring Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, and James Gandolfini.  Well, that book ended up becoming such a huge part of my life.

I’ll never forget the first time I read it.  It was second grade, and our teacher read the story to us in class.  I was mesmerized from the very first page and onward.

The story surrounds a nine year old boy named Max, a little boy who is most content wearing a wolf costume and causing mischief all over the house.  When his mother punishes Max by sending him to his room without dinner, Max’s imagination goes into overdrive.  Soon, a magical forest and sea appears, and Max sets sail to a far away island.

An island where the wild things were.

In the story, the monsters appear to be wild, scary, ferocious monsters, each with their own distinct look.  But as the story goes on, Max proves that he is the “fiercest monster of all”, as he has the power to conquer them by “staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.”

Max is made the “king of all wild things”, and the monsters celebrate with Max by dancing around in a “wild rumpus”.  But when Max starts getting homesick, he returns back to his bedroom, and goes downstairs to eat his dinner.

TRIVIA:  The monsters in “Where The Wild Things Are” were named after actual relatives of Sendak.  These names include Aaron, Bernard, Emile, Moishe, and Tzippy.

I enjoyed the book very much.  As a child, I always loved the way the monsters looked, and found the idea of the boy making friends with the wild things to be a great thing.  Even monsters needed to have friends.  As an adult, I can see that the book’s meaning runs a lot deeper than that.  I think that Max had a lot on his plate, which could explain the reason why Max often acted out.  I even think the 2009 film explained it better than the book.  Max created the “Wild Things” world as a way to escape his anger over getting punished by his mother, but it also his way of escaping the frustration he felt in his life.

It was a great message...and one that I can definitely relate to.  No, I didn’t wear a wolf suit and dream of scary creatures...but I know what it is like to create an imaginary world where things were more “perfect” than they were.  I’ve done it many times.

It’s funny though.  When “Where The Wild Things Are” was first published, it was critically panned.  Parents were concerned about the grotesque appearance of the monsters, and Sendak claimed that some libraries had actually banned the book.  But when children made an extra effort to seek out the book, teachers and librarians soon realized that maybe they were wrong about their feelings about the book, and relaxed their views.  The book eventually became a best seller, and won the Caldecott Award in 1964.

Of course, this wasn’t the first book that netted controversy for Sendak.  His 1970 book, “In The Night Kitchen”, was subject to censorship due to the fact that the story depicted a young boy running around completely nude...and the book showed every angle.  I myself have read the book, and I didn’t find anything wrong with it at all. 

It actually reminds me of the time that I was volunteering at a daycare center when I was in my early 20s, and we took a field trip to the public library.  We ended up seeing the animated movie of “In The Night Kitchen”, and if you could see the looks on the daycare providers faces when the movie aired, it would have stopped one dead in their tracks.  They were not happy with the movie at all, and they actually were worried that these kindergarten aged students would tell their parents everything. 

(Though, secretly I was chuckling to myself, as the most vocal complainer was also the one staff member who I felt had a huge chip on her shoulder...but that’s another story altogether.)

Anyway, “In The Night Kitchen” has been challenged in several American states including Illinois, Texas, Minnesota, and New Jersey, and ranked at #21 on the list of “Most Challenged Books from 1990-1999”.

There’s a part of me that wondered if Sendak was intentionally trying to push the envelope with his illustrations.  At any rate, he seemed to let the criticism slide, as he should have.

And besides, after “In The Night Kitchen” was published, he ended up releasing other widely successful books.  1977’s “Seven Little Monsters”.  1981’s “Outside Over There”.  2011’s “Bumble-Ardy”.  These are just a few of the many accomplishments that Sendak had to his credit. 

In addition to the Caldecott Award he won in 1964, he has also won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s book illustrations in 1970, the National Book Award in 1982, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1983, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and shared the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2003 with Christine Nostlinger.  He even has an elementary school named after him, which is located in North Hollywood, California.

Maurice Sendak’s contribution to the world of art and literature is nothing short of incredible.  While his road to success may have been filled with criticism and controversy early on, he managed to rise above it, and had quite the rewarding experience.

Fare thee well, Mr. Sendak.  May you rest in peace, and may your soul forever be where the wild things are.

Maurice Sendak

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