Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

Maurice Sendak, a literary giant whose works impacted children of all ages (even the grown ones), died today at the age of 83, due to complications that arose from a recent stroke. I write a lot about “essential” books that every child should have in their home library, but, when I look at my past posts, I realize that I haven’t written that much about Sendak and I think I know why. I think I sometimes forget to mention Sendak or recommend his books, because it just seems like a foregone conclusion to me that EVERYONE knows that you MUST read Maurice Sendak. They don’t need me convincing them to pick up a copy of Where the Wild Things Are or In the Night Kitchen. There is something – or there SHOULD be something – just imprinted in our animal DNA that draws us to Sendak’s works. We recognize the emotions, the expressions, the empathy that are all clearly apparent on the faces of his characters and we connect to them on a deeply resonant level.

Where the Wild Things Are

My daughter, at age 1 1/2, at the Maurice Sendak exhibit at Philadelphia's Please Touch Children's Museum. You might recognize this image from the header of this blog.

I keep mentioning that The Phantom Tollbooth was the first book that I ever bought for my daughter, but, what I don’t mention is that I didn’t have to buy her a copy of Where the Wild Things Are because I already had a copy, a copy that I’d bought for myself. As I prepared to leave home for the first time to head for college, for whatever reason, after I was done buying myself bedsheets, a TV, and a computer, I bought myself a hardcover edition of Where the Wild Things Are to keep in my dorm room. And I don’t really know why. Maybe it was something to help me remember my childhood. Maybe it was the equivalent of a literary security blanket. Maybe I was hoping to look deep to college girls and subtly let them know that I was ready to let the “wild rumpus start.” But, my strange motivations aside, I think it says a lot that I couldn’t picture living alone, in my own living space for the first time in my life, without a copy of Where the Wild Things Are ready and available to me whenever I needed it.

That’s the real magic of Sendak. He has so woven his stories into our collective unconscious that it now seems bizarre that there ever were generations in the past that didn’t have Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, or Outside Over There available for their children. While I’m happy that the world will always have his books to cherish for eons to come, I’d admit, it does feel very strange to no longer have the man himself, creating new and vibrant works and constantly reminding children to “Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

As a small tribute to the memory of the great man, I assembled this brief collection of videos that, I think, do a nice job of really showing the universal impact, importance, and grand, unfettered joy of Maurice Sendak and his wonderful works. He will be missed.

Tell Them Anything You Want is a fantastic 40-minute documentary on Sendak assembled by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs, which was released to accompany Jonze’s 2009 big-screen, live-action version of Where the Wild Things Are. This is long, but beautiful – with some wonderful interviews with Sendak himself. [UPDATE: Earlier today, I embedded a link to a full version of Tell Them Anything You Want on YouTube. That link has since been removed due to a copyright claim. In its place, until they take it down, I present this still-pretty-cool, 5-minute excerpt from the documentary.)

Anyone who ever debated Sendak‘s cultural importance should watch this great video of President Obama reading Where the Wild Things Are at the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll.

A longer excerpt of some spirited interviews with Sendak talking about his life and career, which is taken from a DVD released by the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, which is the “sole repository of the original artwork of famed author and illustrator Maurice Sendak and a foremost authority on all things Sendak.”

Anita Silvey, the children’s lit expert behind one of my favorite websites, The Book-a-Day Almanac, gives a wonderful overview of Maurice Sendak‘s personal history and literary career. This is a nice introduction to Sendak for those who don’t know much about the man behind his famous works.

[read the rest of the post…]


Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, a 1970 picture book following a child’s romp through a surreal nocturnal bakery, is a weird book, but it’s up to your own personal interpretation whether it’s “delightfully weird” or “uncomfortably weird.”

In the Night Kitchen

In the Night Kitchen

I first became aware of it thanks to its reputation as “the book with the naked kid” – the young hero, three-year-old Mickey, loses his clothes early in the story, and he spends a fair amount of the rest of the tale naked, with his penis frequently visible. That choice alone has caused the book to be challenged or banned on several occasions and, while, sure, it is unusual to see a naked child in a picture book, it’s a fairly lame cause for controversy. Mickey isn’t sexualized AT ALL and, let’s be honest, most kids, thanks to diaper changes or older or younger siblings, have seen a baby or toddler naked before.

I’d wager ten bucks that any parent who ever tried to have In the Night Kitchen removed from their local library laughed like crazy whenever their two-year-old did a pre-bath naked run through their house, particularly if it was in front of company, so it’s ridiculous to try to turn Mickey’s nakedness into anything perverse or predatory. When we first read the book, my daughter snorted and giggled at seeing Mickey naked for the first time, but, every subsequent time we’ve read it, his nudity has almost never come up. When she does notice it now, she just smiles and says, “He lost his clothes. What a goofball.”

But, all nakedness aside, I do find In the Night Kitchen to be a fairly difficult book to read. Don’t get me wrong – my daughter LOVES it. She thinks it’s funny and strange, she loves pouring over the little details in the backgrounds of the Night Kitchen, and she has fond memories of visiting Philadelphia’s Please Touch Kids’ Museum where she played on huge reproductions of scenes from Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are. (It’s an awesome museum.) If you ask her to tell you what the story of In the Night Kitchen is, she can’t really verbalize it, but she knows, without a doubt, that she likes it.

My issue with In the Night Kitchen is a rhythm thing. For whatever reason, when reading Night Kitchen at bed-time, I find myself tripping over the words constantly. I just can’t figure out its groove. The words are presented more like verse than a normal narrative – and maybe that’s coloring my reading of it – but all of my attempts to find its poetic cadence have failed miserably. And I realize that it’s my problem, not Sendak’s. It’s not fair for me to fault him for my inability to hone in on the perfect inflection for his story. I like that everything about In the Night Kitchen is atypical. I like that it’s not a sentimental, sing-song nursery rhyme. I’m a guy who loves Vonnegut and Terry Gilliam movies – I like weird. However, on a personal level, I find reading In the Night Kitchen out loud a strangely jarring experience. It’s a kind of weird that I’ve never fully figured out and, at some level, it makes me uncomfortable.

Which, in and of itself, is weird. Fill a picture book with a thousand naked children and I won’t bat an eye, but get a little surreal and atonal with the free verse, and I get all frustrated and cranky. Again, this speaks to my failings, not the book’s, but while I love Sendak, I will admit that In the Night Kitchen is not a book for everyone. For me, In the Night Kitchen is a PERFECT library book – it has the potential to be a big hit or a big miss, depending on your household, so being able to pilot it at your local library first before bringing it home is a very good thing.

If there are any other parents out there who have my rhythm or weirdness issues with In the Night Kitchen, I found two videos that might help. The first is a Weston Woods animated version of In the Night Kitchen, which, honestly, really helped me in terms of hearing how someone else reads the story. And the second is an extremely funny video from the Dad Labs – called “Owen’s Reading Nook” – where the reader, Owen… has some very honest reactions to the inherent WTF weirdness of In the Night Kitchen.   Enjoy.

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Little Lit: It Was a Dark and Silly Night

Little Lit: It Was a Dark and Silly Night....

Parents: If you haven’t heard of Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Little Lit books yet, man-oh-man, are you missing out. Little Lit is an extremely cool series of kid-focused comics anthologies, all organized around a specific theme. There have been three volumes so far – Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies, Strange Stories for Strange Kids, and It Was a Dark and Silly Night – and one collected volume of the whole series so far called Big Fat Little Lit. Each volume has attracted a murderer’s row of amazing writers and illustrators as contributors – people like David Sedaris, Ian Falconer, Maurice Sendak, Crockett Johnson, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Jules Feiffer, Neil Gaiman, William Joyce, Lewis Trondheim, Lemony Snicket, Spiegelman himself, and lots, lots more.

It’s a breathtaking collection of talent and we’ve already got two Little Lit volumes on my “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” shelf. (Expect full breakdowns on them in the future. I’ve got a whole comics themed week of entries planned for sometime in October.) The stories skew a bit older than my daughter – I think a 7 or 8-year-old would think they were the coolest books they’ve ever seen – but there are a few stories that I think I could get away reading with my 4-year-old at the moment, namely David Sedaris and Ian Falconer’s Shrek-esque team-up “Pretty Ugly.” (After Squirrel Meets Chipmunk, I definitely want a full-on twisted kids’ book from Sedaris and Falconer sometime in the near future.)

I was reminded of the Little Lit series today thanks to Neil Gaiman’s new Tumblr blog where he posted an animated version of his contribution to the It Was a Dark and Silly Night volume (illustrated by the great Gahan Wilson) that was adapted by director Steven-Charles Jaffe.

Check it out below and get a taste of the chaotic fun of the Little Lit books.


Maurice Sendak – the man responsible for such Library favorites as Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen – released the first book that he’s both written and illustrated in 30 YEARS earlier this month. (Not that Sendak hasn’t been working all this time. He’s still a prolific illustrator – my daughter is a BIG fan of Mommy?, his epic monster-mash of a pop-up book that he illustrated for author Arthur Yorinks in 2006.)

Maurice Sendak's Bumble-Ardy

Maurice Sendak’s Bumble-Ardy

His new book is called Bumble-Ardy, which we’re hoping to get our hands on soon. But, while promoting Bumble-Ardy, Sendak spoke to the New York Times and offered this fantastic insight on the responsibility that a children’s author has to his dual audiences of kids and parents:

You mustn’t scare parents. And I think with my books, I managed to scare parents. Randolph Caldecott was a sneaky guy. Because under the guise of stories about little animals, he had the same passion for childhood. If you just look at the surface of them, they look like nice English books for kiddies. But his books are troubling if you spend time with them. He inspired me. I adored Caldecott. Probably his idea, or my interpretation of him, was that children’s books should be fair to children. Not to soften or to weaken.

Before that, the attitude towards children was: Keep them calm, keep them happy, keep them snug and safe. It’s not a putdown of those earlier books. But basically, they went by the rules that children should be safe and that we adults should be their guardians. I got out of that, and I was considered outlandish. So be it.

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