Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Happy birthday, Maurice Sendak

Good morning, Writer readers. Today, June 10, is Maurice Sendak's 80th birthday. Maurice Sendak (right) is one of those rare artists who, rather than responding to the world, may actually have created a part of it.

Think of Where the Wild Things Are. Now think of the world without it. Now think of the world with it. Now without it. Those aren't the same two worlds.

More than one tentacle of PDXWD has children who are kid's-book age, so we are fairly up-to-date with the world of children's lit. Sendak's work transcends that genre. Because what is Where the Wild Things Are? It isn't a social allegory, a la the work of Leo Leonni. It's not the colorful diversion of Eric Carle, and neither is it didactic, teaching children the value of some kind of appropriate behavior, as in most of the rest of children's lit. Max gets sent to his room (for mischief, and his threat, "I'll eat you up!"), but after his fantasy time with the Wild Things, he finds that his dinner has been sent up to him. That's it.

We never see his parents, so there's never any lecture about, or "real world contextualization" of, the situation. The Wild Things don't teach Max any life lessons. He is neither victim nor victimizer: they bare their claws and teeth to him, but he is unafraid, and makes them cry. Neither side apologizes. They also have that big party together.

The work that graphic artist Dave McKean does, for instance--especially the kids' stuff he has done with writer Neil Gaiman--is hard to imagine without first thinking of Sendak. Same goes for Chris Van Allsburg. And any number of other writers and/or illustrators.

From Wikipedia:
"Sendak’s book In the Night Kitchen, first published in 1970, has often been subjected to censorship for its drawings of a young boy prancing naked through the story. The book has been challenged, and in some instances banned, in several American states including Illinois, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Texas. In the Night Kitchen regularly appears on the American Library Association's list of 'frequently challenged and banned books.' It was listed number 25 on the '100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.'"

That's not correct. Mickey, the boy in In the Night Kitchen, does not prance. He floats out of his bed (and his clothes) and down through the floors of his house, into "the night kitchen." He ends up in batter and gets placed in the oven, but leaps out. He wears a suit of batter, and flies a dough airplane. He floats (naked) down into a huge bottle of milk. At the end, he floats back into his own bed, secure in the knowledge that there will be cakes for the morning breakfast, because he saw--and flew a dough airplane over--the bakers working.

For further proof that Sendak's work transcends conventional children's lit, look at Outside, Over There. It looks like a children's book, but...it kind of isn't. And we're not trying to be evasive with that "kind of." One looks at the book. One thinks: Could I read this to my children? One thinks: Maybe. Or maybe not. Or, but, maybe. Or, oh, maybe not. Hmm.

Sendak is 80. He continues to work. Below, enjoy the animated version of In the Night Kitchen:

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