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Maurice Sendak, Instigator

Richard Graham remembers the artist's provocative side

This is the fourth installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine UNL’s, Nebraska’s, and the larger literary world’s connections with the comics medium.

Maurice Sendak, who died on May 7, was one of the most pre-eminent children’s book author/artists of the 20th Century. Less well known are Sendak's forays into the comics world. While he was still in high school, Sendak worked part-time for All-American Comics and filled in the backgrounds for the book versions of the Mutt and Jeff comic strip. He also contributed to Art Spiegelman’s Little Lit Series in 2000. In general, Sendak's work employs words and pictures just as deftly as any cartoonist, certainly enough to warrant his mention on this blog.

Like any cartoonist or comic book artist, Sendak’s designation as a “children’s” author or artist was problematic. Sendak's most famous work is the Caldecott Medal-winning Where the Wild Things Are, with its dark mood and indelible art, which cemented his place in the hearts and minds of children and adults throughout the world. Because of Sendak’s propensity for headstrong and boisterous characters that bordered on the near-unlikable, his books have often run into trouble with parents and educators.

One of my personal favorites is In the Night Kitchen, considered an early graphic novel and inspired by Windsor McCay's great newspaper strip, "Little Nemo in Slumberland." In the Night Kitchen is a typical Sendakian journey into a dangerous, dark world, this time through a baker’s kitchen. The book upset many librarians (though obviously not this one) with its depiction of Mickey, the protagonist, as naked. His tiny penis caused much consternation, resulting in librarians using white-out to paint on diapers and even burn copies of the book. The website Letters of Note recently published a letter written by Sendak’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, who wrote to one of the burning book librarians:

I am indeed distressed to hear that in the year 1972 you burned a copy of a book [In the Night Kitchen]. We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children. I assume it is the little boy’s nudity which bothers you. But truly, it does not disturb children! Mr. Sendak is a creative artist, a true genius, and he is able to speak to children directly. For children—at least up to the age of 12 or 13—are usually tremendously creative themselves. Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses? To me as editor and publisher of books for children, that is one of my greatest and most difficult duties. Believe me, we do not take our responsibilities lightly! I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.

In the Night Kitchen remains one of the most challenged US library books, ringing in at number 24 for those challenged in the last decade.

In one of his last interviews, Sendak told Stephen Colbert that he did not write for children but simply wrote. That his writing is so readily embraced by children and feared by adults is telling. In 1993, the New Yorker ran a comic strip about the nature of children’s fears–the result of a collaboration between Sendak and Art Spiegelman.

Sendak recognized that life is fraught, but if you’re resilient, you’ll get through somehow. As Sendak mentions in the strip displayed here, you can’t protect kids…they know everything! This absence of condescension is what makes Sendak such a powerful artist and author. He will be missed.