More Literary Loss

(This column is dedicated to Dale Stapp, Director of Children’s Services at the Putnam County Library, who passed away on May 19.  She will be missed terribly by the many, many people who loved her.)

We must now add children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak to the list of renowned writers who died in the first half of 2012.

Sendak would, no doubt, object to the term “children’s author.”  The creator of “Outside Over There,” “Chicken Soup with Rice,” “Bumble-Ardy,” Caldecott-winner “Where the Wild Things Are” and numerous other works didn’t consider his books children’s literature.  “I don’t write for children,” he said.  “I write.  And somebody says ‘That’s for children.’ ”

Regardless of how he viewed his books, most libraries shelve his collection in the
children’s section.  Where one Sendak book in particular has a good chance of being stolen, defaced, or challenged as inappropriate.  Or perhaps all of the above.

“In the Night Kitchen” occupies 25th place on the American Library
Association’s list of most frequently challenged books of all times.   Ever
since its release in 1970, critics have had plenty to find fault with in the
fanciful tale of a little boy named Mickey.  The young lad, who appears to be about three years old, is awakened by a racket and falls through the dark into the night kitchen, where three jolly chefs “who bake till dawn so we can have cake in the morn” are busy at work.

So what makes such a story controversial?  For starters, Mickey’s pajamas fall off as he tumbles through the dark.  Suddenly, he’s naked as a jaybird.  Frontwards, backwards, upside down and right side up—in nine separate pictures—Mickey appears in his birthday suit.

Unless you’re reading the Putnam County Library’s censored version of “Night Kitchen.”  In that one, Mickey is wearing gym shorts.  Courtesy of a ball point pen.

Who drew the shorts on him?  The library staff doesn’t know.  Sarah Crawford, who has worked in the children’s department for more than six years, told me that the vandalism of that particular copy happened before the staff instituted the practice of inspecting “Night Kitchen” immediately before it’s checked out and then again when it’s turned in. “We’ve replaced the book seven or eight times in the years since I’ve been here,” she said.  “It’s become a cost issue.  How
many times can we justify buying a new copy of a book we already own because a
patron is unhappy with what’s inside it?”

For now, the library has two copies of “Night Kitchen”—the altered version and one with the illustrations as Sendak created them.  The version whose artistic integrity is now guarded as closely as possible.

But nudity isn’t the only thing that makes “Night Kitchen” controversial.  Though some readers think the jolly chefs–who are identical-looking right down to their silly little moustaches–resemble Oliver Hardy, other readers perceive them as someone much more sinister.

Those chefs aren’t Oliver Hardy, they say.  They’re Hitler.

The fact that the chefs somehow mistake Mickey for milk, stir him into the cake batter and pop him into the oven is further proof.  As are the toy airplanes flying above Mickey’s bed and the bread dough plane he escapes in after he’s out of the oven.  With a little imagination, they could be World War II aircraft.

Sendak himself refused to deny any of those interpretations.  “I’m a Jew,” he said. “Many of my relatives were Holocaust victims.  How could that not be in my thoughts when I’m creating a book?”

If you’ve never read “Night Kitchen,” perhaps it’s time to take a look at this
still-controversial book.  But please do it without a ball point pen in hand.

(May 27, 2012)

 

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