Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Inside Literature's Weird, Wonderful Night Kitchen: The Picture Books of Maurice Sendak

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Inside Literature's Weird, Wonderful Night Kitchen: The Picture Books of Maurice Sendak

Article excerpt

Colleagues in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Department frequently describe my own poetry as "darker than dark." "Who are your influences?" they demand, striding away, visions of Sylvia Plath, Charles Bukowski, John Berryman, dancing demonic in their brains as they refuse to recognize the obvious: to aspire to any success in the creative arts is to court, not only the imagistically weird and wonderful, but also the shadow-play of all forbidden emotions, including terror, hatred, despair, which can appear ever darker, more perverse, when we age.

In my case, the desire for darkness is not autobiographical: my childhood was blissful. But why would I--or any creative artist, especially one with genuine childhood traumas he might love to forget--pursue, almost monomaniacally, the hellaciously black?

Because the alternative to relinquishing "play" is to allow that child inside us, primal source for our art, to shrink, sicken, and die, whether that child and its need for intensity, drama, is conceived and nurtured through sorrow or joy.

Maurice Sendak, whom Robert Townsend has lauded as possibly the greatest picture-book artist of the last one hundred years, is privy to an imaginative inner child born of trauma, fantasy, and the magic of growing up in that strangest of strange lands, Brooklyn:

      ... An essential part of myself--my dreaming life--still lives
   in the potent, urgent life of childhood.... I had a conglomerate
   fantasy life....

      I was bombarded with the intoxicating gush of America in that
   convulsed decade, the thirties. Two emblems represent that era
   for me: a photograph of my severe, bearded grandfather ... and
   Mickey Mouse. ("Hans Christian Andersen Medal Acceptance,"
   Caldecott and Co., 169-70)

More haunting, though, than any images of big-bearded relatives, rodents outfitted in black, and the neosurrealistic kingdom called New York, is Sendak's memory of the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping and murder, which he claims has profoundly influenced the course of his work. Also important is the fact that no one believed he actually saw a newspaper photo of the dead baby in the woods, a picture which was immediately pulled from the presses when an editor deemed it "too graphic" for public consumption. This event may have taught the young artist two things: that the world isn't as "safe" as adults reassure children it is; that one's own perception of reality can significantly differ from others', even in the matter of crucial physical details that define our world. In Sendak's words:

      The Lindbergh case was one of the inspirations for the book
   Outside Over There. Among other things, that book is about the
   fear children have of being separated from mommy and daddy--the
   fear of being lost. The safest child in the world has that
   anxiety. During the Second World War, I kept badgering my father
   by asking, "Will you die, too?" Finally, just to shut me up, he
   said he wouldn't. It's a question every child worries about.
   (Worlds of Childhood, "Visitors from My Childhood," 64)

Throughout his interviews and letters, Sendak acknowledges trauma's effect on his writing, his life. And a recognition of this central fact is crucial if we accept that most children's book authors are trying to write the books they wish they had been able to read as children. Sendak, whose work is often accused of being almost "brutally" or "horrifically" honest, obviously hoped, as a child, that some adult would "level" with him about the terrors of the local and world situation surrounding him. But no adult ever did, and perhaps Sendak's tendency toward the graphic represents his attempt to instruct children about a reality his family denied existed, a reality which asserts that pets will die (Higglety Pigglety Pop!), that children can express anger and survive (Where the Wild Things Are), that children may abuse other children (We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy), that babies are kidnapped and sometimes killed (Outside Over There). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.