Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Why "In The Night Kitchen" Made Me Want to Make Books

In The Night Kitchen made me want to make books.

In fact, you may notice a little similarity between Mickey, here, and the little boy above, floating in his umbrella, and I would have to admit that this is probably no coincidence.

Lately I seem to be in the habit of writing about artists who have made an impact on me after they die, and I'm beginning to think that maybe I'm waiting just a little too long to say what they mean to me. One thing that surprises me in this particular instance, is how the death of Sendak doesn't sadden me at all. I can't claim to know his mind, but from recent interviews, it seemed like he was ready. He seemed content to  have had the opportunity to meet the people he grew to love in his life, and to have had the opportunity to write and illustrate books that he felt had meaning. He got to do most of what he set out to do. Not only did he write and illustrate books, but he designed theater sets and costumes for musicals and operas for both adults and children. Of course his life was not exactly without hardship. But I don't feel a loss. I know I'm supposed to, but I don't feel it, no matter how much affection I have for his books, or for the person that I imagined him to be.

In the Night Kitchen made me want to make books. I didn't say "Maurice Sendak made me want to write books," because he didn't. As far as I'm concerned, In the Night Kitchen is my book, not his. The fact of its author isn't what makes me love the book. When I discovered the book I had no idea--or care--about who Maurice Sendak was. I was curious about Doctor Seuss, and what kind of doctor he might be, but otherwise, the author of a book would have been easily forgotten trivia to that kid who loved In the Night Kitchen.

When I say "make books" I mean everything about a book. A book with a binding, and with pictures, and with stories inside. I remember having a copy of Where the Wild Things Are that was falling apart, and seeing the sewing of the binding, one piece of the mystery of how it was made. I was always fascinated by the mystery of things that were manufactured, and somewhere, by somebody, books were made. The first book I made that I can remember, was a book about Santa Claus, also a person of a great fascination to me. I  drew all the pictures on colored construction paper,and stapled it at the side. I must have figured out that this would leave one blank page before each picture, just like a picture book, so that's where the words would go. I couldn't write yet, so I dictated to my brother what words I wanted written on each page, and he wrote them.

It's one thing to have a book read to you, and another to truly experience it for yourself, by yourself, and I remember when this happened with In the Night Kitchen. I remember it was very early in the morning. I remember feeling that somehow the book knew me and what I felt and wanted. The author, as he should not be, was not my book. It was my book, and mine alone. I looked a lot like Mickey at that age. With no modesty whatsoever, I will admit  that I was an extraordinarily adorable child. I looked like Max, and I looked like Mickey, and so these books very much felt as if they were about me. In the Night kitchen was pure sensation. It was about the feeling of night, and about the feeling of milk, and about the feeling of dough and of flying, and of saying "Cock a doodle doo!" and I really don't care to try to figure out what it was about or means, because what it was really about was me, the kid, and how I felt and who I was.

Maurice Sendak died at 83. My Dad will be 88 in August. Maurice Sendak was an Ashkenazi Jew, second generation immigrant, and so was my dad. My dad's parents were socialists, and didn't practice, and as a secular and enthusiastic celebrator of Christmas and Easter, I didn't even know my dad was Jewish until I was about ten. My dad grew up in East Orange New Jersey, and as a teen, like Sendak, he lived in New York. he used to tell me stories about going to the movies for 25 cents, though my dad was more a fan of Flash Gordon serials than Mickey Mouse, the inspiration for Sendak's Mickey from In the Night Kitchen.

When my mother left my dad and took us from the small town where I grew up in Pennsylvania to California, more than anything, I missed my dad. I didn't have much connection to my mother, and my dad was my home. As I grew into my teens, I began to discover who Maurice Sendak was, and in my mind he became a connection to my dad and my childhood. Of course this man who made this book would be like my dad. I also discovered Sendak's other inspiration, Windsor McCay. McCay spoke to me as a teen as Sendak spoke to me as a little boy.  And sometime in my teens I decided I wanted to make comic books and picture books--and this was what In The Night Kitchen was--not just a picture book but a comic book, with word balloons and captions and a little boy who looked as much like me as he looked like McCay's Little Nemo.

As a teenager, I discovered Selma Lane's enormous book, The Art of Maurice Sendak, and hunted down every book I could find that Sendak had illustrated or written. I was surprised how few books he had actually written. The best of them: Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, The Nutshell Library, and The Sign on Rosie's Door. Some of my favorites that he illustrated: Grimm's Fairy Tales. The Griffon and the Minor Canon. Little Bear.  I loved that rich, engraving pen and ink style, and I remember working hard to try to emulate it.

Sendak's first book was by Ruth Krauss, A Hole is to Dig. Krauss and her husband, Crockett Johnson, served as mentors for Sendak, and as a 13 year old, while spending a very brief time in juvenile hall for a life changing but minor infraction, I discovered a rare paperback of Crocket Johnson's Barnaby on the book cart. It proved to be a great comfort and enduring favorite.

Maurice Sendak is a part of my family. Not the part that I was born into, but the part that I chose. I am a great believer and endorser of choosing your family if you ever have the option, and this, to me, includes people I may never meet and may never know who have gotten inside me and made a deep and indelible impression.

Now I'm 38, and I am so glad to be an adult, and I am so glad that I discovered In the Night Kitchen and so many other books by Sendak, and I'm so glad that now, I'm finally making picture books. So maybe it's selfish, but I can't say I'm sad at all that Maurice Sendak is dead. I'm glad that he was alive, and as far as I'm concerned, he still is. I haven't lost a thing. 

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