Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Maurice Sendak: "Cannibals and Psychotics"

I remember the first time I saw a Maurice Sendak book. It was In The Night Kitchen. I was eleven or twelve, and had been given a small allowance by my parents to buy my littlest sister, who did not read, books, if I would read them to her. I loved books and reading aloud. In The Night Kitchen was liberating, transgressive, and a dream come to life: I understood the nakedness, could not understand why all the chefs were Oliver Hardy but loved that all the chefs were Oliver Hardy. Years later I discovered Little Nemo in Slumberland, and In The Night Kitchen came into focus.

As a parent, I read Where The Wild Things Are to my children, but Holly's favourite Sendak book was Outside Over There, and I must have read it to her hundreds of times, perhaps thousands of times, marvelling at Sendak's economy of words, his cruelty, his art.

What I loved, what I always responded to, was the feeling that Sendak owed nothing to anyone in the books that he made. His only obligation was to the book, to make it true. His lines could be cute, but there was an honesty that transcended the cuteness. 

I never met him, although I had friends who worked with him, and friends who were friends with him. I never wanted to meet him. I had read the books -- by that point I'd read all the books -- and read the interviews. He was so grumpy and so wise, so sensible and so very much at the service of each of the books. He made personal books that came out and were banned and challenged and then embraced by the children who had grown up with them. (In The Night Kitchen was the 24th most challenged US library book in the last decade.)

When I heard this morning that Maurice Sendak had died, I asked the New Yorker  over Twitter if they could unlock a two page comic: art spiegelman and Maurice Sendak in conversation in 1993, drawn by both of them. They did, and I am grateful to them.

Click on the small version of the first page to read the whole thing (and click on that to make it bigger).

And the strange thing about reading this, was that it was pretty much, I realised, what I'd been trying to say last week when I made my Zena Sutherland speech in Chicago. Only I took thirty-five minutes and almost five thousand words to say it, and art and Maurice did it in eleven panels.