The late Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen is a story of dreams, childhood rebellion, baking children (a la Grimm), heroism and, yes, love and freedom, featuring male frontal nudity, big Jungian themes (ditto) and excellent illustrations in the realm of the gently and instructively surreal. It was a bedtime story staple at our home until only very recently, and for the "until only very recently" I am a little sad. Sendak died last year, and I was gratified at the celebration his long and creative and subversive life garnered, not the least from Terry Gross, the goddess of National Public Radio, and host of Fresh Air. She had maintained a friendship with Sendak, and her final interview with him made me cry, made him cry, seemed to have moved her, and is worth listening to again, perhaps before going along to the Bowers Museum to take in its mini-retrospective of one of the century's great writers, illustrators, teachers and revolutionary cultural workers.
"Did you ever hear of Mickey, how he heard a racket in the night and hollered 'Quiet down there!'" I hope so, as Sendak's 1970 book won every award for children's writing there is, and is one important title from his one-man canon of a kind of imaginative literature so far beyond only children's as to chuckle, as it does, at the limits of that genre. You already knew that, I am sure, from his Where the Wild Things Are, another ubiquitous (and justifiably) marriage of images and words. We all have our favorites.
Kudos, then, to the Bowers, which marks the fiftieth anniversary of publication of Where the Wild Things are with what one anticipates will be an excellent exhibition, titled "50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons," beginning this weekend. It's advertised as "a comprehensive memorial exhibition of 50 select works...supplemented with accompanying comments by celebrities, authors and noted personalities..." Seems just right to me.
There's further and simultaneous occasion for celebration, arriving in the form of the posthumous publication of a new book by Sendak, called My Brother's Book. I've yet to read it, but the reviews are of course predictably if cautiously positive. We'll read it here at Bib Central as a family, out loud. This final book is an homage to Sendak's brother Jack, whom he credits as an exemplar of generosity and creativity, curiosity and encouragement. Jack apparently supported Sendak's
engagement with drawing and writing. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes: This lovely if evanescent book - it deals with the great Sendakian themes of loss, danger and flight - also feels on an unspoken level like an elegy for his companion for a half-century, Eugene Glynn, who died in 2007. The line that hangs over it, spoken by a young man who has lost his brother, is this one 'A sad riddle is best for me.'"
Riddles are perhaps the most obvious, if subtly constructed, games of the seriously, sincerely playful Sendak. The books are simultaneously sad (as in appropriately sober) and riddling (as in dreaming). They are about people, after all, and history, and life stories. Evanescent, indeed. I wonder how many of Sendak's books struck readers like that on first consideration. Garner seems to have needed to reread this book, suggesting that evanescence is in the eye of the beholder. Elegy seems right, both for the brother, the aging Sendak himself and for his lover, Glynn. Yes, Sendak was gay. And Jewish. And politically Left. And an atheist. None of that is obscureable or
able to be easily disregarded unless you read only one book, and quickly and carelessly, or somehow read the books with no children in earshot, as they will respond to the heavy liberationist themes, the sadness and the unflinching responsibility of riddles, all drawn here a la William Blake. I don't know what else you could want of a Sendak book, in this case his last that we know about.
Among the friends and admirers paying material and artistic tribute to Sendak and his wild things at the Bowers
are famous fans of his: Robert Crumb, Spike Jonze, Stephen Colbert, Tom Hanks and President Barack Obama. Favorite playwright (Angels in America) and screenwriter (Lincoln) Tony Kushner is in the line-up of contributing commentators to this touring exhibition. The two collaborated on an English version of the Czech composer Hans Krasa's children's Holocaust opera Brundibar. Sendak illustrated this amazing story and the Chicago Opera Theater produced their adaptation for the stage. More versions followed, of the nearly impossibly tragic and perfect riddle of human resistance by little kids who made their art yet would of course die in Theresienstadt. Or because?
So, no, not just children's literature here. Sendak famously explained that the goofily gruesome and oafish characters of Where were only (!) representations of his old lady and old-man relatives, the up-close exaggerations by a once-little kid now grown up of what saggy, warty, funny looking adults looked like. This perspective spoke to the demand for honesty, for empathy. It dealt with the consequences of making decisions for autonomy and cooperation.
For more on the show, click this link to the Bowers Museum. Adult tickets are $15 and, yes, children are, as Sendak would insist in all of his work, FREE!
Bowers Museum. Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons. Saturday, February 16 - Saturday, April 28. 2002 N. Main Street, Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600
In the Night Kitchen, Maurice Sendak, Perfection Learnng, $ 18.40
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My Brother's Book, Maurice Sendak, Harcourt, 32 pages, $ 18.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 in Southern California.