Tag Archives: In the Night Kitchen

Goodbye, Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak died today. The news, as I type this, is so fresh that Wikipedia still has a mix of “is” and “was” in its article about him. I bought Where the Wild Things Are for N on one of my first trips away from her, when I was in Winnipeg, on the jury for an arts council grant. It became a favourite in our house for many years, with its toothy, hairy monsters and its forest-room, and Max in his wolf suit, making mischief of one kind and another. When his mischief lands him in his room, supperless, his imagination takes flight.

Sendak’s muted illustrations are gorgeous here, and the story’s rhythm makes it feel like a poem, lovely to read aloud. The long sentences are carefully placed, so that you’re forced to pause at just the right moment, in order to turn the page. The monsters are scary and wild, but the words flow gently.

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew

and grew —

and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around

and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day

and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.

In the Night Kitchen, published in 1970, continues to be controversial because little Mickey appears without his pyjamas. Ludicrous. Is this offensive to you?

The book was controversial when it was first released in 1963. But it was a lasting hit with children. According to Sendak, an eight-year-old boy once wrote to him to ask, “How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there.” What treasures such letters must have been for a man many describe as melancholy.

In an interview last year with The Guardian, Sendak spoke plainly about his sadness. When Eugene Glynn, his partner of 50 years, died in 2007, he “caved in …  life is pretty dreadful most of the time. Even in the country that’s so pretty with the flowers and leaves and sunshine. And I was abandoned when he died! I’m alone. I feel like an old bubba. And I’m not kind all of the time, I’m not nice all the time.”

But what a body of work he has left behind. The New York Times obit says he trusted “the essential rightness of children’s perceptions of the world around them,” and perhaps this was what gave his work its lasting quality. Like Roald Dahl, he didn’t talk down to children, and he didn’t make their world seem easy. And yet Sendak apparently loathed Dahl: “The cruelty in his books is off-putting. Scary guy. I know he’s very popular but what’s nice about this guy? He’s dead, that’s what’s nice about him.” Nevertheless, Sendak felt strongly that children’s books today are “too safe … I’m not always sure if they’re truthful or faithful to what’s going on with children.”

I wonder if he felt proud, by the end, of the work he’d accomplished? It seems to me I often read of children’s authors and illustrators who feel their work is less respected because it’s made for children. “I have to accept my role,” Sendak told The Guardian. “I will never kill myself like Vincent van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can’t do that. I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie book person.”

And yet when I read about Sendak (or PL Travers or AA Milne, who had similar complaints), I see reams of respect. So is it just a case of being human, and feeling small in the grand scheme of things? Do we respect children’s writers enough? After all, they give us our first taste of books, and we remember our favourite ones forever — if not the stories themselves, then the feeling the stories gave us when we first discovered them.

 

 

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Michelle Berry: “Reading (and writing) is a noisy thing for me”

Even though the books I write are for grown-ups (who “don’t believe in anything,” according to N, and don’t see the magic of illustrations), the books I read with N feed me and my work. Articulating those thoughts on this blog over the last while has got me wondering how other writers feel about children’s literature — what books meant to them as children, how stories stayed with them over the years, or what it’s been like for them as parents reading to their own kids. So now and again, interspersed with my own ramblings, I’ll post the words of other writers sharing their own ideas about the power of children’s literature. First up is the self-proclaimed noisy writer Michelle Berry, who writes:

It was mostly my father who read to me as a child. To me and my brother. We would sit on the couch after dinner, each of us flanking my father, leaning our heads on his shoulders, and he would read. He would shout when the character shouted, he would cry when the character cried, he would supply all necessary sound effects—hiss, boom, eergh!—he would play with the rhythm and beat of the words. Mostly, he would make it fun and fascinating—almost better than watching TV. My mom would be listening from the kitchen, washing dishes or reading the newspaper. We often heard her laugh. I would have the cat on my lap. My brother would bite his fingernails throughout and place the little half-moon nails on his lap in a pile to collect them later and throw them away.

We went through almost all of Dickens, we read The Hobbit and the first book of The Lord of The Rings. We read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and other Mark Twain books. Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland. The key was to find books that would appeal to both of us—my brother is two years older than me. There were books I didn’t understand but loved the sound of, like Paradise Lost. Or plays like Hamlet.

Then one day—I won’t even tell you how old we were—my brother and I looked at each other. We cleared our throats and said, “Dad, we’re getting a little too old to be read to.” Heartbreaking, I think, for my father. And sad for us. But we all knew we’d had a great run. We’d had that time together. We’d learned a lot without even realizing we were learning.

It wasn’t until I started to write seriously that I realized what my father had done. He had given voice to words. He had made me read and write in a way that was completely different from most people I know. I hear the words. I hear the sounds. I hear the rhythm. Reading (and writing) is a noisy thing for me. And this is why certain books stood out as my favourites:

Dr. Seuss. Anything he wrote. Read them aloud. You’ll see why. “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Plus, Dr. Seuss loved me and he constantly told me so: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Alice in Wonderland. Not only the quirky characters (which, if you know my writing at all, you’ll know I love) and the strange morals and lessons (“Begin at the beginning, and then go on til you come to the end: then stop.” “We call him Tortoise, because he taught us.”), but the beat behind the sentences. As the Duchess says, “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

But then there were also the books that stood out because of the art. I would peer over my father’s shoulder and marvel at the beautiful or simple work—Harold and The Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, is a book I remember fondly. Harold can’t sleep and so he draws himself a world with his purple crayon. It’s quite an adventure. Of course, Maurice Sendak’s work both frightened and enchanted me: Where the Wild Things Are. I still have a series of very small brown-covered books by Sendak, Chicken Soup With Rice, and In the Night Kitchen. Always nasty little boys who learned lessons well (or didn’t, and died).

Every Christmas Eve my family would sit down and listen to a record (yes, a record!) of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Read by Dylan Thomas in his rolling Welshman’s deep-booming voice: “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.” Of course I’ve burned a CD of it and now make my own children listen to it every Christmas Eve. Every year my youngest understands a little more, and laughs at parts she didn’t “get” last year. It’s wonderful to see.

So, to sum up, I liked the quirky stuff, the beauty of a book, the moral tales (learn your lessons or you’ll undoubtedly die), the sound of the words. I think my writing now reflects all of this. I read my writing out loud, always. It’s the only way I can see it. It’s the only way it comes alive.

Michelle Berry is the author of three short story collections. Her most
recent collection,
I Still Don’t Even Know You won the 2011 Mary
Scorer Award for Best Book Published by a Manitoba Publisher. She has
also published four novels, the most recent of which,
This Book Will
Not Save Your Life, won the 2010 Colophon Prize. She lives in
Peterborough, Ontario.

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