by Betsy Gomez
Legendary illustrator and writer Maurice Sendak passed away last week at the age of 83. His Caldecott Medal winning work Where the Wild Things Are is indelibly etched into the minds of children and adults throughout the world as a flawless portrait of childhood, incorporating both the sublime and acrimonious aspects of youth. Sendak remains the only American to win the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration and is well-known for creating honest characters that are headstrong, boisterous, and even unlikable.
Sendak’s books have been frequently challenged in libraries, in particular his children’s book In the Night Kitchen, another award-winning book that features a young boy’s dream journey through a baker’s kitchen. The book upset many librarians and adults because its young protagonist, Mickey, was depicted in the nude. Many librarians censored the book by painting diapers over the boy’s genitals, and in some cases the book was even burned.
Letters of Note recently ran a letter written by Sendak’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Nordstrom wrote to one of the librarians who burned copies of In the Night Kitchen:
I am indeed distressed to hear that in the year 1972 you burned a copy of a book. We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children. I assume it is the little boy’s nudity which bothers you. But truly, it does not disturb children! Mr. Sendak is a creative artist, a true genius, and he is able to speak to children directly. For children—at least up to the age of 12 or 13—are usually tremendously creative themselves. Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses? To me as editor and publisher of books for children, that is one of my greatest and most difficult duties. Believe me, we do not take our responsibilities lightly! I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.
Nordstrom further gathered hundreds of signatures in defense of the book when the School Library Journal shared a news item advocating for censorship of the book by diapering the boy using paint. In her letter to librarians, professors, publishers, authors, and artists, Nordstrom responded with the following (source: Letters of Note):
At first the thought of librarians painting diapers or pants on the naked hero of Sendak’s book might seem amusing, merely a harmless eccentricity on the part of a prim few. On reconsideration, however, this behavior should be recognized for what it is: an act of censorship by mutilation rather than by obvious suppression.
A private individual who owns a book is free, of course, to do with it as he pleases; he may destroy his property, or cherish it, even paint clothes on any naked figures that appear in it. But it is an altogether different matter when a librarian disfigures a book purchased with public funds—thereby editing the work of the author—and then presents this distortion to the library’s patrons.
The mutilation of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen by certain librarians must not be allowed to have an intimidating effect on creators and publishers of books for children. We, as writers, illustrators, publishers, critics, and librarians, deeply concerned with preserving First Amendment freedoms for everyone involved in the process of communicating ideas, vigorously protest this exercise of censorship.
You can read more about the censorship of In the Night Kitchen and Nordstrom’s advocacy on behalf of the book here.
Stephen Colbert interviewed Sendak earlier this year, asking Sendak about writing for children and his books, including In the Night Kitchen. Colbert put his own spin on the censorship that the book has experienced. You can view the interview here and here.
Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.