I can hear you now.
What?!?! But we LOVE “Where the Wild Things Are”. My students really enjoy that book and it’s such a classic and I know that he writes lots and lots of children’s books and he won the Caldecott and lots of other awards and he will be the perfect author for my first graders to learn about and study and read all of his other books.
Yes, I’ve heard all of those exact thoughts come out of some of the best and most well meaning teachers mouths. I admit, I even had this thought a time or two for my kindergarteners. And while “Where the Wild Things Are” is one of my all time favorite children’s books and I think Sendak was a genius illustrator – BUT he is not the stuff that author studies are made of. I know it’s hard to believe so I’m going to walk you through it. Let’s review.
Let the Wild Rumpus Start!
When Maurice Sendak passed away last year The New York Times obituary called him “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century.” I wouldn’t argue with that. His most well known book, is loved by “wild things” everywhere, including myself. When I taught first grade, we even had a “Where the Wild Things Are” themed “Read in the Schools Day” and it was fantastic! I even have one of my former students in his “Max” gear on the front of my homepage. But Sendak had a very controversial life.
He was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents in 1928. He grew up fearful and he was scared by movies, by books, even by the vacuum cleaner. He was also afraid of his family, the Eastern European Jewish immigrants whom he transformed into the monsters in “Where the Wild Things Are. He once said in a 1988 NY Times interview. ‘‘I have a memory of my childhood of often wondering about my mortality.’’ His first work was on Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear series of books. After that he authored and illustrated “Where the Wild Things Are” to critical acclaim, however, it was thought by some people to be too scary for children. In the Times article, they also state that “his work became more melancholy as the Holocaust began emerging as a more powerful force — sometimes overtly, sometimes less so. The work gives children the power to conquer through art and ingenuity, reminding parents of the complicated responsibility that requires them to be hopeful but realistic about the terrible wild things out there.”
The serious topics that influenced his life, influenced his various literary works. The following are the most controversial of the bunch:
Easily the most controversial titles of Sendak’s career, “In the Night Kitchen” is the story of a little boy named Mickey, who is asleep in his bed when he is disturbed by noise on a lower floor. Suddenly, he begins to float, and all of his clothes disappear as he drifts into a surreal world called the “Night Kitchen”. He falls into a giant mixing pot that contains the batter for the “morning cake”. While Mickey is buried in the mass, three identical bakers mix the batter and prepare it for baking, unaware (or unconcerned) that there is a little boy inside. Just before the baking pan is placed into the oven, the boy emerges from the pan, protesting that he is not the batter’s milk. To make up for the baking ingredient deficiency, Mickey (now covered in batter from the neck down) constructs an airplane out of bread dough so he can fly to the mouth of a gigantic milk bottle. Upon reaching the bottle’s opening, he dives in and briefly revels in the liquid. After his covering of batter disintegrates, he pours the needed milk in a cascade down to the bakers who joyfully finish making the morning cake. With dawn breaking, the naked Mickey crows like a rooster and slides down the bottle to magically return to his bed. Everything is back to normal, beyond the happy memory of his experience. [summary from Wikipedia]
The child nudity is the most common reason that this book gets placed on banned book lists across the country, however, various other innuendos and allegories are found in this book. I will leave you to Google those, seeing that typing some of them here may make me blush… which is probably a good enough reason in and of itself NOT to do an author study on Sendak. And in case you haven’t read it, here’s a video from the Caldecott Literature series of an animated version of “In the Night Kitchen” (great website by the way! I’d use it to show your students OTHER titles.)
As I mentioned before, Sendak grew up with a fear of being kidnapped. That fear is easily visible in “Outside Over There”. The plot summary is this: A young girl named Ida harbors feelings of jealousy and resentment towards her baby sister, for whom she is largely responsible while their father is away. When her sister is kidnapped through the nursery window by mysterious goblins, who leave an ice baby in her sister’s place, Ida resolves to rescue her, embarking on a fantastic adventure. Initially, Ida is easily distracted from her goal, nearly passing her sister as she becomes absorbed in the magic of the quest. Ultimately, she succeeds in rescuing her baby sister and returning home, now fully committed to the care of her sister until their father returns home. [Summary from Wikipedia]
There is also an audio book here if you haven’t read this one either. I’ll let you decide if it’s appropriate for your students. Although there isn’t anything as offensive as the nudity in “In the Night Kitchen”, a kidnapping plus some strange plot twists (like goblins and an ice baby) may just be a little too frightening for your kiddos.
Sendak was only the illustrator on this title, but a some people credit him for the whole text. It’s a story that could certainly be lumped into an author study, so it deserves to be looked at more closely. The book can be scary for children, seeing that Brundibar is an evil man, created to represent Hitler, and scares everyone in the story away.
Here’s the plot: Brundibar is the story of Aninku and Pepicek, two children who discover one morning that their mother is sick, so they rush to town for milk to make her better. Their attempt to earn money by singing is thwarted by Brundibar, who tyrannizes the town square and chases all other street musicians away. Befriended by three intelligent talking animals and three hundred helpful schoolkids, brother and sister sing for the money to buy the milk, defeat the bully, and triumphantly return home. Brundibar is based on a Czech opera for children that was performed fifty-five times by the children of Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp. [Summary from Amazon]
Doesn’t sound too bad, right? The catch comes from a little history about the original Czech opera that was performed at the concentration camp. In 1944, this Brundibár production was filmed for a Nazi propaganda film Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City). All of the participants in the production were herded into cattle trucks and sent to Auschwitz as soon as filming was finished. Most were gassed immediately upon arrival, including the children, the composer Krása, the director Kurt Gerron, and the musicians.
I’ll Eat You Up, I Love You So
Alas, even for all of the controversial titles, Sendak was a brilliant illustrator. He was one of the Caldecott runners-up seven times from 1954 to 1982, more than any other illustrator. What an amazing accomplishment. He would be a good person to do an illustrator study on (minus the Mickey illustration from the Night Kitchen), if you wanted to work him into your curriculum in some way.
Maurice Sendak had a place in my classroom, for sure. Not only did I love “Where the Wild Things Are”, but I also loved the “Little Bear” series. And I started every month with a reading of “Chicken Soup with Rice”. So it’s not all bad. And today, on what would’ve been his 85th birthday, we need to celebrate his life and his work and all of the ups and downs that come with it.
And if you haven’t seen the Google Doodle for today, go check it out. It’s one of my favorites to date. Here’s a wonderful clip of it being set to music.
Happy Birthday, Maurice – king of all the wild things.