Today’s NYT Obituary pays tribute to Maurice Sendak as the children’s author who “wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.” Maybe so from a critical perspective, but not for those of us who listened to Sendak’s books as kids and grew into the parents who passed them on to our own. For those of my generation, Sendak’s books evoke memories of feeling safe and secure, snuggled close to a parent at bedtime and remind us of the unbreakable power that hard-copy paper books– with their folded corners and stains and tears and imperfections have to captivate us as kids and make us ache with nostalgia as grownups.
As a goody-goody six-year old who’d just about outgrown picture books, the fantastical shenanigans of In the Night Kitchen mesmerized and captivated me. My dad was always designated reader, and my favorite time of day was when he’d settle down on the edge of the bed (for my self-imposed 7 pm bedtime) with my next younger sister and me and read the library copy of Night Kitchen, or our own volumes of Grimms’ Fairy Tales or Little Orphan Annie or Robert Louis Stevenson poems, each of us snuggled up against him on either side.
Years later, while pulling all nighters to get a brief in on time, Mickey’s journey through the crazy night and until dawn would always replay in my mind. When my first daughter was born, I celebrated an excuse to purchase the Sendak Nutshell Library mini-volumes (without looking like some kind of a child-book section stalker). In the bedroom rocking chair with Elana and then Mira, I read or sang A Alligators All Around or Chicken Soup with Rice over and over and over again until they fell asleep in my arms.
I’m sure that In The Night Kitchen renders beautifully on the Ipad and that Where the Wild Things Are was a terrific movie. But still, I miss the smoothness of the pages, the softness of my dad’s worn plaid shirts against my cheek and the sense of accomplishment that I’d feel when with a soft thud, I finally closed the book on those days when all I’d done was nurse a baby, spent the afternoon at the park and gotten one, then two little girls off to sleep. RIP Maurice Sendak and thanks for the memories.