Today, my friends, is the 83rd birthday of one Maurice Sendak—among the greatest children’s book authors and illustrators the world has ever had the good fortune to know. If you don’t know who Maurice Sendak is, get thee to the nearest child’s bookshelf with haste. (If this involves breaking into the neighbor’s house, I’m sure they’ll forgive you when you explain that you needed badly to read it.) Unquestionably, that shelf has Where the Wild Things Are on it, which, if not my favorite book from childhood, is certainly in the top 10. (My other favorites include The Monster at the End of This Book, The Giving Tree, Green Eggs & Ham, Caps for Sale, and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, in case you were curious.) What kid (American kid?) doesn’t know about Max and the Wild Things? I’ll admit I didn’t see the recent film adaptation—it looked lovely, but I thought Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers combining forces might just be too much for me, and I was afraid to let them ruin such a classic.
Unlike most children’s books, which I associate mostly with my own love for them, Sendak’s books are, to me, clear reminders of particular people. If I’m not mistaken, Where the Wild Things Are is my mother’s favorite picture book. When I think of it, I invariably think of her—of how good she is at reading aloud and how much love for books she instilled in me as a child. If not for her and her passion for books like this one, I might not be in publishing right now. I might not think that books are important and magical and transformative.
My sister is the one I associate In the Night Kitchen with. It’s not actually one of my favorite childhood books, and I’m not sure if it’s one of hers either. I don’t remember it very well, in fact. I can’t recall anything that happens, though I imagine it involves a kitchen at night. But I do very strongly associate it with her, because I’m pretty sure she owned it and lorded it over me that it was hers, not mine. As the youngest of three, she may not have had as many major classic picture books as my older brother and I did. Green Eggs & Ham is one of the best things that ever happened to words, but I’m pretty sure no house needs three copies, so it’s fairly likely that the one we had was technically given to our brother. So we had the greatest, most wonderful collective bookshelves, but poor girl probably didn’t get to claim so many of those as her very own. It’s almost certain that what I’m remembering is some kind of retribution, because she wasn’t a particularly possessive kid—certainly nowhere near as much as I was (let’s be honest: am). I probably made her beg to read The Giving Tree, which I took great pride in my ownership of seeing as it had been inscribed to me by whichever friend of my parents gave it as a gift when I was born, so she punished me by withholding In the Night Kitchen. I promise we’re much better at sharing books in adulthood! All of that to say, the book is probably really great, but I’m not sure if I’ve read it!
Chicken Soup with Rice is another story entirely (no pun intended). I don’t think we owned that one at my house, but my friend Talia had the Nutshell Library edition, and I seem to remember reading it at school as well. I coveted it and contemplated buying the Nutshell collection for myself well into my teens, in part because it’s a wonderful book, and in part because tiny things are adorable. And I read, and re-read, and re-read that book at every possible opportunity, because I felt a compulsion to memorize it. I have a vague memory of being a tad bitter about September’s entry, which I never felt was quite as good as the others. As a September baby, I took this very personally, but not enough to trump my love for the book, and my pride in remembering all the words.
SO, happy birthday, Maurice Sendak, and thanks very much for the memories! Any of you have Sendak memories to share?