Brain Pickings

James Gandolfini Reads Maurice Sendak’s Most Controversial Book

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Two creative icons on the precipice of mortality.

On the evening of June 19, I attended a wonderful event at New York’s Society of Illustrators celebrating the inimitable Maurice Sendak and the taboos explored in his work. Among the many memorable insights was a passing mention of a reading from Sendak’s 1970 classic In The Night Kitchen (public library) Sopranos star James Gandolfini had done at a 92Y tribute for Sendak’s 80th birthday in 2008. Little did any of us at the event know that mere hours earlier, Gandolfini had been been pronounced dead in an Italian hospital while on vacation with his 13-year-old son. In an even more eerie strike of tragic coincidence, one of the taboos discussed at the lecture was the notion of mortality in Sendak’s books. Thus, for reasons that are threefold obvious, there is hardly a better way to honor both Gandolfini and Sendak than with the original recording of the acclaimed actor’s exquisitely expressive reading of the Sendak classic:

At the lecture, Steven Heller quoted Sendak as having once told him in an interview:

Primarily, my work was an act of exorcism… so I could have peace of mind as an artist.

(How reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s timeless advice to his teenage son, in which he argued that “the point of being an artist is that you may live” and added, “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”)

But In The Night Kitchen, which was a Caldecott honor book in 1971, has a story particularly emblematic of both Sendak’s defiant spirit and the generous, steadfast support of his editor and creative champion, the great Ursula Nordstrom. In 1972, when a school librarian burned a copy of the book in an act of micro-censorship against Sendak’s depiction of his fictional little boy in the nude, a righteously outraged Nordstrom sent said librarian this colorful letter, found in the ever-excellent Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — a fine addition to literary history’s most poignant meditations on censorship:

January 5, 1972

Dear [Redacted]:

Your letter about Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen was delayed in reaching my desk as you sent it to our Scranton, Pennsylvania, division. I am sorry not to have written you more promptly.

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.

I will send you a few positive comments on this book within the next few days, and I hope you will read them and that you will give the children in your school a chance to enjoy Mr. Sendak’s book.

Yours sincerely,

(Signed)

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