Maurice Sendak and the Librarians: When Censorship Came From Within

Authors, Banned and Challenged Books, Minors, Self-Censorship

By: Vicky Ludas Orlofsky

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012) is the author and/or illustrator of a number of perpetually popular children’s books, including the Caldecott Award winner Where the Wild Things Are (1963), Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear series (1957-1968), Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1966), the Nutshell Library (1962) and Brundibar (2003), written with Tony Kushner. While over the course of his life Sendak received numerous accolades, it was his 1970 book In the Night Kitchen, published by Harper & Row, that led to years of drama.

Photo of actor Oliver Hardy, likely taken in the 1930s

In the Night Kitchen, written and illustrated by Sendak with gorgeous lettering by Diana Blair, tells the story of Mickey, a little boy who dreams of being awoken by noise in the night and falling naked through the air into the Night Kitchen, where three chefs who look like Oliver Hardy are mixing the morning cake in a city of oversized ingredients and kitchen utensils. Mickey falls in the batter and is in danger of being turned into a “Mickey-cake” but he cleverly turns the batter into a plane and flies up into a building-sized milk bottle, pouring some milk down for the chefs below as he crows to the morning sun before falling back into bed, “cakefree and dried.”

It is a book that is at once odd and completely natural. Mickey is young, perhaps three, and it is currently in regular bedtime rotation with my own three-year-old, who has lately been chanting the words with the same rhythm she hears them being read: “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me! God bless milk and God bless me!” Her favorite part, she says, is when Mickey is “messy” in the cake dough.

Sendak’s books are known for not hiding the feelings of children who say “no!” to the demands of the adults around them. In a 1970 interview in the New York Times Magazine, written just as Sendak was completing work on In the Night Kitchen, Saul Braun notes that “[i]n some sense, [Sendak’s] heroes all face the problem that confronts today’s child: how to maintain identity and integrity in an uncomprehending adult world that appears to want to deprive him of his noblest (that is, most natural) feelings.”

The same holds true for Mickey’s natural state of being. Interestingly, Braun’s thoughts on In the Night Kitchen were that “some might interpret [it] as a masturbatory fantasy” and that Sendak’s joyful exploration of a child’s “sexual feelings … will doubtless offend those who are unprepared to acknowledge or accept such feelings.” This prediction proved accurate. From the moment the book was published and continuing into the 21st century, Mickey’s nudity has unsettled reviewers, parents and even librarians, despite other librarians including it on the Caldecott Honor Books, ALA Notable Children’s Books and Library of Congress Children’s Books lists.

Ursula Nordstrom, editor and writer of children's books, in a black dress, sitting on a white couch looking off to the left. Undated; photo by Sidney Fields. Source:
Ursula Nordstrom

In 1972, according to a letter reportedly sent to Ursula Nordstrom, Sendak’s editor and that of other children’s book writers and illustrators, one school librarian burned a copy of the book. Other librarians took it upon themselves to cover Mickey’s nudity: “they diapered, draped and frilled him out with magic marker and paint brush. In some cases (I have a number of copies smuggled out to me by embarrassed librarians), his quaint quickie briefs are downright kinky,” noted Sendak in a 1991 speech to the American Booksellers Association (transcribed in the Los Angeles Times).

A 1971 letter to School Library Journal from a librarian in Columbia, Louisiana, encouraged this practice: “Maurice Sendak might faint but a staff member of Caldwell Parish Library, knowing that the patrons of the community might object to the illustrations of The Night Kitchen, solved the problem by diapering the little boys with white tempera paint. Other librarians might wish to do the same” (December 1971, taken from Maurice Sendak and the ‘In the Night Kitchen’ Kerfuffle). This form of self-censorship attempted to prevent potential challenges through adding some “quaint quickie briefs.”

The Louisiana librarian’s objection warning was borne out. Challenges to copies in school and public libraries have occurred in a number of states, as tracked in Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read by Robert P. Doyle (2014) and his annual bibliographies. In 1989, for example, the book’s nudity led to a challenge at the Camden elementary school libraries in my home state of New Jersey. More recently, the book appeared at #24 on ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009.

Book cover, Book Banning in 21st Century America, by Emily J. M. Knox Source:

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Emily J. M. Knox discusses the two types of claims made by adults challenging books for kids on the basis of human sexuality in Book Banning in 21st Century America (2015). The material is seen as threatening to children either because the children are innately innocent or, conversely, because children have latent urges that might be “triggered through some outside mechanism” (pp. 82-83). The challenges to In the Night Kitchen include both. To some challengers (as collected by Doyle), Mickey’s nudity was “gratuitous,” thus exposing a child to a naked person for no reason, while to others, such as in an incident in Minnesota, seeing Mickey naked could later lead a child to pornography. What’s surprising to me is that the actual danger of the book, a child getting baked into a cake, never seems to have struck anyone as worthy of a challenge. Perhaps the dreaminess of the plot is easier to excuse than the cartoonish reality of a naked little boy.

Claudia Adrien points out that the number of incidents recorded by ALA of librarians painting in the book is one, a director of curriculum development in Missouri that had shorts painted on in 40 copies which were then distributed to students. But if Sendak got as many copies sent to him as he said he did, the unofficial numbers were likely higher, as they usually are for book challenges.

Nordstrom responded to the book-burning librarian and those who’d deface a book to hide genitalia by saying, “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” (emphasis in the original; reprinted in Letters of Note).

Speaking for myself, my three-year-old has never commented on Mickey’s nudity. Three is a wonderful age. Children go from toddlerhood to becoming kids, and the world accordingly expands. Mickey is a child exploring his world, just as he is, just as three-year-olds do.

Ever heard In the Night Kitchen read aloud? James Gandolfini Reads Maurice Sendak’s Most Controversial Book (Brain Pickings, 2013)

Vicky Ludas Orlofsky

Vicky Ludas Orlofsky has been the Instruction & Scholarly Communication Librarian at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, since 2013. She has long had a personal and professional interest in issues of copyright, user privacy and intellectual freedom, which has informed her approach to instruction and reference. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young children, and in her spare time, such as it is, enjoys bakeries, reading, and coffee.

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