Deep In the Night Kitchen: On Childhood and Authors

I’ve been thinking about authors today, particularly Maurice Sendak, who died today.

I’ve been thinking about authors and how children relate to them, or rather, how I related to them as a child.

Today, I watched Sendak on the Colbert report. It was Sendak’s last interview.  It is a thing of wonder, and it was amazing to me to see Sendak and his honest and curmudgeonly personality. I imagined showing the clips to kids who more recently had discovered Sendak. I realized they wouldn’t care.

Obviously, there are some children who are interested in the author. All the children who wrote to Sendak, for example. I am sure that, if prompted, I would have written to an author or two as a child. After all, I wanted to be an author.

But, the only memory I have about authors as a child was my discovery that not only had I read all of Edward Eager’s books but that he was dead and would write no more. The disappointment had nothing to do with Eager’s death 30 years prior, it had to do with the fact that there would be no more of those magical books, and that was quickly put aside when I learned his favorite author was E. Nesbit. It wasn’t the bit of biography, it was the book recommendations that were important.  Even when I knew about an author–I knew that Roald Dahl may have been anti-Semitic–my knowledge had no bearing on my enjoyment of the books. The only thing that mattered was: is the author alive? Will there be more if I run out?

Today, as an adult, I still haven’t met very many of my favorite authors. I learned an immense amount about creative writing from Mary Gordon, but I only read (and loved) her books once I had already met her as my creative writing professor. I can only think of one other fiction book signing I have attended (Jasper Fforde. Thankfully, he was hilarious in person too. (Thankfully? Why should I care? But I do believe I would have been disappointed).

I once wanted to write to Joyce Carol Oates after she wrote that she likes to think her students at Princeton has not read her writing. It seemed so preposterous. Not read her writing?

“I’ll write to her,” I thought. “I will tell her that  We Were the Mulvaneys was the first book not written for children that I remember that I chose to read without any input, guidance or recommendations from adults. That her books shaped my transition into adulthood and changed my ideas about what it was allowed to do with language.”

But, of course, I didn’t. Still, now, I want to know more about the authors I love. I love reading about the craft of writing. I follow Margaret Atwood on Twitter.

So, what is it about childhood authors? I think it is the sense of experience that is somewhat lost in adulthood. When I remember In the Night Kitchen, Where The Wild Things Are, and Pierre I remember them with fondness and a sense of safety that is not reflected in the text of the books. It comes from being read to. When I listened to a recording of In the Night Kitchen today, I heard my father’s voice even as another voice read the lines “I am not the milk, and the milk’s not me! I’m Mickey!” Reading  was an entirely immersive experience. It didn’t matter who the author was, because he was not part of my world at the moment. That world was contained in the book and in my parent’s lap. Later, when I was reading to myself, the book itself sufficed.

On the best days now, I can read for long enough and with enough intensity that the outside world–author and all–fade to nothing.

I have loved reading about Sendak’s life today. I was honestly sad to hear he had died, but I have to admit that the sadness was surely selfish, sadness  that a man who had created worlds of my childhood had died. That there would be no more books. After all, when we say someone was a “beloved children’s book author” isn’t it usually the books that are beloved? The worlds that are created?

Sendak offered so many worlds, and a lot more. Now, too late, I write to him:

Thank you, Maurice Sendak for the adventures, the escapes, the immersions into places and experiences both so recognizable and exotic.

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