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Vol. LXII, No. 39
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
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Book Review

Going Gently and Ungently Into Childhood’s Good Night

Stuart Mitchner

Until I revisited our old, read-to-rags copy of Goodnight Moon, the sole subject for this column was Maurice Sendak, who turned 80 in June and was honored last week at the 92nd Street Y, where James Gandolfini read In the Night Kitchen, Meryl Streep delivered a passionate rendition of The Note on Rosie’s Door, and Council Speaker Christine Quinn declared September 15 Maurice Sendak Day in New York City.

Sendak is a household word while Clement Hurd, who would have been 100 this year, is all but forgotten. Yet when he died in February 1988, a New York Times editorial paid tribute to the “inexplicably magical” Goodnight Moon, “the quintessential first book,” in which Hurd’s pictures illuminated a hundred of Margaret Wise Brown’s words.

Out of all the “first books” we read to our child (even including Paddington Bear, Corduroy, and Pat the Bunny), Goodnight Moon was the bedtime favorite, which is one reason I still have our copy. All I have to do is open the covers and I’m back in touch with the exhausted euphoria that was parenthood. The “magical” effect is in the mood created when simple words are combined with deeply evocative images that encourage an affectionate fascination with night, moon, and stars while calming fretful babies and weary parents. It’s a lullaby in pictures, as pure a piece of music in its way as “Greensleeves” or “Toora-loora-loora.”

Clement Hurd has the eye of a cinematographer. The shaded beams sent forth by the bedside lamp manage to suggest both the illusion of light and the gradual disappearance of it. Look at the last picture and you can see that the subtle undark darkness of the beams projected by the magic lamp have completed their sweeping possession of the room. No one had to turn off the light because it was never really on. The bunny’s asleep, the moon is up, the stars are out, two kittens are snuggled on the rocker, and the windows of the toy house on the other side of the “great green room” are alight, everything hushed and serene, as it somehow always was from the first picture on, whatever the time of day.

Without intending to ponder the deeper meanings of so uncomplicated a work of art, I’ve often wondered why it’s “a quiet old lady” in the rocking chair “whispering ‘hush’” instead of her double, the mother bunny we can see in the framed picture on the far wall. That cunningly borrowed image from The Runaway Bunny, the previous Brown-Hurd collaboration, shows the mother fishing for her fugitive offspring. If you look at the earlier book, you’ll find a more conventionally plotted variation on the standard bedtime story, which cynics can read as a veiled indictment of overprotective parents. When the bunny imagines he wants to run away (is he a “he” because little girls aren’t supposed to want to run away?), his mother says, “Then I will run after you,” and so she does, whether he’s pretending to be a fish or a rock on a mountain or a crocus in a garden, wherein she becomes fisherman, mountain climber, and gardener, and so it goes, except that something remarkable happens on the two-page spread that shows the bunny as a bird and the mother as a tree. It’s a sublime image. When he was in his twenties, Hurd studied in Paris with Fernand Léger, who would surely admire the winged bunny in the blue sky with its purple shadings and on the facing page the mother shaped into the leafy form of a tree with open arms, and against the heavenly softness of sky a field of flowers. If there were a Sistine Chapel of bedtime reading, this picture would be my choice for the ceiling (though the one that follows it, of the mother as the wind blowing the sailboat bunny where she wants him to go, is almost as lovely).

Mickey Mouse Meets Melville

Needless to say, Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen is something else altogether, even though it’s every bit as much a “night book” if not a quintessential first read. The operative word is excitement. Mickey’s neither on his way into peaceful sleep or pretending to run away; he’s embarking on an adventure, and if it’s “only a dream,” it’s a dream he seems to demand. He’s one tough kid, bossy, too — you can see why Tony Soprano would like him. He’s a mob boss in embryo. When he hears noises in the night does he hide under the covers? No, he stands up and shouts “QUIET DOWN THERE!” For a less bold kid, that tumble into the night kitchen would be a nightmare with the three Oliver Hardy bakers morphing into bloated boogiemen out of the witch’s kitchen in Faust. But Mickey is as spunky and resourceful as his Disney namesake. In fact, Sendak is a collector of Mickey Mouse memorabilia. As he admits in an online interview with Hank Nuwer, it “all started in the late ’60s when I was doing In the Night Kitchen. I needed things from my childhood, and the Mickey Mouse things were my favorite. They helped me kind of taste that time and time again. The whole collection was really a means of turning me on to my book.”

Since Sendak is no less a collector and devotee of Herman Melville, it’s hard not to see the jaunty heroes of Typee and Omoo reflected in Mickey’s adventurous spirit. More than that, the element into which Mickey is dipped and clothed and out of which he shapes his little airplane, and particularly his submergence in milk (“I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me!”) may remind readers of Moby Dick of the way Melville dips and clothes, oils and submerges Ishmael and the crew of Pequod in the spermy matter of the whale. Melville aside, the real glory of In the Night Kitchen is spread out in the great two-page central image of Mickey hovering in his little plane above the milk bottle skyscraper in Sendak’s kitchen counter reinvention of the Manhattan skyline with its pot and canister, colander, nutcracker, egg-beater, mix-master towers, the bakers way below, and the yellow moon and stars in the deep blue sky.

While Goodnight Moon encourages a soothing, accepting quietude, Sendak’s Night Kitchen ride celebrates boldness. Before he slides back into bed, there’s Mickey, naked atop the milk bottle, helmeted by a milk pitcher, bellowing, in big red letters, the book’s most explosive message: “COCK-A-DOODLE DOO!” (also the title of one of Melville’s weirdest, most spiritedly written short works).

Maybe it’s Mickey’s naked attitude, his red-lettered roar in the face of civility, that helped make In the Night Kitchen number 25 on the A.L.A. list of the 100 “most frequently challenged” books betwen 1990 and 2000. A naked boy (full frontal nudity yet) in a book for children would already have the custodians of moral values leaning on the local librarian, but a bold, defiant naked boy might suggest a rebel or radical activist in the making.

Or maybe just an 80-year-old artist standing with a cane by his side at the birthday event in his honor, telling the audience at the 92nd Street Y that the tribute and the readings had ignited in him “a feeling of wanting to continue to work” even “with the world falling down around us.”

It’s Coming

You’re likely to find plenty of Sendak, and copies of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, at the upcoming Friends of the Library Book Sale (October 3 to 5), which volunteers begin setting up in the Community Room next week. Children’s books have been a highlight of the sale for as long as I can remember, or at least ever since the days when children’s librarian Dudley Carlson used to donate 15 to 20 boxes of accumulated library freebies. Babar the elephant is well-represented, by the way, in case anyone wants to ponder the deeper political meanings raised in Edward Rothstein’s recent New York Times review of the Morgan Library exhibit, “Drawing Babar.”

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