When released in the early-1970s, Maurice Sendak‘s children’s book, In the Night Kitchen, caused quite a stir for one particular reason: its protagonist — a young boy named Mickey — was drawn nude in some illustrations. Fearful of their children seeing an innocent picture of a fictional boy’s genitals, some parents and librarians took the liberty of drawing nappies/diapers on Mickey (see above); others thought it easier to just burn the entire book.
Below is a letter to a school librarian who chose the hotter option, written by Sendak’s trusted editor, the great Ursula Nordstrom. Following that is a press statement she released some months later.
(Source: The highly recommended, Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom.)
January 5, 1972
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.
[IMMEDIATE RELEASE; from Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.]
June 9, 1972
On behalf of Maurice Sendak, Ursula Nordstrom, Publisher of Harper Junior Books, recently sent the statement quoted below to some 380 librarians, professors, publishers, authors and artists throughout the country. The response was extraordinary: 425 signatures. Many were accompanied by personal notes underlining the signer’s indignation at this reported exercise of censorship by a librarian through alteration of the illustrations of In the Night Kitchen. It is hoped that this protest will alert all those concerned with children’s books to the invidiousness of such censorship.
“The following news item, sent to School Library Journal by a Louisiana librarian and published in a recent issue of that magazine without any editorial comment, is representative of several such reports about Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, a book for children, that have come out of public and school libraries throughout the country:
Maurice Sendak might faint but a staff member of Caldwell Parish Library, knowing that the patrons of the community might object to the illustrations in In the Night Kitchen, solved the problem by diapering the little boy with white tempera paint. Other libraries might want to do the same.
At first the thought of librarians painting diapers or pants on the naked hero of Sendak’s book might seem amusing, merely a harmless eccentricity on the part of a prim few. On reconsideration, however, this behavior should be recognized for what it is: an act of censorship by mutilation rather than by obvious suppression.
A private individual who owns a book is free, of course, to do with it as he pleases; he may destroy his property, or cherish it, even paint clothes on any naked figures that appear in it. But it is an altogether different matter when a librarian disfigures a book purchased with public funds—thereby editing the work of the author—and then presents this distortion to the library’s patrons.
The mutilation of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen by certain librarians must not be allowed to have an intimidating effect on creators and publishers of books for children. We, as writers, illustrators, publishers, critics, and librarians, deeply concerned with preserving First Amendment freedoms for everyone involved in the process of communicating ideas, vigorously protest this exercise of censorship.”