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Why Mickey Wears No Pants

<i> Sendak is the award-winning author of many children's book including "In the Night Kitchen" and "Where the Wild Things Are." This essay was delivered as a speech at the American Booksellers convention earlier this month</i>

In the fall of 1970, when my hero Mickey slipped out of his clothes and into cake batter in “In the Night Kitchen,” a critic peevishly queried: “Why couldn’t Mickey have at least kept his underpants on?” Apparently, this critic had never dreamt himself naked--and thereby lies a tale.

As it turned out, quite a few librarians across the country preferred Mickey Fruit-of-the-Loomed; his raw condition struck a raw nerve and they self-righteously concluded that Mickey must be cleaned up. To protect the children of course. So 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.

It’s easy to imagine curious children holding the book up to the light and tracing out the obvious. Worth a giggle, I suppose, though I never saw the humor in the situation. This abuse of Mickey’s privates outraged me. It reduced a book I had worked on for more than three years to nothing more than sheer idiocy.

In 1972, my fierce and beloved editor, Ursula Nordstrom, sent out a press release denouncing this outrageous mistreatment of “In the Night Kitchen.” What it said, alas, holds more true today than ever:

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“On behalf of Maurice Sendak, Ursula Nordstrom, Publisher of Harper Junior Books, recently sent out 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.

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“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, 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.”

I wish I could report that it all made a difference. It did not. The small but steady stream of expurgated copies that find their way to my house testify to that sad fact. The heat is still on Mickey.

It’s been brought to my attention by a number of people that Mickey, in the lithograph I prepared for this American Booksellers Assn. convention, is still the 1970 little boy he always was--but that, oddly, his privates have grown way out of proportion. Now, this is true--I was unaware of that detail--and I’d like to think I inadvertently touched on some significant unconscious point--and not merely that I’m guilty of bad drawing. Either explanation might be correct, but of course I prefer the former.

What could be more reasonable under the circumstances? It makes a kind of comical sense; like Pinocchio’s nose displaced downwards (in Freud, it usually goes the other way), Mickey’s penis grows in response to the lie that is censorship, the lie that says children must be protected from such a sight. His organ stiffens with indignation over the smug philistinism that absurdly denies the dignity and truth of the human body. It thumbs its nose--if you’ll pardon the expression--at those who would pervert that truth under the unctuous guise of wholesomeness, thereby confusing and frightening children, and “teaching” them to be ashamed of what is natural and good.

Mickey stands tall and asks to be counted. And if he shouts brazenly--as he does--"Cock-a-doodle-doo,” well, that’s his democratic birthright. Enough. The metaphor dwindles.

Just this. No one has to look at Mickey. No one has to listen to Mickey. But one mustn’t castrate Mickey, and thus deny him that birthright.

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