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Fourteen years ago, I waited in line at a public library circulation desk with my three-year-old niece, Sara, who was clutching a well-worn copy of In the Night Kitchen. When her turn came, she handed the book to the clerk, and anxiously held her breath as it was checked back in.
“Would you like to check it out again?” asked the clerk. Sara nodded, still holding her breath. Once the book was handed back to her, she breathed a big sigh of relief and passed it to my brother to tuck away in their library bag. As the visiting out-of-town aunt, I was both charmed and puzzled by this exchange, and that must have shown on my face.
“We go through this every month,” my brother explained. “She’s crazy about that book. She loves everything by Maurice Sendak, but this one, in particular, is her favorite.”
“You know,” I said, “If Sara loves In the Night Kitchen so much, I’d be happy to buy her a copy of her own.”
“No, she seems to like this ritual,” my brother responded. “And the people at the library seem to get a kick out of it, too.”
“The people at the library probably like having that particular book checked out,” I quipped. We were, after all, in a conservative town in northern Florida, and Mickey’s frontal nudity was legendary. I had learned in library school that some librarians had infamously painted diapers on Mickey to avoid controversy. And I’d seen that fact quoted countless times in any piece of writing dealing with Sendak’s cutting-edge genius. Those outside the profession seemed to admire his willingness to thumb his nose at puritanical children’s librarians.
And yet, here we were, in this conservative town, with a copy of In the Night Kitchen on open shelves, available to any three-year-old like Sara who had just discovered the books of Maurice Sendak. And while Sara might have monopolized the library’s sole copy of the book in 1998, there were 17 years from 1970 to 1997 when the book resided in the children’s picture-books collection, sans diapers, going to the homes of other children who had checked it out over the years without incident.
So that got me wondering: Just how often was Mickey diapered in America’s libraries? And who started it? How did others react to the practice? Was it as commonplace as the reports would have us believe?
When Sendak died on May 8, nearly every obituary from major news outlets mentioned the diaper controversy as the sole legacy of In the Night Kitchen. This take from the Washington Post was typical: “The book’s full-frontal nudity of the protagonist was considered shocking at the time, and librarians chose to draw diapers over the offending scene.” Those who engaged in this sort of censorship were variously described in the obits as “some librarians” (the Los Angeles Times), “many school librarians” (the New York Times), and “librarians across the country” (Forbes). None of the publications mentioned that In the Night Kitchen was awarded a Caldecott Honor in 1971, a strong stamp of approval from these same “prudish” American children’s librarians.
In fact, judging from reviews and honors, librarians as a group were supportive of Sendak’s work from the outset. Between 1954 and 1963, he racked up five Caldecott Honors for his superbly restrained illustrations in books such as A Very Special House (1953) by Ruth Krauss, Moon Jumpers (1959) by Janice May Udry, and Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962) by Charlotte Zolotow. His ground-breaking masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are (1963, all Harper), was controversial in its day, but went on to win the Caldecott Medal, and has since become a modern classic—in spite of misgivings expressed by experts, such as child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who warned readers of its potential dangers in the March 1969 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. “The basic anxiety of the child is desertion. To be sent to bed alone is one desertion, and without food is a second desertion. The combination is the worst desertion that can threaten a child,” Bettelheim wrote, after admitting that he hadn’t actually seen the book firsthand but had only heard a plot summary. And a reviewer in the September 1964 edition of Journal of Nursery Education (the forerunner to Young Children) wrote: “We should not like to have it left about where a sensitive child might find it to pore over in the twilight.”
But librarians, for the most part, loved the book. The success of Where the Wild Things Are catapulted Sendak to international fame and fortune, and allowed him the freedom to experiment as an artist. He refused to fall into a formula; rather, he took risks and constantly reinvented himself by creating venturesome, daring picture books that refused to lie to children about psychological realities. He raised some adult eyebrows in 1970 with In the Night Kitchen, a dreamlike story in which young Mickey falls out of his clothes and revels in the sensuality of jumping into milk and dough as he’s baked into an enormous cake. In a New York Times feature that appeared just before the book was published, Saul Braun described the story as a “masturbatory fantasy” that would be “sure to offend.” But the professional reviews of the book at the time were universally laudatory, praising Sendak’s originality and artistry, and recommending it widely for school and library purchase. All of the reviews made note of the book’s frontal nudity, but none of them dwelt on it, choosing to focus instead on the story as a whole. In addition to winning a 1971 Caldecott Honor, it was an American Library Association (ALA) Notable Children’s Book and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and was recommended for core collections by both the Children’s Catalog and Elementary School Library Collection.
So where did the diapers come in? And who were the “librarians across the country” who were painting them on Mickey? We can get clues, it turns out, from Sendak himself. He talked about the incidents loudly and frequently. In 1991, for example, he delivered a speech at the American Booksellers Convention called “Why Mickey Wears No Pants,” which the Los Angeles Times published in its entirety. There, he told the story of a 1972 press release sent by Ursula Nordstrom, his editor at Harper, “denouncing this outrageous mistreatment of In the Night Kitchen.” The release includes a reference to a letter from a Louisiana librarian that had been printed in School Library Journal “without any editorial comment,” according to Nordstrom. The two-sentence letter by Betty B. Jackson of Caldwell, LA, appeared in SLJ’s December 1971 issue:
“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 In the Night Kitchen, solved the problem by diapering the little boys with white tempera paint. Other libraries might wish to do the same.”
Although Nordstrom claimed there was no editorializing, the headline for the letter made SLJ ’s position clear: “Three-Cornered Censorship.” The letter was also dwarfed by a half-page reproduction of the “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!” illustration showing Mickey in all his full-frontal glory.
We can’t be certain how many librarians took Jackson’s advice and followed suit. Sendak himself reported that several expurgated copies made their way to him over the years, “smuggled” to him by “embarrassed librarians.” But to date, there has been only one other documented case of diapering reported to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom: in 1977 there were 40 copies of the book distributed to the kindergarten classes in Springfield, MO, but only after the director of curriculum development had hired an artist to draw shorts on Mickey. School officials swore that it wasn’t really censorship—it was merely the only way the book could be used in their public schools.
The extent to which librarians put diapers on Mickey has been most likely greatly exaggerated over the years. But there was another type of response from librarians, even more dramatic, that has gone under-reported. When Nordstrom sent out the 1972 press release decrying the “mutilation” of In the Night Kitchen, she invited librarians to sign a statement saying, “We, as writers, illustrators, publishers, critics, and librarians, deeply concerned with preserving First Amendment freedoms for everyone involved in the processes of communicating ideas, vigorously protest this exercise of censorship.” In response, she received 425 signatures supporting the statement—an excellent return, considering she had originally sent the press release to 380 individuals.
And there was more. At ALA’s 1972 midwinter conference, the Children’s Book Council formally brought the SLJ letter to the attention of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee as part of its official business meeting. The committee immediately ruled that the practice was a clear violation of the Library Bill of Rights and ordered the preparation of a clarifying statement “reaffirming the principle that defacement and expurgation of library materials already selected and acquired by libraries clearly denies library patrons their right of access to the materials and infringes equally on the rights of authors, artists, and publishers.” The case helped librarians uphold the idea that this sort of cover-up was just as censorious as the outright removal of the book from library collections.
And that’s why, thanks to librarians, kids like Sara can find In the Night Kitchen on our children’s shelves—accessible and diaper free.
Yours, the dark side of the moon,
The scary places,
The thoughts we were taught not to think,
The angry faces.
The unallowed feelings we whispered
You rowdily screamed.
Leaving us comforted.
Leaving us redeemed.
Kathleen T. Horning (email@example.com) is director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her last feature for SLJ , “The Buddy System” (October 2011), was an interview with Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer, the creators of The Phantom Tollbooth .
Sergio Ruzzier, author and illustrator was a 2011 Sendak Fellow; he had the opportunity to work on any project for four weeks at Maurice Sendak’s Connecticut studio. By utter coincidence, he worked on his illustration for SLJ while staying at Sendak’s home, drawing at his desk with his German shepherd nearby.