we ‘brought each other up like other folks do’ – Maurice Sendak, homeless kids, dangerous stories, and memoires

by Maurice Sendak

If you’ve been following my blog in the last month or so it’s no surprise to you that the death of Maurice Sendak hit me hard. He was one of my favorite authors, and truly an inspiration to all of us who try to do dangerous things with our stories, to reach people, and tell the stories that need to be told.  I was honored to be given the opportunity to write a memorial essay for Lambda Literary talking about how his work touched me as a leather boy and the significance of his books to the queer writing world.

I like to think that I’m pretty familiar with his work, but was shocked and excited when last week I came across this article in Spare Change News about a storybook I’d never heard of called “We Are All In The Dumps: with Jack and Guy” that talks about childhood homelessness.  I knew immediately that I needed to find this book.  Luckily, Strand bookstore here in NYC has a beautiful and touching memorial display to Maurice Sendak right now, and yesterday I was able to finally bring a beautiful used copy of this book home with me.

It’s dark. Incredibly and profoundly dark in all of the best of ways. I believe that the most important stories are often the ones that are the most difficult to read. It makes me think of a brilliant essay “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written In Blood” about the power of brining reality into the YA genre and responding to concerns raised about his work being inappropriate for children. He says

“And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.” – Sherman Alexie

I always identify so strongly with that sentiment because I feel the same about the work I did with Kicked Out. I edited Kicked Out as the fulfillment of a promise I made my newly homeless teenage self when I stood in a library and couldn’t find one book that talked about what it meant to be homeless and queer. I wanted to keep someone else from feeling that alone. In the years that have passed I’ve received so many emails/tweets/letters from folks who told me Kicked Out made them feel less alone, that they kept it in their backpack as they slept on the streets, or read it to realize they weren’t alone.  In Roving Pack and other books that I hope will follow, I want to write the dangerous and complicated stories, the ones that make people uncomfortable because those are precisely the stories I so desperately needed.

by Maurice Sendak

“We Are All In The Dumps With Jack and Guy” is brilliant and horrific, and also utterly magic.  It’s complexly simple storyline that weaves together two nursery rhymes follows two boys Jack and Guy as they live in cardboard houses and dress in newspapers and rags along with other dirty street children under the menacing watchful eye of the moon.  It would have been enough for me to see street kids depicted in a picture book, but the power of the book didn’t stop there. It ends with the creation of a chosen family, of claiming, connection and “bring him (another little boy) up as other folks do.”

Finding this book felt a little bit like coming home to me, and made me wish I’d found it as a child- though of course I know I wouldn’t have been allowed to have it because of how dangerous it is. “We Are All In The Dumps With Jack and Guy” was published in 1993, by that time I was putting myself to sleep every night by imagining myself somewhere safe. From the time I was maybe six or seven and definitely before I was nine I would lay in my bed and tell myself stories so that I could sleep. My favorite was about runaways somewhere where grownups didn’t matter.

I didn’t know much about cities back then, my family only drove into downtown Portland once a year to go to Powell’s bookstore and I would carefully steal glances out the window. I had to be careful. If I’d stared my mother might have suspected something, something as simple as too long a look was subject to punishment. But in my dream/fantasy I was always in a city and I had found a pack of messy/complicated/dirty kids like me. In this fantasy we lived together in an abandoned warehouse only accessible by fire escape taking care of each other and sleeping in a great big pile. I have no idea where the inspiration for this fantasy came from, any media I consumed was heavily monitored and I wasn’t yet breaking rules by reading “dangerous books.”

Every night lying in my bed I would  imagine that I had runaway, and found other kids. I have no idea where the idea came from, but  it was my nighttime ritual for many years. Perhaps in some strange way (and super woo-woo way that makes me a little embarrassed to write) it was a sign of some sort, a promise that if I made it I would find my own crusty pack because as vivid as that fantasy was once I had runaway, those kids did find me, and we “brought each other up like other folks do.”