A small article in the New York Times, “Philadelphia Museum Losing Its Maurice Sendak Collection,” tells us that the Rosenbach Museum and Library will be turning over more than 10,000 Sendak drawings and other items to the Maurice Sendak Foundation. The foundation intends to create a strictly-Sendak museum in Ridgefield, CT.
Sendak was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1928 and died in Connecticut in 2012, and in his eighty-three years wrote and illustrated some of the most beloved and controversial children’s books of our time. You know them all.
But here’s something I’ll bet you don’t know: Between 1951, when Sendak first made illustrations for a children’s book (The Wonderful Farm, by Marcel Aymé), and 1956, when he wrote and illustrated his own first children’s book, he made ink drawings for a book called Singing Family of the Cumberlands, by folksinger Jean Ritchie.
Singing Family was published in 1955 by Oxford University Press, and it is one of the most charming and affecting memoirs you’ll ever read, written long before the emergence of tell-all family stories—yet it’s full of drama, romance, comedy, tragedy, and American history. Ritchie, born in 1922, describes growing up in tiny Viper, Kentucky, deep in the Cumberland Mountains—the southern Appalachians—with her parents and thirteen older brothers and sisters.
Hardscrabble farming and raising some animals sustained them, but the most important activity for the Ritchies was music: singing (especially ballads), often accompanied by mountain dulcimer. In her memoir Ritchie includes the words and music to many of the songs she later sang at festivals, and recorded as well.
My mother owned all her records; I grew up knowing that reedy southern voice very well. But it was the memoir I adored, almost to the point of pain, certainly to the point of being unwilling to share the actual book with anyone: I borrowed it permanently from my parents when I left for college. Some years later, in a moment of madness, I loaned it to a friend who not only took his time returning it but appeared, for a brief while, to have misplaced it. I’ve never let it out of my hands since then.
What I loved so much in Singing Family of the Cumberlands was the value Ritchie’s community placed on a fine storyteller and a well-told story; I loved also the intimate view of family life, the privilege of looking in through the Ritchies’ windows. I loved learning about a tradition almost unimaginably different from my own.
And all of the stories were enhanced by Brooklyn-born Maurice Sendak’s gentle, respectful drawings. There are only thirteen chapters and only one drawing at the head of each chapter—not very many drawings, but they are as eloquent as the memoir. It was many years before it dawned on me that those drawings were by that Maurice Sendak.
Singing Family of the Cumberlands is still available in paperback, even from non-Amazon sources: try Powell’s, Half.com, Alibris, Barnes & Noble.
For a real treat, listen to Jean Ritchie talk about writing and publishing Singing Family.
SIDEBAR: Maurice Sendak hated e-books.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers, Farmington, ME
Island Books, Mercer Island, WA
Nicola’s Books, Ann Arbor, MI