“A wish is halfway to wherever you want to go.”
“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) told Stephen Colbert in his last on-camera appearance. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Having fallen in love with his work as an adult myself — none of it made it past the Iron Curtain and into the Bulgaria of my childhood — I’ve come to appreciate this sentiment all the more deeply. Sendak was indeed a storyteller who, while enchanting children, very much embodied E.B. White’s dictum that “anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time” — instead, he wrote up to them and made an art of naming what is dark and difficult, then enveloping it in hope.
It’s a craft he began honing in the largely forgotten 1956 masterpiece Kenny’s Window (public library) — his first and, in many ways, most directly philosophical children’s book, written and illustrated when Sendak was only twenty-eight.
Published seven years before Where the Wild Things Are turned him into a cultural icon, this was Sendak’s debut as a storyteller. He was yet to encounter William Blake, who would become his greatest influence. Although he had previously illustrated children’s books by other authors — including the immeasurably wonderful Open House for Butterflies and I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss, one of the finest children’s storytellers of all time — this was Sendak’s serenade to his own becoming, a creative homecoming into his own voice as an artist of word and image.
Befittingly, he dedicated the book to his parents, his psychiatrist, and Ursula Nordstrom — his editor, friend, confidante, and greatest champion, whose unflinching and wholehearted support had cultivated his creative genius and sustained him through his darkest moments as an insecure young artist.
The story begins with little Kenny, who awakens from a revelatory dream — a trope for exploring existential questions that a number of great thinkers and storytellers have in common, from Dostoyevsky’s dreamsome meditation on the meaning of life to Margaret Mead’s nocturnal revelation to Neil Gaiman’s philosophical dream.
In the middle of a dream, Kenny woke up. And he remembered a garden.
“I saw a garden in my dream,” thought Kenny, “and a tree.”
There was a tree covered white with blossoms. And above the tree shone the sun and the moon side by side. Half the garden was filled with yellow morning and the other with dark green night.
“There was something else in my dream,” thought Kenny, and he tried to remember.
“A train,” he cried, “and a rooster with four feet and he gave me something.”
There was a train puffin its way through the garden and in the caboose sat a rooster with four feet and he gave Kenny a piece of paper.
“Here,” said the rooster, “are seven questions and you must find all the answers.”
“If I do,” asked Kenny, “may I come and live in the garden?”
But before the rooster could answer, the dream ended.
Upon awaking, Kenny remains enchanted by the magical garden of coexistent dualities and wonders whether he could indeed live there if he answers the rooster’s questions — but he realizes that he had forgotten them in the dream. Closing his eyes, he wills his way back to sleep, hoping to find them. What unfolds is a series of seven dreamsome vignettes, each a quest to answer one of the questions. Although populated by fantastical creatures — a horse on the roof, a talking dog, two prophetic toy soldiers — Kenny’s nocturnal odysseys explore various facets of loneliness and love, those very real fixtures of childhood and the lifelong experience of being human.
The second question — “What is an only goat? — offers an especially potent testament to Sendak’s uncommon genius for bearing witness to and assuaging the deepest vulnerabilities of the human heart. A poignant parable calling to mind the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn’s assertion that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” it offers a reminder that the tighter we cling to a template of what love is, the lonelier we render both the object of our love and ourselves.
Kenny left a note on the kitchen table. It said: Dear mama, I’m going to Switzerland. Back soon, Kenny.
The valleys of Switzerland were deep in wild flowers, and the mountains peeked out through the mist.
Kenny bought a ticket and took a seat in a little train that climbed straight up the side of a mountain.
“Look,” said a fat man, pointing out of the train window, “a waterfall!”
Everybody looked and said surprised things and took snapshot, click-click. But Kenny didn’t look. He
“Look, mama,” said a little girl with yellow hair, “snow!”
“Ah!” said everybody. Click-click.
“Snow is very pretty”, thought Kenny, “but it is not what I came to see.”
And he didn’t look.
When the little train came to the top of the mountain, Kenny bought a chocolate bar and went out to look for a goat. He stood in a little patch of snow and looked down into the misty valley. He listened to the faraway bells that echoed softly against the grassy-thick mountain walls.
“How beautiful,” thought Kenny, “but,” and he sighed, “they are only cowbells and I am looking for a goat.”
Kenny stepped carefully down the mountain picking, along the way, a bouquet of wild flowers: yellow trolls, blue gentians and pink mountain roses. The path became less steep and the air smelled strong of animals. Kenny wrinkled his nose. He soon came to a village that had only four houses and a great deal of mud.
“My goat could not live here,” said Kenny, burying his nose in the bouquet of wild flowers. He was about to turn back, when behind one of the houses, stepped a little white-bearded animal.
“A goat!” cried Kenny, and he arranged the wild flowers to look as pretty as they could. Then he putted down his hair, straightened his tic and scratched some mud off his new brown shots. The white goat watched Kenny, her little jaw swinging sideways as she chewed some grass.
Kenny stood as straight as he could and said in a loud voice, “I have come all the way from America to make you my only goat.”
The white goat stepped closer, eyeing the bouquet of flowers in Kenny’s hand.
These are for you,” said Kenny and he held out the flower for the goat to smell.
“My favorite kind,” said the white goat. “Thank you.” And she nibbled at the yellow trolls.
“What is an only goat?” she asked.
“An only goat,” said Kenny, “is the goat I love,”
“How do you love me?” asked the goat.
“I love you better than the waterfall,” said Kenny, “and the snowy mountains and even the cowbells.”
“Ah,” sighed the white goat, and she gobbled up the blue gentians.
“When will you stop loving me?” she asked. Bits of blue gentian spatted her white beard.
“Never!” said Kenny.
“Never,” said the white goat, “is a very long time.”
And she sniffed at the pink mountain roses.
“Will you feed me yellow trolls, blue gentians and pink mountain roses in America?”
“No,” Kenny answered, “but there are buttercups and black-eyed Susans in my back yard.
“Can I stand on a mountaintop in America, and listen to the cowbells?”
“No,” Kenny answered, “but you can sit on the roof of my house and listen to the beep-beep of the automobiles as they go rushing by.”
“Can I lie in the mud in America?”
“No,” Kenny answered, “my goat must be pretty and clean and wear a silver bell around her neck.”
The white goat looked sadly up at Kenny. “An only goat is a lonely goat,” she said.
But we will play together,” cried Kenny, “and tell each other funny stories.”
“I don’t know any funny stories,” said the white goat.
“Not even one?”
“No,” said the goat.
“Then perhaps—,” began Kenny.
“Perhaps what?” asked the white goat.
“—you are not my only goat,” he finished sadly.
“That’s true,” said she, chewing up the last rose, “you have made a mistake.”
Kenny took the chocolate bar from his pocket.
“This is for you,” he said.
“My favorite candy,” said the goat, gobbling it up in one bite. “And I hope you find your only goat.”
“Thank you,” said Kenny, and he went back up the mountain. He bought a ticket and took a seat on the little train that went straight down the side of the mountain.
From the window he saw the lovely white snow and his heart beat fast. He saw the great tumbling waterfall and he was filled with a happy longing to be home. When the train came to the station, Kenny sent a telegram. It said:
Dear mama — coming home — your only boy — Kenny.
The fifth question — “What is a very narrow escape?” — turns to another facet of this vulnerable-making negotiation between loneliness and love.
One morning, Kenny almost fell off the side of the bed.
“What are you trying to do?” asked Baby, his dog.
“Almost fall off the side of the bed,” said Kenny. “But not let myself just in time.”
“THAT was a narrow escape!” said Baby.
“What’s a narrow escape?” asked Kenny.
“Almost falling off the side of the bed,” answered Baby.
“Sometimes,” said Kenny, “I hold my breath for as long as I can to see what it’s like. Is that a narrow
“Be careful,” said Baby, “or you’ll have a VERY narrow escape.”
“Have you ever had one?” asked Kenny.
“Yes,” said Baby, and she shivered in memory of it.
“What happened?” asked Kenny eagerly.
Baby curled up in Kenny’s lap. “For a whole afternoon,” she whispered, “I pretended I was an elephant. But I couldn’t sleep because I was too big to fit under your bed. I couldn’t eat because elephants don’t like hamburger. And I couldn’t chew my favorite bone because my long nose kept getting in the way. And most of all, I was afraid you’d stop loving me. I thought, ‘Kenny has lots of love for a little dog, but does he have enough for an elephant?’”
“Poor Baby,” said Kenny softly, and he rubbed her back.
“And just before suppertime,” continued Baby, “I stopped pretending and it was just in time. I was so hungry. And do you know what I said to myself?”
“Yes!” shouted Kenny. “You said, THAT was a VERY narrow escape!’”
“Right,” answered Baby, and with all the talking and back rubbing, she fell asleep in Kenny’s lap.
In his dream-encounter with the seventh question, Kenny is visited by the rooster once more, who goes on to grill the boy in a rapid-fire session of question-and-answer. “What is an only goat?” the rooster demands, and Kenny volleys back, “a lonely goat”; “What is a very narrow escape?” “When somebody almost stops loving you.” On and on they go, question by question, until the rooster poses the final one.
“Do you always want what you think you want?”
Kenny thought for as long as he could. “I think I don’t know,” he said sadly.
“Think hard,” said the rooster.
Kenny thought hard and then smiled.
“I know,” he said.
“What?” asked the rooster eagerly.
“I thought I wanted to live in the garden with the moon on one side and the sun on the other, but I really don’t.”
“You’ve answered all the questions,” the rooster shouted, “and you can have whatever you want.”
“I wish,” Kenny said slowly, “—I wish I had a horse, and a ship with an extra room for a friend.”
“You can have them,” said the rooster.
“When?” cried Kenny. “Where are they?”
“There,” said the rooster, pointing out the window. Kenny pressed his nose against the glass.
“Across the street?” he asked.
“Further than that,” said the rooster. Kenny stood on tip-toe.
“I can’t see any further than that,” he shouted.
The rooster hopped on Kenny’s shoulder.
“I see them,” he whispered, “past the houses, over the bridge, near a mountain on the edge of the ocean.”
“that’s too far,” said Kenny and he looked away.
“But you’er halfway there,” the rooster said.
In the dark, Kenny’s eyes grew big. “How did I get so far?” he asked.
“You made a wish,” said the rooster, “and a wish is halfway to wherever you want to go.”
Kenny’s Window is a tender and immensely thoughtful gem in its entirety. Complement it with Sendak’s rarest and most formative art, his wisdom on art, storytelling, and life from the 1971 class he taught at Yale, and his little-known and lovely posters celebrating libraries and the joy of reading, then join me in supporting the wonderful Rosenbach Museum & Library, which Sendak entrusted with his legacy.
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