On Sendak and Truthfulness

As faithful readers must surely be aware by now, I am a person of many fine qualities. Upon judicious reflection, I must humbly state that one of my most notable virtues must be a staggering ability to maintain friendships with a diverse group of people, even those who think I am wrong about things (they, of course, are incorrect). I am so truly remarkable in this virtue that I even have friends who don’t like Maurice Sendak. While I understand that some may consider this a bridge too far, I must firmly ask that you respect my choice in this matter; these are my true friends, and nothing will change that– even though they are absolutely wrong.

On reflection, though, it’s time I articulate to the world what these poor, misguided souls consider to be flaws in the flawless work of Sendak, and then explain in full why Sendak is the pinnacle of picture book creators. True, this has been done before, but clearly not enough, or I wouldn’t be meeting anyone who thinks Sendak is anything less than a master of the craft.

In fairness, I should be writing a review of a new book. I have one right here. Several, in fact. But a discussion on Shabbat which culminated in my friend saying in less than perfectly calm tones that “childhood is innocence and roses!” while I replied in a volume which wouldn’t be considered acceptable in a library that “You have children!” while my Spriggan was beside me pointing at Outside Over There and saying “dog? dog?” has prompted a deeper exploration of the brilliance of Sendak, and I feel it a deep obligation to share my views.

Because the chief, uncompromising principle in Maurice Sendak’s works is their absolute dedication to truth. We might be so used to lies by the time we’re adults that we don’t see this initially, but, fortunately, Sendak isn’t talking to us; he’s talking to our unflinching children who boop Mickey’s bellybutton in In the Night Kitchen and, I am not making this up, lick the milk he’s pouring out of the bottle of milk. (I did ask the Spriggan to please not lick the book– it can be hard to find a hardcover edition these days, honestly.)

And yet Sendak has always met with resistance: Ursula Nordstrom, his editor, wrote a firm letter in his defense when librarians were cutting out little diapers to paste on the, ahem, naked (titter) Mickey in In the Night Kitchen. (As I said: the Spriggan neither noticed nor cared that he had a bare bum or a penis. He does insist on booping his bellybutton, and he gave him a kiss when he was getting back into bed.) Years ago now, when the Changeling was about 3 years old, a friend asked my advice on getting books for his nephew of a similar age, and I said that In the Night Kitchen was the Changeling’s favourite at the time. He read it, and said it was far too scary: the kid is put in the oven, how horrible! Meanwhile, another friend has told me that in Where the Wild Things Are the very anger and danger is dangerous; literature, I was told, should show an ideal world. I nodded seriously: “Yes, that’s why I love Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” I replied earnestly.

So these are some of our accusations against poor, maligned Maurice Sendak, whose reputation I will then proceed to defend: his books are scary, show a dark and dangerous world, and are disturbing to the innocence and rosiness of childhood.

These are, Mr. Darcy would agree, weighty accusations, indeed!

But what are the books about, what do they show, and what is there to be afraid of in them? In my view, there is nothing for children to be afraid of beyond what they already know, but there’s plenty to scare off adults, which is why it’s adults who object while children don’t. And, once again, it goes back to the point I cited from Mac Barnett in my post on The Runaway Bunny (I sure am going back to the classics, aren’t I?) regarding what the best children’s literature does: that it shows things as they are rather than mandating what things should be. In other words, Sendak is telling the truth.

Now, you might say I’m completely bonkers, and many would agree. I will concede that most homes don’t have a secret kitchen in which three giant bakers whip up massive cakes by night which we all get to eat every morning. And it’s a rare bedroom which sprouts forests and oceans to take you to a land of Wild Things so you can rumpus. I may have a Changeling, but my changeling is certainly not a thing all of ice which was brought by goblins who spirited away my real child while I sat in an arbor.

I concede that all of this is accurate. It is also true that I’ve yet to see a child and a bear in a broken top hat picking strawberries and blackberries in the same season while elephants skate on raspberry jam, but somehow that book feels so damned plausible it’s just perfect, but if the metre faltered even a little the whole book would collapse in a puddle.

But why is it scary for a child’s walls to melt away in a forest while he sails off to an island of Wild Things but going over a waterfall in a canoe full of blueberries with a bear is funny?

We, as adults, have to remember what a child sees and experiences. And I think that quite often we, as adults, have learned to recoil in fear whereas children fear unflinchingly. Sendak knew that better than many.

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max is mischievous, bouncing off the walls. We don’t necessarily see how that mischief turns to anger; both parents and children can, I know, fill in those blanks in any number of realistic ways: maybe the mischief was already angry, or maybe there was a catalyst, or maybe the excess energy spilled into high emotions and anger. Max, angry and mouthing off, is sent to bed without his supper. We watch as the open-eyed anger turns to closed eyes and the inner space of dissolving rigid walls into open air and the forest and the ocean, where he takes his anger and his wildness into expression and joy. The page layout matches this: small, constrained panels widen and broaden until the rumpus pages are full, gorgeous, wordless spreads with canny eyes and glorious smiles.

Parents recoil from anger and wildness and fierce expressions.

Children, however, are delighted by roaring terrible roars because in the pages of the book, as in the dissolving walls of the imagination, you can roar safely.

The other books have similar escapes.

It’s my suspicion, for example, that the terrified librarians pasting diapers on poor Mickey were fixating on that to avoid even looking at the scariest page in the book: Mickey pops out of the oven with a happy smile on his face saying: “I’m not the milk and the milk’s not me! I’m Mickey!”

Mickey, from falling dreamily through the air, buck naked, mixed into a cake, hops happily into action, forcing the bakers’ eyes open, telling them exactly who he is, and then taking charge. “I’m Mickey the pilot!” he declares. Then abandoning his dough-plane to the Milky Way he becomes a milkman, diving down to the bottom: “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me…” Mickey flies and swims and cries “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Mickey is the hero of cake-creation, but he is cheerfully defiant and happily reinvents himself throughout the book.

Mickey is the kid who cuts their hair in the bathroom sink and (not that I’ve ever seen this done) writes their name in Sharpie in the middle of the bedroom floor (I think it will come off with rubbing alcohol).

Let’s end with the book that’s the hardest, always the hardest, one that I reviewed very badly years ago so I don’t want to link to my review (though I still agree with my final line: “In very short form: this book feels like music sounds. And I have no greater compliment to pay it.”)– Outside Over There. On Shabbat, I looked at the cover and waved it at my husband: “Silver? Caldecott Honor? What else came out that year?” He shrugged while I ranted. I looked it up after Shabbat and texted him this screenshot…

Well, all right I guess. Fine. The committee must have been slightly overwhelmed. (I still would have pushed for Outside Over There.)

Why, though, do we adults insist on such lists and choices and clarity? Why do I have to explain that maybe it’s OK for Max to have a safe space to discharge the inevitable anger all children– all humans– feel? Why is it important to think about whether the Wild Things are dangerous? (NB: The Wild Thing is not only Max, but his family. The figures of the Wild Things were drawn from his own family members, according to the beautifully researched and written Wild Visionary by Golan Y. Moskowitz. Categories blur.)

Outside Over There deliberately rejects all such easy paths. Papa is away at sea (where, why?) and Mama is in the arbor (what’s she looking at?) and Ida has to look after her baby sister, whom she loves, but isn’t watching, so the baby is stolen by goblins. That poor baby– but, wait! That poor Ida! But can we blame the parents? Well, it’s their job–

This is not simple. Families aren’t simple. We all make serious mistakes and tumble backwards into outside over there, but we can be clever, too, and quick churn our goblins into a dancing stream (wait, aren’t the goblins the ones dancing, and doesn’t quick water churn?), and we can succeed.

Why does Sendak drop Mozart into Outside Over There? Well, why not? Why the German Romantic style? Why the German Shepherd dogs, based on his own, when he’s a child who grew up in the USA while his family was murdered in the Holocaust– his parents’ own siblings? Because the world we, all of us, including our children, live in is not simple. It defies understanding, but we can face that, and be brave rescuers, and love the innocent, rosy children crooning and clapping as a baby should, and look after them always, because that kind of love is stronger than any goblin.

Emotionally, psychologically, Sendak knew that to be true, and that is an unflinching, unshakeable truth I want every child to have the opportunity to hold in life.

Which is why I will read these books over and over every time my Spriggan says “Ah-gehn? Ah-gehn?” and the Changeling, all 9 years old as she is, will always pop her head up from her bigger books to watch and listen while we go through forests and kitchens and outside over there until we wind up back home, where our supper is thankfully waiting for us, and it is often even still hot.

I’m sure hoping you already have these books, but if you were, before you read this post, one of those poor, misguided souls– here are links to my local, beloved Brookline Booksmith: Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There (link to the Carle Museum book shop because it’s sadly so hard to come by these days).

2 thoughts on “On Sendak and Truthfulness

  1. What a brilliant essay. You are totally correct about Sendak. And I had no idea about the competition the year Outside Over There came out. Whew!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s