Book Mama: Maurice Sendak, Author Misunderstood

One thing you will quickly learn about me if you continue to read my blog is that I am a huge connoisseur of children’s literature. Not only was I a elementary school teacher, but I was also a school librarian for a few years and worked for about 5 years in a bookstore dedicated to children’s books.  I have a collection of, well, I am afraid to count, but I have a lot of children’s books.  I am also a bit of a book snob. A good book to me has to capture my attention from the first page, the illustrations must be unique and add a dimension to the book that would be lost without them and, the story, well it darn well better be a good story.

One of my favorite authors is Maurice Sendak. He is a brilliant writer and his illustrations are the perfect match to his writing.  But something has disturbed me over the years about peoples’ responses to his writing. They say things like, “His books are too scary.” or “The stories are too strange.” Okay, I will grant them some of that. They can be a bit scary and even a bit odd, but if you know what Sendak is trying to accomplish, then you will realize just why his books  are the way they are.

Sendak writes about what children know. His books “acknowledge the terrors of childhood, how vicious and lonely it can be.”  If you read anything about Sendak’s personal history, he lived many of the terrors of childhood and knows first hand how awful they can be.   He does not “dumb down” his writing for children. In fact, he says himself that he hates being known as a children’s book author. He says “it belittles [his] talent.”  He also says that he “refuses to lie to children…[he] refuse[s] to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

So if you can get past the books being a little odd and perhaps scary and try to see them through the eyes of an adult who lived through some scary things and through the eyes of a child, then you can appreciate their value and their beauty. You can appreciate Sendak presenting these “terrors” but always, always reconciling things at the end.  Take Where the Wild Things Are for example.  It is the story of a little boy who talks back to his mom and is sent to his room (sound familiar?).  The boy then “runs away,” but only in his imagination, to a land full of monsters (another childhood fear and perhaps a manifestation of a “mean mom”) where he is able to “tame them all with a magic trick” therefore he is able to resume his control and face down a childhood evil (monsters) and win.  And, when it is all over, his dinner awaits him and it is “still hot.”

So you can take Sendak’s books or leave them, but realize the his books are what children’s imaginations are made of and they hold the power that allows children to fight those monsters and win.

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