Now that Maurice Sendak has passed away, who will scare our children?
The question may sound facetious, but is wholeheartedly meant and perhaps all the more so with Mother’s Day tomorrow, Sunday, May 13. In Sendak’s books, mothers get mad at their (misbehaving) children and are sometimes just not around.
These can be the stuff of childhood bad dreams. The New York Times‘s obituary of Sendak, who died May 8 at the age of 83, indeed dubbed him the “author of splendid nightmares.” In a 1993 NPR interview, Sendak described “children surviving childhood” as his “obsessive theme” and “life’s concern.” While the children in his books undergo terrifying experiences (kidnapping, being baked into a cake), amid terrifying, monstrous creatures (who are sometimes, as in Where the Wild Things Are, real monsters), Sendak’s young characters return home and even to a “still hot” dinner made by the mother they had rebelled against. They are ingenious, turning bread dough into airplanes. Like Jennie, the terrier who runs away from her comfortable home knowing that “there must be more to life,” they yearn for adventure beyond the snug, safe boundary of their front door.
Sendak’s work is certainly closer to the original Grimms’ fairy tales than the sanitized versions offered by the likes of Disney. His stories capture the cruelty, arbitrariness and terror of the world for children without candy-colored animations accompanied by upbeat melodies and friendly mice. Consequently, librarians (the New York Times notes) have been known to nervously draw diapers over the naked hero of In the Night Kitchen, Mickey. What kind of bad mother sends her little boy to bed without feeding him? Can children handle reading about how the pig Bumble-Ardy is orphaned? (His parents become, um, pork.)
“I’m Really Rosie” and The Juniper Tree
Growing up, I particularly loved the cartoon of Really Rosie, which was based on Sendak’s 1960 The Sign on Rosie’s Door. I read, reread and memorized the four little volumes of the 1962 Nutshell Library, thrilled that months could be reeled off according to how you took your chicken soup and the alphabet recited with such phrases as “looking like lions,” “ordering oatmeal” and (yikes! something I knew you never did) “pushing people.”
But the Sendak books that truly gave me a taste of something beyond the safe confines of my driveway in a brand-new tract home in 1970s Contra Costa County in California were Higglety Pigglety Pop! or, There Must Be More to Life and The Juniper Tree. Both were given to my sister and me by one of our aunts, who often gave us books (including, the time that I had the chicken pox, some about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, as well as a stuffed white cat).
I pondered how the mop-like terrier Jennie could want to leave her home which had “a round pillow upstairs and a square pillow downstairs” for fame on the stage of the World Mother Goose Theatre by eating a mop made of salami (which was itself a huge conundrum to me). I didn’t know what I read in The Juniper Tree, including the title story which involves a mother dying and a stepmother decapitating and cooking up her stepson. (Plus, whatever was a juniper tree?) These stories, and Sendak’s cross-hatched, monotone, were frankly scary, eerie and fascinating. While Really Rosie doesn’t have such fairy-tale psychic darkness, Sendak’s drawings in the cartoon gave me a glimpse of a world of stoops, brownstones, alleys and endless apartment buildings, a Brooklyn landscape far removed from the stucco blocks where I lived.
Sendak in the Age of the Overprotective Parent
In The Atlantic, Joe Fassler describes Sendak’s “long history of scaring kids and their parents,” contrasting this to the penchant of today’s “insidiously overprotective parent culture”:
The evidence does suggest we adults sometimes take our good-natured desire to protect children from unpleasantness to perverse depths. I see it in the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting,” for instance—the misguided attempt to thwart all potential pitfalls through hovering omnipresence. We seek to foil internal darkness, too, by plying young people with antidepressants and anxiety medication. And we’re highly sensitive about showing children any sort of “challenging” material, even in cases when censorship verges on absurd. The new documentary Bully, which depicts the brutal realities of life in the hallway and playground, was initially deemed “too violent” for children, the very audience it portrays, and attempts to reach.
Do parents today try to make the world too safe for their children?
Consider the controversy about vaccines and autism. The suspicion that there could be a link between them (a notion that has been widely refuted) has created all the more outrage in parents of autistic children. Many parents have been tormented beyond belief that the very thing — a vaccine — they thought would assure their child’s health could be the cause of a child being autistic.
As Fass suggests, might a parent’s loving ardor to protect a child 100-percent plus from the discomforts of life, lead to said parent insufficiently preparing a beloved child from the realities of the world, from pain to failure to sadness? From not only experiencing these; from learning that they can be navigated and survived?
From knowing that mothers can get mad at you, and tell you go to your room, and still leave you a piping hot meal after you’ve been wild?
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