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Sendak stared down kids' fears

Saturday, May 12, 2012 - Updated: 10:50 PM



Years before Maurice Sendak ever wrote or illustrated his first book, the British wit G.K. Chesterton explained why Sendak's approach to creating stories for children was so right, and why the parents who feared and fought Sendak's work were so wrong.

"Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist," Chesterton wrote. "They already know that. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed."

Fear is integral to our childhoods. Everyone else is bigger, and much of each day is new. We fall, and bleed. There are ferocious dogs, and strange noises in the dark, and nightmares, and the contempt of other kids, and the screaming of angry adults.

And there is the news, on television and around the kitchen table, that a whole bunch of people in office buildings in New York City died, that a family was shot by its daddy, that there's a war on. Children know they aren't entirely safe.

That's why it's better to give a child a book full of fears to be faced than one that pretends there's nothing to be afraid of.

Sendak, who died Tuesday at 83, came along at a time when he was much needed. Children's tales, in books and on television, were becoming bland, silly things, about radiant boys and girls with jovial parents and trivial lives. From the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew to Opie Taylor and Beaver Cleaver, cultural characters had no significant obstacles or fears, and lived no tales worth telling.

In 1963, Sendak published "Where the Wild Things Are." It wasn't his first book, but it was the one that brought him prominence -- and even that took some time. "Wild Things," is the translation of vilde chaya, the Yiddish expression Jewish kids would've had hurled at them when they weren't behaving, in the 1930s Brooklyn of Sendak's youth.

The book is about just such a boy. Max's rambunctious behavior gets him sent to his room without dinner by his mother, and his private lair then turns into a jungle full of horned and bearded creatures, with terrible teeth and terrible roars, far wilder than the ill-behaved Max. Or are they?

Max conquers them by "staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once." He is named their king, and the Wild Rumpus begins. But soon enough, the boy is tired and lonely. He returns home to find his mother has lovingly placed his dinner in his room, still hot when he arrives.

In the end, Max is a good kid, and in the end, Mom is a good mom, but neither is perfect. Max's need to escape, and then embrace her, and her need to punish, and then succor him, is a pattern any parent gets.

The book garnered poor reviews at first, low sales and a number of bans due to its unusually dark images and tone. But by 1965, school librarians saw it would not stay on the shelves. Children would check it out again and again, titillated and scared by the drawings and story, reassured by the ending.

Now those kids are parents and grandparents themselves, and the book has sold 18 million copies, spawned a movie and achieved the status of "accepted classic." But the feelings that made some adults revolt against "Wild Things" remain.

Traditional children's stories, from the Brothers Grimm to Hans Christian Andersen to "Treasure Island," are terrifying. They supply childish readers with real tales, where the stakes are high and because of that, the morals matter.

Sendak was a bridge between those traditional, scary tales and the dystopian fiction kids love today. From the "Hunger Games" to the Uglies to Harry Potter, children read books soaked in death and violence, and some parents quake.

That's the lesson Sendak leaves us: Parents are easily terrified and must be treated quite gently, lest they scar.


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