09 May 2012

Where the Wild Authors Are: Sendak, Children's Books, and Controversy

If kids are entertained by two letters, imagine the fun they'll have with twenty-six. 
Open your child's imagination.  Open a book. 
~ Author Unknown

T
his week is Childrens Book Week (May 7-13), and fittingly, one of the most beloved (and controversial) children’s authors died yesterday: Maurice Sendak. 

When I was a child, Where the Wild Things Are was not a controversy, it was a story.  A story about working out your frustration with your imagination, a reality that I was already wise to.  Max just let me know I wasn’t alone.

My friend Sullivan found this 1993 LA Times article about Sendak, with a great line about what his writing really meant.  Sendak gave

young readers generous credit for what they know.  In doing so, he (gave) children a respect they rarely receive from more traditional children's writers. And it is a gift. . .that empowers kids to protect themselves, to fight back, to survive.

G.K. Chesterton once said that children already know that dragons exist; fantasy simply teaches them that dragon can be defeated.  Even though I do not have children of my own, I was a child once, and I remember reading and loving Sherlock Holmes, The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Stories by Poe, and pretty much anything with knights, wizards, warlocks, princesses, and dragons.  Those tales taught me that I could be a brave knight too, fight the bad guys, and win. 

They also taught me that defeat was not necessarily something to be feared.  One could lose and still hold on to truth and beauty and goodness.  Better to die well, then live in shame!

Perhaps it is because parents wish to spare their children of the horror of the world that they rise up in horror at books like Where the Wild Things Are, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc.  But they are forgetting something important:

What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man. (Mark 7:20) [emphasis added]

Children are innocent of many things and it is laudable to want to keep them that way for as long as possible.  And yet… they already know what it is to covet (I want his toy!), deceive (I didn’t break the vase!), and slander (Tommy broke it!).  Dark inclinations are present in us even as children, and you’re not helping children to master those inclinations by denying their existence or raising children in a bubble.

I understand where this temptation of parents comes from. 

The current statistics on rape, violence, and sexual abuse are enough to make anyone want to build a castle on top of a glass mountain guarded by a dragon and an army of knights. No child—heck, no human being—deserves to have half the evil done to them that we hear about. Moreover, children are not psychologically mature enough to handle great evils, and may suffer life-long wounds if exposed to them too early, especially without guidance and unconditional love.

Yet evil exists regardless of what we want, fear, or desire, and hiding from it is futile, since the seeds of it are already inside us. Battling this evil is a life-long war. As Aragorn said to Theoden: “War is upon you, whether you seek it or not.”

Max, King of the Wild Things
The challenge, of course, is finding that prudent line between these two principles: Protecting children without hindering their growth; helping children acquire the tools to deal with evil and sorrow without causing too much damage through the exposure.

I think Sendak walked that line fairly well.  May he rest in peace. . .where the wild things are.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

What do you think? How far should adults go to protect children from the wild things that might be lurking in the dark?
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