Childhood terrors

Remembering Maurice Sendak 

Childhood terrors

He understood the glories of youth by recognising the horrors, too

IN 1963 the Caldecott Medal, given yearly for the best picture-book for children published in America, went to "The Snowy Day", a pleasant, anodyne tale about a boy named Peter who tromps around snowy city streets and then returns home to a maternal embrace (it was notable for featuring an African-American boy as its protagonist—then unheard of in lily-white American children's literature). In 1965 "May I Bring a Friend?" won the Caldecott; it was a similarly unruffling story of a boy who brings exotic animals to visit a king and queen.

In between those two prizes, the Caldecott went to "Where the Wild Things Are", by Maurice Sendak, which was an altogether different sort of book. Peter may have had darker skin than the average children's-book lead character, but he was otherwise indistinguishable: obedient, mother-loving, appropriately curious, dutiful, safe. The protagonist of "Where the Wild Things Are" was none of those things. The story opens with him pounding nails into a wall as a pathetic-looking stuffed animal dangles from a noose tied to a clothes hangar. He then chases a frightened-looking dog out the door, and when his mother yells at him he yells right back.
As anyone who has sons knows, this is what a real boy does, especially in that late-afternoon witching hour, after school and friends but before dinner. Sent to his room, Max retreats into his imagination to conjure up the opposite of childhood: a realm peopled by wild things (as opposed to the real world, which is thinged by wild people) whom he controls with a magic trick. The trick involves a stern expression and threatening hand gestures: precisely the same trick adults often use to control children. He then smells "from far away across the world...good things to eat," so he sails back home to find dinner waiting for him. There are no adults in this book; they exist entirely offstage. The book does not end with a hug and a word of acceptance from a parent. Max does not apologise for being naughty. There are no lessons learned. Just a brief, blissful time-out from the terrifying and unjust world, and dinner at the end.
Mr Sendak, who died last week at the age of 83, was famously acerbic and unsentimental. Much of his Jewish family did not escape the terrors of 20th-century Eastern Europe; terror and sundered families figure prominently in his work: the bakers in "In the Night Kitchen" have alarmingly short mustaches; Bumble-Ardy's parents get eaten; the girl in Outside Over There (his best and most unsettling work) gets stolen by goblins. "I refuse to lie to children," he said in an interview. "I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence." And indeed he did not.

His books are often called dark; they are not, or not deliberately so. They are instead faithful to the powerlessness and terror that comes with being a child, with having to figure out the rules as you go, and with being entirely subject to the whims not merely of the world, as we all are, but to the imperfect people who raise you. In a conversation with Art Spiegelman—like Mr Sendak, an artist profoundly marked by the Holocaust—Mr Sendak mocks people who sentimentalise childhood. "Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth!" He ends the conversation by telling Mr Spiegelman that he knew things as a child—terrible things, but he could never let adults know that knew them, or "it would scare them."

What Mr Sendak's books get so frighteningly right about childhood is that uneasy, violent imbalance between total narcicissm and total oppression, between being king of the world and being a squashed bug. Eventually, as we grow into ourselves, we learn (at least we ought to learn) to strike the right balance between our needs and those of others. Childhood offers no such comforts. To his eternal credit Mr Sendak refused to pretend otherwise.


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