Maurice Sendak seems to be campaigning for the dubious honour of Resident Curmudgeon in Children’s Literature. The Guardian reports that in a recent interview, Sendak rebuffed concerns that the new movie adaptation of his classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are might frighten children.
‘That’s a question I will not tolerate,’ Sendak said, suggesting that worried parents should ‘go to hell’. He recommended that frightened children ‘go home.’ Given his distinctly depressing description of home life, however, that seems remarkably like his advice to parents.
Sendak, of course, has made himself a legend through his monsters—whom he says he based on childhood memories of his relatives, a boisterous Jewish family he feared might suddenly decide to eat him.
But while I admire his chutzpah, I confess myself troubled by Sendak’s seeming lack of concern. Sendak should care that children are frightened. Anyone who writes for children should be. Children are frightened, and not always because they want to be.
We can forget too easily what it’s like to be children, either by thinking they will be scared or assuming they won’t. Monsters appear in many forms. The horrifying stories Sendak’s relatives told him terrify him. The relatives did.
The solution, of course, isn’t to extract Mickey Mouse’s teeth or ban Sendak’s book. I think we need to understand the role that the monstrous can play in fantasy, whether for children or not.
Like it or not, there’s a certain responsibility bestowed on those of us who choose to write the fantastic, the gothic, the monstrous. We create ikons of things beyond simple reason, outside the scope of nonfiction. We evoke the imagination of childhood to help us comprehend the grown-up world we reluctantly inhabit.
In nine sentences, Sendak invokes the primeval terror of being angry and alone in one’s room with the nightmare shapes of hurt and hunger. Typical experiences of childhood become grotesque personas rather than abstract emotions. These things are more comforting, even if they’re scary. I know for myself, my love of fantasy began as a similar sort of fancy—I could imagine heroes and noble warriors when other children around me were being petty and cruel.
Childhood, after all, encompasses cruelty. The monsters that cavort through our fantasy had, for many of us, prototypes on the playground. That’s what makes fantasy so delightful, and why even the scary things should ultimately be reassuring. Through discovering this other, enchanted place, through the wardrobe, down the road, of from a thousand letters woofed down the chimney, we see our own world and live mirrored as perhaps we pretend they were, or as we wish they could be.
I’m not talking about rosy escapism, either. Any regular reader of any kind of fantasy knows that it’s not a particularly rosy genre. Even in reading Brian Jacques, I have to brace myself for at least one gut-wrenching tragedy per book. And who else out there cried over Dobby?
The responsibility of the fantasy writer is to reveal in the grotesque and the monstrous the potential for redemption. The Wild Things can be tamed—a little child shall lead them. Suddenly Max and all his child fans have entered into solidarity with—of all people—his mother. The need for love restores the monstrous to a place where love can be found.
So I think what Sendak attempts should be attempted with respect for the child and the childlike. Will children be frightened? Probably. Just sending them home, however, robs them of a chance to learn through their fear, to learn that fear is not the end all be all. Monsters will not always be scary.
Children need the monstrous, and so do we. We need both the wild adventure and the reassurance that the soup will still be hot when we return. We need to recognize the monstrous, the grotesque, in this and every world, and learn that even the wildest of Things will never, ultimately, make us late for dinner.