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October 23, 2009

Maurice Sendak tells hand-wringing parents to go to hell

Bravo, Maurice Sendak:

Parents who think the new film of Maurice Sendak's picture book Where the Wild Things Are is too frightening for children can "go to hell", the author has said.

Telling the story of a naughty little boy, Max, who is sent to bed without his supper only to journey by boat to a land where wild monsters live, Sendak's classic tale was first published in 1963 and has captured children's imaginations ever since. With a film version adapted by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze out later this year, Sendak told this week's edition of Newsweek that he would "not tolerate" parental concerns about the book being too scary.

"I would tell them to go to hell," Sendak said. And if children can't handle the story, they should "go home," he added. "Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered."


Um... well, my son, who has an autism disorder, is frightened by _Where The Wild Things Are_. So for at least one child, it's too frightening. And so I don't read it too him anymore, at his request.

If Mr. Sendak, whose books I like very much, doesn't like that, then he can go to hell right back. And go fuck himself while he's on his way.

This post takes the words out of Sendak's mouth and simplifies and sensationalizes a nuanced viewpoint.

Halfway through the interview Sendak talks about how Americans are not comfortable talking about bad things happening to children in everyday life, so these topics must be dealt with metaphorically through art. He goes on to say in the interview to explain that brushoff as being (paraphrasing) "you have to deal with scary things as an adult too. I saw things that were 'too scary' as a child. I survived."

He's not saying "My film is fit for all children. All children should watch my movie." He's arguing that what he sees as a cultural tendency towards overprotectiveness in childrearing must have reached ridiculous heights to be applied to whether his book and movie are appropriate to be cultural prominent children's media.

The journalist is not asking "is your movie too scary to be watched by everybody?" and that is not what Sendak is responding to. The journalist is asking "is your movie too scary?" - a much more bizarre and threatening question that implies that, because of the need to protect children, a media's public presence should be correlated to how trite and easily-digestible it is. That's what Sendak's responding to.

*RETRACTION OF MY FIRST PARAGRAPH* ach, my mistake... missed the "bravo" included in this post. Thought that wasn't there and the post was an expression of shock. My apologies to the uncompromising and open-minded Ms. Beyerstein.

I just had this conversation with a parent recently. Why treasure innocence? And ignorance?

Isn't the point of growing up, growing up?

Why to parents try to prolong childhood in their children? For themselves, not for their children.

Is this movie even for children?

It's shot in a verite style. It's director is known for being sophisticated, cerebral and even meta-cognitive. The central theme of the film seems to be nostalgia for innocence, not on any particular life lesson.

The movie is clearly aimed at adults who read the book as children, not people how are children at present and, by all accounts, it does a great job. I practically cried watching the trailer.

What Thomas said: the previews for this movie said to me, this is a movie for adults who loved the book as children. The end.

Sendak says that he was exposed to frightening and unpleasant things as a child and that his childhood was unhappy. He seems to think that parents who want their children to be happy are bad people. Life is misery! Suck it up! Sorry, Maurice. That's the not the upbringing I want my kids to have.

Bloix, are you talking about another interview with Sendak, or what he says about his childhood in the Guardian piece?

I don't think he's saying that parents should force scary stuff on their kids to toughen them up. I think he's snarking back at parents who tell him he should have written books that wouldn't scare their kids. He's an artist. He has his own vision, which is based in part on his own childhood memories. Maybe he's also hinting that we underestimate the ability of children to grapple with darker and more complex themes in art. Old school fairy tales are dark, certainly much darker than contemporary favorites like Bob the Builder or Dora the Explorer. Yet generations of children have loved these gory, creepy, psychosexually twisted stories without apparent ill-effects.

Somehow, I don't think that we'll be seeing nuanced, complex Bob the Builder art films for grownups in 20 years' time. There's just not a lot of emotional depth there. WTWTA is a book geared towards kids about the same age but decades later, readers are coming back for more in adulthood.

Of course parents of very young children have to decide what books developmentally appropriate for their kids. The solution is to screen what's out there, not to demand that all children's literature be pre-sanitized. Sendak just seems justifiably annoyed that some parents feel entitled to lecture him how to write.

Sendak has been very open about his own unhappy childhood. He was frequently ill and sometimes bed-ridden, and his description of his parents reveals people who had no idea how to raise happy children.

Mr. SENDAK: I don't know. I think my own childhood. If I had a unhappy life, and most of us do, actually, and if you have an immigrant life and if you come to this country--I was born here--but then you grow up and everybody in your family who's not here is dead in a concentration camp, and all you hear is your father or mother weeping and tearing hair out, and knowing that pleasure was a sin. Playing ball in the street or laughing was a sin because they can't play ball and they can't laugh. How dare you have pleasure in life when they can't have anything? So I hated them. For a long time, I hated them, and my childhood was completely misshapen by what was going on in the world.
So I had my brother and my sister and my father telling us horrendous stories. He didn't know what was appropriate. He just knew how to tell a story, and it was great, which maybe gave me insomnia, maybe not. But they were really terrifying of shtetl life in Europe and his experiences and stories where--and there were children dying. `I remember Eli and oh, he died in such a terrible way.' `Papa, tell us. Tell us how Eli died,' you know, like that was the best thing we could possibly hear. And then he wouldn't spare us the details. He'd tell us the whole horrible details of Eli's death, and they stayed with me for the rest of my life.

The unsatisfying and unresolved nature of his relationship with his parents is exemplified by the fact that he lived with his partner for 50 years yet never told his parents that he was gay:

"All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew."

Sendak has no children and has never been responsible for the happiness of a child. He has an access to his own childhood through memory and imagination that makes his books extraordinarily beautiful and valuable, but he has no understanding at all of what it means to be a parent. He seems to be unable to understand that not every childhood has to be as unhappy as his own. He has no business judging parents on how they view his work and his willingness to do so reveals a blind spot in his character.

Ok, I read what I just wrote and it's too strident. Although he's not very interested in understanding parenthood, it's not true that Sendak has no idea what it means to be a parent - "and it was still hot" is a lovely expression of how maternal love protects a child. And I don't doubt that over the years he has grown tired of people telling him that his work is too dark for children. I never found it too dark for my children, and if a story is read to a child who is sitting in the lap of a caring adult, it can be very dark indeed before it becomes too frightening to be borne.

The movies are a different story. The experience of viewing a motion picture is much more intense and isolating, and a story that is fine for a child in a picture book can be overwhelming on a screen. So I would have expected a more thoughtful response to the question of whether the movie version of the story might be too scary for children who have no problem with the book.

And I think his "they can go to hell" comment was an ill-advised expression of exasperation.

Wow, I didn't realize what a dark childhood Sendak had. That's tragic that he was never able to come out to his parents.

I thought he was responding to the sort of people who tell him he should have written different books, as opposed to parents who simply decide that WTWTA (book or film) is too scary for their own kids.

Children's authors have an especially hard time getting the respect they deserve as artists. There's a tendency to reduce them to mere producers of a consumer product. If the public wants sunnier kidlit, then why doesn't Sendak get on it? It's like asking an avant garde jazz musician why her stuff doesn't sound more like Kenny G, which people actually like! It's going to piss her off.

Sendak's exasperated attitude in the article seems fairly typical of him. Every scholar I've known who has had personal contact with Sendak has described him as extremely curmudgeonly.

I think that what bothers people about Sendak isn't simply the darkness of his work (which he always disliked having reduced to "children's literature"—for him, it is Art). Also perturbing is Sendak's failure to live up to people's idealized image of what a children's author should be: the kindly, benign, grandfatherly type. Someone who adores kids, pats their heads, and tells them engaging, imaginative, reassuring stories. Yeah, that's not Sendak.

Saw the movie. I want 90 minutes of my life and my $10.75 back.

If you want a Sendak book that will freak you out, don't go to Where the Wild Things Are, go to In the Night Kitchen. Max's dream in WTWTA is far too coherent and structured for a dream; Mickey's in ITNK nails it. My kids found ITNK disturbing without batting an eye about WTWTA, I think because it captures the weirdness of dream life.

I loved WTWTA as a kid and my kid loved it. Because it's dark. It's scary, it speaks to the fear all of us carry about the prospect that our anger has the power to annihilate. It's a great book, and more Jungian therapists ought to use it.

I also love that Maurice Sendak treats children with dignity in his work, that his art addresses themes (from wild things to the Holocaust) that are complex and difficult.

Whether it's remotely possible that the movie captures that spirit, I am afraid to bet $10.25 plus popcorn to find out.

The interview was refreshing, in a world where a teen Disney idol was expected to apologize to my 8 year old because her boyfriend had taken racy pictures and published them on the web. To be more clear, the pictures were of the 18 year old teen, not my 8 year old. Worse, the demand made by thousands of shocked parents, not Disney, was that she be very, very sorry for being sexual, not that she use this to teach my kid a valuable lesson about boyfriends and what they can be trusted to do.

I'm exhausted by the cultural pressure to be the only person in my kid's life who tells her about the difficult, the dangerous and the frightening aspects of human existence. Creating all that metaphor is work, in the sense of 'bod of work', and it's tiring. I find Sendak's work to be a bracing antidote to the notion that kids must be protected from reality, even interpreted into forms that make tough things easier to access and understand. And in closing, anyone who doesn't want their kid to be scared by a movie or book is free to avoid it--just stop whining that I can't have it either, and everyone will be happy!

PW wrote: "I'm exhausted by the cultural pressure to be the only person in my kid's life who tells her about the difficult, the dangerous and the frightening aspects of human existence. Creating all that metaphor is work, in the sense of 'bod of work', and it's tiring."

That's an excellent point. I'd never considered what a burden that must be for parents.

I'm not complaining as such--after all, I applied for this job--but our secular culture is not well-supplied with interpretive materials that explain the complicated stuff. It's a big problem for those of us who don't use a religious framework to explain the world.

It's not that the dog got run over by a truck that's complicated--the dog was crushed, and she died. Very sad and scary, but simple. It's that the driver didn't look back. That's complicated, and we have no stories that explain evil as carelessness. The best I can do is, Coyote dropped the blanket he was using to steal the stars, and that's what made constellations (bad intent and chaos can result in beauty).

What I love about Sendak's body of work, which is not so much picture-book as it is Max fitting into a pantheon of characters--Huck Finn, Scout Finch, Meg Murry, even Claudia and Jaime at the Metropolitan Museum--is that the children are facing real monsters. The kind who have depth, a mixture of terrifying and charming characteristics, not just the Bad Guys(tm).

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