Today's children's books are heavy on the squeaky clean ideals and morals -- just as they were in 1960s, when author and illustrator Maurice Sendak -- who died yesterday at 83 -- released Where the Wild Things Are.
In a time of obeying mom and dad, Where the Wild Things Are was controversial because it was about a scruffy, wolf-costume-wearing, imperfect child. It was about escaping a punishment, and about the satisfaction that comes with creating a "wild rumpus."
As The Los Angeles Times reports:
Published in 1963, the book was a startling departure from the sweetness and innocence that then ruled children's literature...Librarians banned the book as too frightening. Psychologists and many adults condemned it for being too grim.Of course, if you listen to Sendak, the point was he wasn't writing children's books at all. In fact, he wasn't writing for children or adults. "He just wrote."
If you can ignore the book as a brilliant work of art, it isn't particularly difficult to understand the public's initial reaction: When junior is being naughty, the last thing you want is to encourage more naughty behavior.
And darkness, well Sendak, who lost most of his extended family in the Holocaust surely had some of that. (The lead character Mickey in In the Night Kitchen, just barely escapes being thrown in an oven.)
But those sweet and innocent-themed books? Well they don't have much influence. As who remembers those?
The ones we remember are the ones with the bloody epic battles between good and evil (the fighting rabbits in Watership Down); the heart-wrenching (the most worn but most loved bunny in The Velveteen Rabbit); and the rebellious (think the trouble one monkey gets into in Curious George and the rapscallion Tom Kitten nearly eaten in The Roly-Poly Pudding).
With Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak fits into the later category, the rebellious category, with his bad little boy Max sent to bed early without dinner -- only to escape and become king in a mysterious land, thick with trees and fanged monsters, that takes over his bedroom. The book concludes when Max realizes leadership is not all it's set out to be, becomes lonely, and returns home, where he finds his steaming supper waiting for him. Max uses his imagination to passively rebel against his parents -- but then concedes to their love.
Whether Sendak was writing for adults or for kids -- in the long run, it doesn't matter, both read his work -- this is a message that we can use everywhere: Imagination combined with passive rebellion can change the world as we know it.
If you are fighting to create change for the better -- hey why don't we use climate change as an example -- don't you need a hearty dose of naughtiness? And don't you need to make friends with monsters with fangs?
If book sales mean anything in terms of global influence, Sendak is a voice we have heard, and listened to: Where the Wild Things Are, is one of the 10 bestselling children's books of all time.
The world lost a profound thinker and artist. Here's to a future of more rebellious books.