The Key to Maurice Sendak's Success With Children? His Contempt for Adults
Beloved children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died today at age 83. Though there are thousands of children's authors whose works have touched millions of people, Sendak, whose most famous story was 1963's Where the Wild Things Are, made books that were somehow able to endure the ages. He seemed to have an almost cult-like fan-base—perhaps rivaled only by the followings of Roald Dahl, who died in 1990, and Shel Silverstein, who passed in 1999—that's been supporting him for decades. Ultra-hip director Spike Jonze made Wild Things into a big-budget film in 2009, and the outpouring of grief for Sendak from tastemakers and celebrities on Twitter has been monumental. So what made an octogenarian who was by many accounts a cantakerous crank into one of the world's most beloved icons of childhood whimsy? Probably the fact that he didn't treat kids like dummies.
What young people want—more than ice cream or video games or ponies (maybe not more than ponies, actually)—is to be grown up. Many children would kill themselves in car accidents or with fire if left to their own devices, but they want some agency in a world that continually tells them they're too stupid, immature, and small to do anything of real value. Between signs reading "You must be this tall to ride this ride" and restrictive bedtimes, children are well aware that adults think less of them, and that realization is infuriating when they know they're smarter than anyone realizes. It's easy to tell from Sendak's work that he understood children felt this way, and that he refused to treat them like the impotent dullards many adults took them for.
It's not that Sendak wrote stories filled with complex science equations or analyses of existential dilemmas. He didn't talk to children like adults. What he did do was acknowledge that children deal with real pain, real disappointment, and real emotions, just like people of all ages. Wild Things, for instance, finds a little boy sailing away from home because he's angry at his mother, who had sent him to bed without dinner. He lives among monsters and becomes king, only to realize he's lonely and return to his family. Wild Things was about rage and abandonment, and upon its release it was banned from many schools. It wasn't until adults started seeing kids enjoy the hell out of it that Wild Things was began to get its due from educational authorities. One year after its release, Where the Wild Things Are was honored with the Caldecott Medal, an annual award given to the most distinguished picture book of the year.
Similarly controversial was Sendak's lesser-known 1970 book, In the Night Kitchen. In that story, a young boy named Mickey sleepwalks to a magical kitchen, where he accidentally falls into a vat of cake batter and is nearly baked to death by three fat, jolly bakers. The story contains far less emotional depth than Wild Things, but what angered critics is that Mickey spends part of the story naked. And it's not just his butt that's exposed; his penis and testicles are too. Despite the fact that all children have genitals, and that Mickey's were never sexualized in any way, some outraged parents and educators felt it necessary to ban In the Night Kitchen the way they'd banned Wild Things. On the American Library Association's list of the 100 most banned or challenged books between 1990 and 2000, In the Night Kitchen came in 25th, despite the fact that it had been released and lauded decades before. (Heaven knows how much worse the book's reception would have been if the public had known at the time that Sendak was gay.)
Sendak endured criticism that his books were too serious or naked or scary until the day he died, and in response he literally told his critics to fuck off (after Salman Rushdie reviewed one of his books poorly, Sendak called Rushdie a "flaccid fuckhead"). In fact, Sendak's reaction to most everyone, save for kids, was total contempt. He called Stephen King "bullshit" and he said he "can't stand" Gwyneth Paltrow. He also didn't like Roald Dahl, about whom he said, "I know he's very popular, but what's nice about this guy? He's dead, that's what's nice about him." One of the main secrets to Sendak's success was that he never paid adults any mind, whether critics or rabid fans. He liked to be alone with his friends and family, free to do his work without interruption from the world's dolts.
That Sendak was so obstreperous toward adults helps explain why he treated kids so well: When you think that so many of humanity's grownups are idiots and morons, why wouldn't you show children as much respect? In fact, why not show children more respect than you'd show adults, who are corrupted by things like hatred and the lust for money in ways kids aren't?
Speaking to The New York Times last year about the failings of so many children's books, Sendak complained, "There's a certain passivity [about them], a going back to childhood innocence that I never quite believed in. ... [Max] was a little beast, and we're all little beasts." What guided Sendak's unique ability to speak to children was his belief that the world and all its residents are quite often ugly and scary and flawed. He let kids finally feel old by telling them they were just as messed up as their parents. We're all little beasts.