GOOD

The Key to Maurice Sendak's Success With Children? His Contempt for Adults

The beloved author of Where the Wild Things Are is dead, though he may not mind that much.


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.

Articles
Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
Health
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less
Health