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.


Four black women, Engineers Christine Darden and Mary Jackson, mathematician Katherine Johnson, and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan, worked as "human computers" at NASA during the Space Race, making space travel possible through their complex calculations. Jackson, Johnson, and Vaughn all played a vital role in helping John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

They worked behind the scenes, but now they're getting the credit they deserve as their accomplishments are brought to the forefront. Their amazing stories were detailed in the book "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was later turned into a movie. (Darden was not featured in the movie, but was in the book). Johnson has a building at NASA named after her, and a street in front of NASA's Washington D.C. headquarters was renamed "Hidden Figures Way."

Keep Reading Show less

Between Alexa, Siri, and Google, artificial intelligence is quickly changing us and the way we live. We no longer have to get up to turn on the lights or set the thermostat, we can find the fastest route to work with a click, and, most importantly, tag our friends in pictures. But interacting with the world isn't the only thing AI is making easier – now we can use it save the world, too.

Keep Reading Show less
Good News
Courtesy of John S. Hutton, MD

A report from Common Sense Media found the average child between the ages of 0 and 8 has 2 hours and 19 minutes of screen time a day, and 35% of their screen time is on a mobile device. A new study conducted by the Cincinnati Children's Hospital published in the journal, JAMA Pediatrics, found exactly what all that screen time is doing to your kid, or more specifically, your kid's developing brain. It turns out, more screen time contributes to slower brain development.

First, researchers gave the kids a test to determine how much and what kind of screen time they were getting. Were they watching fighting or educational content? Were they using it alone or with parents? Then, researchers examined the brains of children aged 3 to 5 year olds by using MRI scans. Forty seven brain-healthy children who hadn't started kindergarten yet were used for the study.

They found that kids who had more than one hour of screen time a day without parental supervision had lower levels of development in their brain's white matter, which is important when it comes to developing cognitive skills, language, and literacy.

Keep Reading Show less
via KTVU / YouTube

The 63-year-old Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, currently branded the RingCentral Coliseum, is one of the most decrepit sports venues in America.

The home to the the NFL's Oakland Raiders (until they move to Las Vegas next season) and MLB's A's, is notoriously known as the Black Hole and has made headlines for its frequent flooding and sewage issues.

One of the stadium's few positive aspects is its connection to public transportation.

Keep Reading Show less
Hero Video
via Anadirc / Flickr

We spend roughly one-third of our life asleep, another third at work and the final third trying our best to have a little fun.

But is that the correct balance? Should we spend as much time at the office as we do with our friends and family? One of the greatest regrets people have on their deathbeds is that they spent too much of their time instead of enjoying quality time with friends and family.

Lawmakers in the United Kingdom have made a significant pledge to reevaluate the work-life balance in their country.

Keep Reading Show less