As you likely know, children's author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died May 8 at the age of 83. He was best known, of course, for his book Where the Wild Things Are, but he wrote and illustrated dozens of others.
When I was a kid--and even as an adult, frankly--Sendak's "wild things" mesmerized me. They're absolutely freaky, what with their teeth and beaks and feathers and hair. According to Mental Floss, the creatures were inspired by the way he saw his relatives as a child. "They were unkempt," he said; "their teeth were horrifying. Hair unraveling out of their noses." But the things weren't bad, when you read the story: Just wild.
And that fits to a tee, I think, how kids often see the world around them.
I don't think most children imagine that the world as a "safe" place, really. Even children raised with loving parents and a cadre of well-meaning adults looking out for them might imagine wonders and dangers behind every closet door. I was raised in an incredibly loving family, and yet I still imagined the world was full of magical, mysterious unknowns: A garden full of weeping willows straight from the jungle, a bedroom loaded with mysterious shadows, a statue I was sure came alive at night. As parents, we try to shield our kids from danger as much as we can, but we sometimes forget that kids are very good at creating their own.
And even when they don't, kids are more perceptive than we sometimes give them credit for. Despite our best efforts, they often know when things aren't going well. They know when Mom and Dad or fighting or someone's sick. They might not know the specifics. But they sense the tension, I think. Kids are more tuned to trouble than we give them credit for.
"I think it's unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue-sky, happy-clouded childhood for anybody," Sendak once said, and his books reflected that. Sure, they were cool and magical ... but they expressed a certain wild, not altogether safe charm--as the best kids' books do, I think. When I think about the books both me and my kids loved, from The Carrot Seed by Crockett Johnson to The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein to anything by Dr. Seuss, there was a weirdness or even sadness--a wildness in it--that children instinctively recognize and appreciate. They weren't altogether safe, if you get my drift.
It's interesting, when you think about it: We like to protect our kids, and with good reason. We want to shield them from the harsh realities of life until they're better able to deal with it. But when it comes to what we read, I wonder whether we've got it backward. I mean, when you look at the best-selling books for adults, chances are we'll see tomes on how to lose weight or how to get money or how to be better leaders or how to, finally, find inner peace--stuff that suggests almost a childlike need to master the world around us. But kids' books--these fairy tales and fables, these imaginative fictions--they speak to our souls, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. From Roald Dahl to J.K. Rowling, from Tom Sawyer to The Phantom Tollbooth, books written for kids deal with some pretty intense topics: good and evil, struggle and conflict, disappointment and disaster. As adults, we sometimes imagine that we control our lives--or at least control more than we actually do. Kids are under no such illusion. And as such, I wonder sometimes whether they understand both the nature of danger and grace a bit better than we do.
"You have to write the book that wants to be written," A Wrinkle in Time author Madeline L'Engle once said. "And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children." I think Maurice Sendak may have believed that on some level. I think he knew what kids know. The Wild Things, for both good and ill, are with us always.