Maurice Sendak's Long History of Scaring Kids (and Their Parents)

With Bumble-Ardy, the author of Where the Wild Things Are has yet another unsettling children's book. Should adults be worried?

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HarperCollins

This month marks the end of a long, strange silence: For the first time in 30 years, Maurice Sendak has published a book that he both wrote and drew. Not that the 83-year-old author hasn't kept busy. In recent decades, Sendak's used his talents to interpret and augment other people's stories, working so prolifically that a brief summary is difficult. He's illustrated dozens of texts by authors including Herman Melville, Mother Goose, and Tony Kushner; he's pursued an entire second career as a set- and costume-designer for opera and ballet productions; he's contributed lavish, full-color broadsides for museum exhibitions and the theatre; finally, and most famously, he helped director Spike Jonze adapt his best-known work, Where the Wild Things Are, for the silver screen.

Meanwhile, a whole generation of Wild Things have grown up--grown old, even--in the interval between Sendak's last illustrated tale, Outside Over There, and his new book. Happily, Bumble-Ardy is worth the wait.

The tale begins with a short Prologue that unfurls a sorrowful backstory. Bumble-Ardy, a young pig, is an orphan. Even worse, our hero has never in his life enjoyed a birthday party. Bumble's Ma and Pa forgot his birthday (on purpose!) eight years in a row; "his immediate family," Sendak tells us, "frowned on fun." But when his parents are sent off to the slaughterhouse, Bumble's sweet Aunt Adeline adopts him, and gives him his first modest party—a cake with nine candles, a swell cowboy costume. She whistles on her way to work, happy to have done the right thing.

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That's when the real fun starts. Left to his own devices, Bumble invites nine hedonistic, brine-guzzling swine into Aunt Adeline's home for an evening of no-holds-barred revelry. Like Wild Things' Max, Bumble decides to buck authority, creating a supervision-free zone that both tantalizes and terrifies him. In this regard, Bumble-Ardy invites deliberate comparisons to its predecessor: Three consecutive, full-bleed, wordless party scenes echo Wild Things' "rumpus" section. This time, though, the fun is even more frightful. While Max travels to a remote island to party, Bumble-Ardy brings his monsters into the house. The guests, regaling themselves in strange, shape-shifting costumes, are a wonder, a menace, and a delight to behold.

But death, drunkenness, rebellion—in a children's book? It's not the first time Sendak has presented young readers with unnerving subject matter. Like Bumble-Ardy, previous Sendak works explore foundational childhood anxieties about abduction, transformation, mutiny, and abandonment. They crackle with the dark psychological vibrance of classic fairy tales. For instance: in the harrowing, eerie Outside Over There a resentful older sister doesn't watch her charge too closely—then the baby's stolen by goblins and replaced with an ice decoy. (Sendak has said the book was inspired by the Lindberg kidnapping.) For We Are All In the Dumps With Jack and Guy, Sendak mashed up two freestanding nursery rhymes; in his visual interpretation of the resultant text, two shantytown men rescue a homeless child from a pair of nefarious rats. The scraps of newspaper that blow throughout the book's barren landscape bear ominous headlines: "Leaner times, meaner times," reads one. "Big banks post big gains," reads another.

But without denying Sendak's complexity or artistry, some adult readers feel that kids' books should be—well, just for kids. Many parental reviews agree that, sure, the illustrations are good—but do they have to be so scary?

"It's about monsters, for crying out loud," writes M's Mommy, an Amazon reviewer, who was dissatisfied with Where the Wild Things Are. "Why on earth would you want to plant the idea of fear and worry with your children just before bedtime? I remember being terrified of this book when I was a child. I will not read it with my kids."

Of Outside Over There, Amazon reviewer Irma P. Persoff writes : "Yikes! If this is childhood imaginagtion [sic], maybe the makers of horror films should use kids for inspiration. This book made my son afraid that goblins would steal him away in the night, and that babies might be goblins... Don't read this to your toddler/preschooler/school-age/tween/teen-age kids!!!"

This accusation—scaremonger!—has hung around for much of Sendak's career. Wild Things was a critical and commercial smash upon its publication in 1963, but some readers deemed the book's now-familiar monsters to be too scary. Publisher's Weekly offered wary praise: "the illustrations are superb, but may well prove frightening." In The Journal of Nursery Education, a concerned librarian admonished Sendak, writing, "We should not like to have it left about where a sensitive child might find it to pore over in the twilight."

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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