Maurice Sendak Scared Children Because He Loved Them

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The author, who died this week at 83, believed kids are able to handle dark, complicated stories.

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It is rare for an artist to remain beloved throughout his lifetime. Attitudes shift and tastes evolve. As they do, even hallowed creators and entertainers watch themselves become relics in their own time.

The iconic author and illustrator Maurice Sendak was a rare exception. An artist whose vision never fell out of favor, he remained prolific and popular until the end. Yesterday, news of Sendak's death at age 83 spawned an outpouring of grief and adoration. Twitter and Facebook swelled with talk of wild rumpuses and night kitchens. Fan artwork, blogged tributes, and resurfaced memorabilia were shared and shared again. Articles related to Sendak's death were the top stories at The New York Times and NPR.

In recent years, his best-known book, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), experienced a massive renaissance, aided by tributes from high-profile fans like Dave Eggers, Spike Jonze, and Brian Selznick. In his final year of life, at age 83, he not only released another lavish volume, Bumble-Ardy (2011)—he proved remarkably adept at navigating our modern media gauntlet. His final interview on NPR's Fresh Air, an uncompromising meditation on his own mortality, made listeners weep. In January, he drew belly laughs sniffing markers with Stephen Colbert.

I had the tremendous pleasure of interviewing Sendak in 2011. He was my favorite author growing up, and it was a thrill to ask him about latest book. In addition to generous insights, I received more than one dose of his famous wryness—like when I off-handedly mentioned I planned to have children of my own one day.

"You plan? You plan?" he howled. "You should take a parenting test!"

Caustic, maybe, but kids were serious business for Sendak. The decision to have them, or not, was no trifle for him.

"Children surviving childhood is my obsessive theme and my life's concern," Maurice Sendak told NPR in 1993. His lush visual idiom managed to evoke the strange—and sometimes malign—intensity of real childhood, as fey, unruly protagonists sparred with adversaries (fanged monsters and imperfect parents). All his work demonstrates a strong desire, and uncanny ability, to capture the eerie vividness of youth and its crucibles. "I am trying to draw the way children feel," Sendak told The New Yorker in an early profile. His ambiguous phrasing is apt—as though "the way children feel" was both what he tried to draw, and how.

Well-known for trafficking in the dark psychological undertones of classic fairy tales Sendak's proclivity for Sturm und Drang earned him some vociferous critics. Outside Over There (1981), for instance, received both praise and censure for its harrowing depiction of an infant turned to ice and kidnapped by goblins. The book was Sendak's own grappling with an image that haunted him since 1932, glimpsed when he was four: a ghastly newspaper photograph showing the body of Charles Lindbergh's murdered son. This willingness to explore darker subject matter made some books, like Wild Things, beloved, and others controversial (even banned).

Still, Sendak railed against what he perceived to be an insidiously overprotective parent culture. The evidence does suggest we adults sometimes take our good-natured desire to protect children from unpleasantness to perverse depths. I see it in the phenomenon of "helicopter parenting," for instance—the misguided attempt to thwart all potential pitfalls through hovering omnipresence. We seek to foil internal darkness, too, by plying young people with antidepressants and anxiety medication. And we're highly sensitive about showing children any sort of "challenging" material, even in cases when censorship verges on absurd. The new documentary Bully, which depicts the brutal realities of life in the hallway and playground, was initially deemed "too violent" for children, the very audience it portrays, and attempts to reach.

But it is this expurgated account of childhood—what he called "the great 19th-century fantasy that paints childhood as an eternally innocent paradise"—that Maurice Sendak fought tooth and claw, horn and beak. He knew that children are unavoidably beset by grief, yearning, anxiety, and rage, the same wild and turbulent emotions that seize adult human beings. "To master these forces," Sendak said, in his 1964 Caldecott acceptance speech, "children turn to fantasy: that imagined world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction."

Psychologists, child specialists, and literary critics alike argue that stories allow children to tame threatening feelings that might otherwise overwhelm them. In The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggests that fairy tales help children externalize, and ultimately diffuse, their deepest anxieties. "The child must somehow distance himself from the content of his unconsciousness and see it as something external to him [if he is] to gain any sort of mastery over it," Bettelheim writes. This is why so many fairy tales take place in the deep and mysterious woods--it is the realm of the subconscious, where the wandering child-mind can encounter its fears and wants in reified form, then neutralize them.

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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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