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?



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.

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."

The librarian's comment reveals the paradox of Maurice Sendak books: So often, children and adults disagree about them. She's on the defensive, her persnickety "we should not like" suggesting some standard of tact or dignity has been broached; meanwhile, the "sensitive" child is not terrified but enthralled, poring over the work with awe and wonder. It's not the child who feels threatened, but the adult.

This dual reception can split couples in half and spark household civil wars. "My mother refuses to read it to my girls, who are just-turned-two and almost-five," wrote one parent in an Amazon review of Outside Over There . "But my girls, both of them, ADORE this book. It seems to speak to them on some deep level."

In a review titled "My daughter adores this book even if I don't," another parent writes about In the Night Kitchen: "I didn't want to give this book five stars. I fought against it, because I don't particularly enjoy the book. The illustrations aren't that attractive to me and it took me a while to get used to the rhythm of the words." She goes on:

"Having said that, I give this book five stars because my daughter LOVES this book. I sometimes have to hide it at night because I'm so tired of reading the 'Mickey' book. Apparently Sendak knows an awful lot about what children like and how their minds work, because my daughter seldom tires of the story."

What does it mean when adults and children disagree? Why are kids drawn to books that frighten or perplex their parents? And to what degree can very young people be canny, sophisticated readers—able discern good books from bad, even as their grown-ups howl in protest?

Sendak has ventured some explanations. In 1964, when the American Library Association awarded Wild Things the Caldecott Medal for most distinguished illustrated book, the author used his acceptance speech to mount an articulate defense of child readers and their tastes. "[It's] an awful fact of childhood," he said. "The fact of [a child's] vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration—all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can only perceive as dangerous, ungovernable forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imaginary world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction."

He goes on to suggest that enduring children's books provide a portal into frightening--but ultimately redemptive—fantasies, dreamscapes where negative emotions can be grappled with and neutralized. "Through fantasy," he said, "Max, the hero of my book, discharges his anger against his mother and returns to the real world sleepy, hungry and at peace with himself ... it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things."

Parents, of course, must make value judgments—what's gained from fulfilling a child's fantasy of getting every book, comic, or film he asks for? But there are adult fantasies, too. We can become invested in the idea that childhood is a long, uninterrupted, and joyful idyll. And we yearn to prove a simple truth—that if we only shield our kids from complication, they'll grow up healthy, wise, and well-adjusted.

Yet the notion that we can provide this all-encompassing protection is a grown-up wish, no less fantastical for its fervency. Sendak—like Perrault, like Grimm, like Andersen—proceeds from the assumption that childhood is necessarily disorienting, frightening, and strange, at least sometimes. That's why children seek out challenging experiences in books—because their anxieties are safer, smaller, and more manageable on the page. Literature teaches them to cope, not cower. In this regard, kids' books—the best ones—can challenge and edify children the same way we expect adult literature to challenge and edify us. By dumbing down or censoring their libraries we deprive children of the crucial means of confronting, then mastering, their fears. We take away their hope of finally letting go.

Some adults will protest Bumble-Ardy's placement in the kiddie section, citing the revelry, duplicity, and perversity in its pages. The book will challenge parents for the same reason it will thrill children: briefly, it permits the dream of misbehavior without reproach or consequences. Ultimately, though, and like Wild Things, Bumble-Ardy offers children a safe way to explore the fantasy of parentlessness—before returning, content and reassured, to loving arms.