On Tuesday, Maurice Sendak passed away at age 83. One of the world’s most influential children’s authors, his seminal work, “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963), can be found on most bookshelves of young and old alike. His beautiful writing style of simplistic prose, combined with lush illustrations from his own self-taught hand, earned extensive praise and many accolades during his lifetime.
Fortunately, Mr. Sendak’s extensive body of work will live on for future generations of eager readers. Unfortunately, only a few modern writers have decided to emulate his lifelong quest to create the perfect book for kids.
It wasn’t always that way. Popular children’s authors, including Robert McCloskey (“Make Way for Ducklings”), Louis Slobodkin (“The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree”), Hardie Gramatky (“Little Toot”), Maud and Miska Petersham (“The Rooster Crows”), Margaret Wise Brown (“Goodnight Moon”) and Ludwig Bemelmans (“Madeline”), used to create beautiful volumes of work without succumbing too often to political correctness and pet issues. Various publishing houses of children’s literature, such as Little Golden Books, produced family-friendly and kid-friendly books for wider readership. Even authors who occasionally fell into the political correctness trap, like Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, created many books that didn’t fit into those narrow parameters.
Today, that’s not necessarily the case. While some modern children’s authors continue to create fun, playful books, there are many who do quite the opposite. Homosexual issues, cleaning the environment and healthy lifestyles have entered the realm of children’s literature. Some of the more controversial examples include Leslea Newman’s “Heather Has Two Mommies,” Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson’s “And Tango Makes Three,” and Ruby Roth’s “Vegan is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action.”
This is not to say that I feel these books shouldn’t have been written or sold in the marketplace. It’s ultimately up to parents to decide what books they want to purchase and read to their children. At the same time, it doesn’t makes any sense why a parent would want to introduce books on controversial subjects to impressionable young minds. In my view, a child’s early introduction to reading and learning should include classic literature, fantasy and great adventures, and treasured stories written by authors like Sendak.
Yet it could have been very different for Sendak. The Jewish-born author grew up in a working-class family in New York, lost relatives in the Holocaust, and publicly revealed in 2008 that he was a homosexual. Hence, he could have written very different children’s books - and perhaps still maintained a fair chunk of his loyal audience. But that’s not what he did. His idols in writing reportedly included Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. He also had a great love for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, noting in a PBS interview, “When Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain. … I don’t need to. I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart.”
It was this appreciation for great literature and great music that inspired him to write great works of children’s literature. “Where the Wild Things Are” takes a simple story of a young child, Max, who has been sent to his room without any supper after “making mischief of one kind and another.” A huge forest grows in his room, and he eventually sets sail to the land of the Wild Things. He tames the scary monsters with the magic trick of “staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once,” becomes their king, and a “wild rumpus” ensues. But after getting hungry and a bit lonely, he decides to set sail back home - where his supper, “still hot,” was waiting for him.
In other words, Sendak wrote a children’s book (which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1963) without spouting off politically correct nonsense such as hugging trees, saving animals and suggesting we eat more fruits and vegetables. It certainly sounds like a pretty radical concept in this day and age. But if you go to a bookstore or the library, you can see for yourself.
I’ve read Sendak’s book to my four-year-old son, Andrew, on multiple occasions, and he still loves it. Why? It’s upbeat and fun. The language isn’t preachy. The artwork is superb. It helps you use your imagination. And maybe, just maybe, my little boy will want to be King Max of the “Wild Things” one day.
Life is short, the world is difficult, and time is precious. Let children be children, and allow them to escape into a fantasy land where they can play with monsters and have not a care in the world. That’s what Maurice Sendak set out to do — and accomplished. Our young ones have been enriched, and will continue to be enriched, by always fondly remembering where the wild things are.
Michael Taube is a former speechwriter with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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