(This is part 1 of 4)
One: Wild Things
Maurice Sendak once told me of the furor that followed the publication of his children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. By pictures and elementally simple language, the story follows a small boy to bed, and then into his vivid, funny, and sometimes disquieting imagination as the bedroom itself morphs into a terrible woods and frightening creatures appear: the wild things. Many parents and some reviewers were downright upset that small children would see such stuff. They believed it would damage the children, implanting frights and fears in innocent brains, inspiring nightmares. Sleep? Sendak hath murdered sleep.
But the book prevailed, Sendak told me, because the book was right. It was the tender-hearted parent, the hyper-solicitous reviewer that was wrong. Far from inaugurating fears in children, such books as his gave a habitation and a name to fears the children already experienced, but amorphously, perplexedly.
One of the most important commandments for the creation of an effective children’s tale is: thou shalt not condescend!
Adults who write to their image of a child, rather than writing to genuine children, do in a real sense utter baby talk. And they miss the mark of a child’s intense experience. They make a conventional assumption of pastel innocence, angelic goodness, fresh unsullied souls (“trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home”)—and in consequence their language lisps, their menu of topics is reduced to the sugar cookie, and their attitude is offensive. Even as they presume to know better than the child, they present a teller and a tale too simple and simply less than a child can (and out to, and wants to) experience. Simpletons tell simplistic tales.
But in fact, as Maurice Sendak knows and has demonstrated over and over (In the Night Kitchen, Outside Over There), stories can embrace all of the basic truths of this existence. They can confront every form of difficulty (Remember? Remember? don’t you remember the thicket in which you lived as a child?) because children are already experts in difficulty! And having both acknowledged and named the difficulties which children had only callowly sensed before, the plots of these stories can carry the child through difficulty toward a blessed, credible conclusion. And such conclusions to plots are, as you know, solutions to problems, now discovered not in rational explanations, but in experience.