Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Article: Maurice Sendek and the Frightening Children's Story

Oh my goodness, I am so behind. Thanks for sticking with the blog, even when I am MIA!

As many of you know, Maurice Sendek, beloved children's author responsible for such wonderful books as Where the Wild Things Are, Outside Over There, and In the Night Kitchen, died recently. Everyone has been doing touching retrospectives of the man, and one theme that jumped out at me was something we have addressed about scary fairy tales: children are capable of more than we give them credit for. Children need to be told the truth. Children need to address scary concepts, because childhood is frightening. It is a time of scary changes, where everything is new and uncertain. They know bad things are happening, but no one will explain it to them. Sendek didn't pull punches in his books, and addressed issues that sometimes made parents squeamish.

Amanda Katz, in in the NPR article Who's Afraid of Sendek's Stories? Adults, Mostly, discusses her personal experience with Outside Over There, and how it's dark material gave narrative form to concepts she already experienced:
"In 1981, when Outside Over There was published, I was an older sister to a round-cheeked 1-year-old boy who looked not unlike Ida's baby sister: big eyes, silky blond hair. Little wonder that I was fascinated by these stories of girls working out their loyalty to siblings in a bewildering world. The duty to watch a baby, perhaps too much for a child who would rather play her horn, or read; the sense of dark forces brooding at the edge of the picture, like the incomprehensible adult tensions and constraints that float over the head of every child (those goblins are present from the very first page); the terrifying feeling of making a mistake, but also the hope that even a grievous error was one you yourself could remedy; even Sendak's surreal illustrations of goblins melting into water or Ida twisting in the sky: All of this made intuitive sense to me. It was a vision of the world that was not only comforting, by the end of the book, but somehow illustrative — of how to be responsible, of how to be brave, of how to live surrounded by the incomprehensible.
When I look at this book now, I feel that same haunting familiarity — and I also see why adults who did not grow up with it might suppose it a bizarre and even slightly creepy choice for children. A child abducted when you fail to watch, an impostor baby that melts in your arms, an absent father and a seemingly depressed mother, goblins, infant brides, children tumbling out of the house into midnight thunderstorms: Is this what you'd buy for your kid? ... Is this really what children want? For me, the answer was yes....
Sendak himself — who told Stephen Colbert in an interview this January that he did not write for children but simply wrote — somehow escaped our sentimental notions about the need to protect kids from the loss and peculiarity of life. In his books, children learn about things that are orderly — alligators all around and doing dishes, or the niceness of sipping chicken soup in January when slipping on the sliding ice. But he also shows them disorderly worlds beyond their own, ones full of goblins and wild things, that they can visit and still go home. Meanwhile, he reminds adults — even those of us who were once those young and fascinated readers, but who are grown now — to trust our children, who may in the end be less fearful of climbing outside than we are to watch them do it." (my emphasis)
Maria Konnikova, in the Scientific American article The Power of “Once upon a Time”: A Story to Tame The Wild Things, analysed the idea of the "once upon a time" in fairy tales as a way of distancing the reader from the story, so they can look at difficult situations safely. She then uses Sendek's books as examples of how stories let us live out our fears and anxieties safely so that we can be more prepared for them in the real world:
"[I]n a broader sense, I would argue that modern psychology has borne Sendak’s view of openness out repeatedly, in the development of cognitive behavioral therapies and the recognition that fantasy, play, the realm of the imaginary are just the right place to deal with “basic anxiety.” That in writing things down, talking them through, constructing distancing scenarios, we become better able to handle our fears and our anxieties, to deal with the problems of our everyday existence. For, Sendak didn’t just offer the darkness. He showed how Max and all his other creations could see past it and overcome the anxieties that were unavoidable in life. “His narrative is almost always about a child in danger whose best defense is imagination,” notes Cynthia Zarin notes in her 2006 New Yorker profile."
Michael Dirda agrees, in his Washington Post article Maurice Sendak’s imagination took him into the wild, and beyond. He discusses how frightening stories let children navigate dangerous situations safely, and learn from them.
"There’s darkness and violence and complexity throughout Sendak, just as there is throughout the fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen, just as there is in life. Sendak’s work allows children to come to terms with their fears and nightmares. The Wild Things can be tamed, turned into big teddy bears, no longer frightening monsters of the id.
It’s hardly an accident, then, that Sendak’s major works so often take the form of quests. The story opens in the “real” world, but the heroes or heroines soon journey into a strange fantasy realm populated by bizarre creatures; there they perform a daring act of courage and eventually return to where they began. Such tales clearly image aspects of “growing up.” But they are always initially unsettling."
Land Filler leads off her article in NewsdayMaurice Sendak stared down kids' fears, with one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes:
"'Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist,' Chesterton wrote. 'They already know that. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.'
Fear is integral to our childhoods. Everyone else is bigger, and much of each day is new. We fall, and bleed. There are ferocious dogs, and strange noises in the dark, and nightmares, and the contempt of other kids, and the screaming of angry adults.
And there is the news, on television and around the kitchen table, that a whole bunch of people in office buildings in New York City died, that a family was shot by its daddy, that there's a war on. Children know they aren't entirely safe.
That's why it's better to give a child a book full of fears to be faced than one that pretends there's nothing to be afraid of."
Johnathan Cott, in his fantastic Rolling Stone article Maurice Sendek, King of All the Wild Things, examines fairy tales and Sendek's work, and quotes Sendek's acceptance speech for the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Where The Wild Things Are:
 "[There are] games children must conjure up to combat an awful fact of childhood: the fact of their vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration – all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can perceive only as ungovernable and dangerous forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imagined world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction. Through fantasy, 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.
Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences.
That is obvious. But what is just as obvious – and what is too often overlooked – is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.
It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood – the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of All Wild Things – that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have."
Joe Fassler, in his article for The Atlantic, Maurice Sendak Scared Children Because He Loved Them, discussed modern parenting in light of this discussion:
"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."
He also frames the conversation in fairy tale terms:
"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.
Bettelheim offers the folktale classic 'Little Red Riding Hood' as one example. 'The kindly grandmother undergoes a sudden replacement by the rapacious wolf which threatens to destroy the child.' It's a terrifying transformation—unrealistic and, some might say, unnecessarily scary. 'But when viewed in terms of a child's way of experiencing,' Betteheim asks, 'is it really any more scary than the sudden transformation of his own kindly grandma into a figure who...humiliates him for a pants-wetting incident?' In other words, the wolf and grandmother are two sides of the same person, the physical embodient of a parent's bewildering duality. The fable helps the child reckon with the sudden, confounding changes that scare her."

I leave you with this conversation between Maurice Sendek and Stephen Colbert:

1 comment:

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