While I was obsessed with saying goodbye to my second childhood (aka college) yesterday, I totally missed out on the news that a hero from my original childhood had passed away.
I fondly remember reading Maurice Sendak’s books at a very young age…though I have to note that I didn’t enjoy In the Night Kitchen until I was an adult. Clearly my parents agreed with banning the book with the naked kid – at least from their home.
I read Where the Wild Things Are, of course, and add to that Chicken Soup with Rice, Pierre, and Higglety Piggelty Pop!, and you’ve got a sweet afternoon reading list. I was a big fan. Maurice Sendak’s books were written to inspire the imagination, and that’s exactly what they did.
Yes, I loved the author as a child. But as I got older, and began doing research about my favorite writers, I began to respect him simply as a person. He could put my emotions about life into words in a way that, as a teenager, I couldn’t do myself. Take his comments from Virginia Haviland’s 1972 article in the Christian Science Monitor, for example.
“I believe there is no part of our lives, our adult as well as child life, when we’re not fantasizing, but we prefer to relegate fantasy to children, as though it were some tomfoolery only fit for the immature minds of the young. Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”
I’ve always been terrified of growing up (hence my obsession with saying goodbye to CoMo) because I don’t want to lose the ability to live in my imagination. It’s such a huge part of my identity. As we get older, so much of our brains get taken up with stupid things like “responsibility” and “maturity,” or even the dreaded “reality.” Maurice Sendak understands that even as adults, there’s a part of us that still lives in our own daydreams; as an adult, he also understands the painful reality: it’s no longer socially acceptable to exist in a fantasy world whenever you please.
That’s why I love working with kids. It’s why Mr. Sendak wrote for them. It’s okay for them to still “be kids” and have those crazy thoughts. At the middle school age, they’re just starting to move over into that craziness and dream world not being okay. I try, at least once a week, to make sure that their imaginations are still going strong…that the institution of school, the reality of their lives, and the existence of Jersey Shore haven’t ruined them.
Now, many people would call adults who love imagination so much “crazy” or “unbalanced.” Don’t worry, Maurice had an answer for this, as well. In the Guadrian in 2011, he admitted his faults.
“I’m totally crazy, I know that. I don’t say that to be a smartass, but I know that that’s the very essence of what makes my work good. And I know my work is good. Not everybody likes it, that’s fine. I don’t do it for everybody. Or anybody. I do it because I can’t not do it.”
Just to let you in on a little secret, in case you don’t already know? Kids fucking HATE being treated like second-class citizens. And why not? Kids are, in all ways, just as smart today as they will be in ten or twenty years. The main difference is that they don’t have the experiences or wisdom that we do. But they are still intelligent, they still have thoughts, and they are still capable of making judgements for themselves.
A book that is too simple, or doesn’t challenge them will swiftly get one of my students saying “I hate reading, Miss.” I mean, yeah, my students are on the low end of reading proficient…but that doesn’t mean that they should be reading Amelia Bedelia every day. They need to be reading books with depth, books that make them think – even if they aren’t written for, as I call us, “old adults.” Some of the most popular adult books have less depth to them than any of Sendak’s books for children.
Maurice Sendak says that he doesn’t particularly like or write for children. This may be true, I didn’t have the privilege of knowing him personally, so I can’t be sure. But what I can say with certainty is that he understands them.
As I mentioned before, Maurice and I both know that children want to be treated as intelligent beings, not something just one step above the family pet. So, as he notes in the interview with Stephen Colbert earlier this year, they know pain. Yes, we want to protect our students, our kids, from the evils of the world…but if they never learn how to cope with suffering, fear, or pain, what will they do when forced out into the real world?
One of the safest ways that I can imagine – and one that I still endorse for myself whenever I’m dealing with an unknown – to prepare for something is to read about it in a narrative. We’ve known this for years, since the development of folk tales and Greek myths. We just forget, in this day and age of education, that sometimes the best way to teach something is what’s worked for centuries.
Mr. Sendak, however, has not forgotten. He bemoans the loss of intelligent children’s literature and has continued to offer children and their parents thoughtful books to help them learn about life. His advice for parents on how to treat their children?
“Take them for what they are.”
Excellent advice, if I can give my own opinion as a teacher, and as a former child. If you’re interested in catching Colbert’s sweet mention of his fallen author comrade, indulge in the link below, which I borrowed from in the preceeding paragraphs. And by all means, watch the full interview on their site as well.
I gave a tip of the hat of my own at school today by reading Where the Wild Things Are to my kids and having them emulate his style. They rolled their eyes, of course, but even they noticed how Sendak’s writing has influenced the class, so they rolled with it.
Every day that I let my kids have “unstructured social development periods” – also known as the colloquialism “free time” – I remind them of the rules, sit down at my desk, and say, “Let the wild rumpus start!”
Only now, for the next few weeks, that line will be even more sentimental.