Sendak's Lessons Go Beyond the ABCs
I didn’t grow up reading stories by Maurice Sendak, who died last week. His signature children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, came out when I was in high school. Just before I graduated from college In the Night Kitchen made its controversial debut, featuring a floating tyke whose pjs vanish in a dream, exposing his private parts. The unclad boy then falls into a bowl of batter - and gets half-baked – before he escapes from the oven.
Neither book was typical kiddie-lit fare. Some adults deemed the first too scary. The second, too explicit. Provocative.
Yet, in the mid-eighties, my son and daughter looked forward to spending their reading time with Sendak’s Max and his wild things. And before my children celebrated double-digit birthdays, they were dancing along to the animated television production Really Rosie, based on the four books of Sendak's Nutshell Library.
The Really Rosie series has a Sesame Street feel to it. Alligators All Around teaches the letters of the alphabet, and One was Johnny – how to count. Calendar months are featured in Chicken Soup and Rice. Three very educational texts - none of which, however, come close to conveying the "suitable moral" in Pierre, the fourth book.
Parents know that as sure as February follows January, B follows A, and two follows one, testy toddler personalities can take the place of cooing babies – almost overnight. Pierre is that anti-infant. He doesn’t give a teething dribble about anything - affection, breakfast choices, clowning, or parental reprimands. He makes this very clear by chanting “I don’t care,” ten times over - to Mom and seven times - to Dad, both of whom leave their son alone with his indifference – an indifference a visiting lion finds quite appetizing.
Pierre soon finds himself inside the lion's gut, reconsidering his world view. He pops out after a doctor holds the creature upside-down – and shakes.
Sendak’s stories will continue to lead children to dark dens of forest and mind. But there’s an escape hatch on every oven door, a way out of the wilderness - and even a beast’s belly. The getaways take the “s” out of the scare he is sometimes faulted with putting his young readers through, and get his impish audience to – like Pierre at the end of his tale - care.