Maurice Sendak and the “Bullshit of Innocence”

I enjoyed this Believer magazine interview with Maurice Sendak. It was one of his last.

Maurice Sendak didn’t sugar-coat reality for his audience, which happened to consist primarily of kids. In the interview, he says “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

That’s a nice, blunt answer to the romantic rhetoric of childhood, eh? Maurice Sendak, with his childhood colored by tragic inheritances of the Holocaust– in which most of his family died– certainly understood that children know and feel more than most adults wish to acknowledge.

Perhaps owing to this mindfulness, his books tap the powerful, dirty and dynamic spaces of children’s hearts, like spiles in a maple tree. Though the initial sadness of a passage or picture may seem like a direct spear, it is the subsequent subtle drip that releases the reader (both child as well as adult) to get close to the truth slowly.  He positions the truth in between the written words and hides it in plain sight in his illustrations. He does this in part through the environments of his illustrations, like this one from the 1981 book Outside Over There:

Reading a letter from papa, in the 1981 book Outside Over There.

In the Believer interview, Sendak says that he never intended to be a children’s book artist. “What is a children’s-book artist?” he says, referring to how he was treated in the “adult world” of publishing. “A moron! Some ugly fat pip-squick of a person who can’t be bothered to grow up.”

Like Sendak, many authors who connect profoundly with young readers are people who do not frame themselves as authors for children. They are people who are aware that childhood is a foreign country– they do things differently there– but have ways of finding commonality in an environment shared by both adult and child. These writers, rather than “growing up,” grow laterally– and continue to do so until, as Sendak hoped to do, they die a “yummy death.”

The text of Emma Brockes’ Maurice Sendak interview can be found here, in the November/December 2012 issue of the Believer.

As I go back to navigating the worlds of childhood play, I am reminded of the first stanza of Wole Soyinka’s “The Children of this Land”:

The children of this land are old.

Their eyes are fixed on maps in place of land.

Their feet must learn to follow

Distant contours traced by alien minds.

Their present sense has faded into the past.

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