Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sendak's Trilogy and The Secret Life of Children

A few months ago, we started reading Maurice Sendak's books to Lentil. We've had "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen" for a while, but Lentil wasn't ready to appreciate them yet. We had read certain books over and over again, and we were ready for something new. She loved them. The stories are not at all sensible or logical, and the art is beautiful. She looked at the pictures so closely and was so quiet while I was reading. The book jacket for "In the Night Kitchen" mentions that these books are part of trilogy, according to Sendak. Since Lentil liked these books so much, I decided to hunt down the third.

The local children's book store had not heard of this, so I turned to the Internet. So the third book is "Outside Over There." Most of the reviews on Amazon are positive, but a few parents were horrified by the book. The plot involves a young girl has to rescue her kidnapped baby sister from goblins (who look like babies) while their parents aren't paying attention. In the reviews on Amazon, the parents felt that the book didn't provide reasonable role-modeling of parents and might give their children nightmares; however, they did like the Wild Things and Night Kitchen. I found this odd, because parents are entirely absent from those books, and scary things happen in those books too (Max meets monsters and Mickey is baked in a cake.)

Although the three books don't have the same characters, the books are a trilogy because they are thematically related. According to Sendak, the books are about

how children master various feelings — anger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy — and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives

A recent article in the New York Times, Maurice Sendak’s Concerns, Beyond Where the Wild Things Are mentions that Sendak had relentless nightmares about kidnapping. Sendak is also haunted by a terrible sense of inadequacy, even now as he approaches his 81. Journalist Patricia Cohen wrote:

That Mr. Sendak fears that his work is inadequate, that he is racked with insecurity and anxiety, is no surprise. For more than 50 years that has been the hallmark of his art. The extermination of most of his relatives and millions of other Jews by the Nazis; the intrusive, unemployed immigrants who survived and crowded his parents’ small apartment; his sickly childhood; his mother’s dark moods; his own ever-present depression — all lurk below the surface of his work, frequently breaking through in meticulously drawn, fantastical ways.

As children mature, it is good and appropriate for them to separate from their parents and be able to function independently. The degree of separation and independence, of course, varies with age and the personality of the child. It is fiction to suggest that a parent can be present for every moment of a child's life. I believe that children can have complex internal lives, right before our eyes at an age much younger age than we expect. Last month on This American Life, Episode 361 entitled "Fear of Sleep" was on sleep disorders, both medical and emotional. Act IV was about a boy, Seth Lind, who saw Stanley Kubrick's The Shining when he was six years old and had trouble falling asleep for the next two years. The horror movie particular affected him because the movie was told from the point of view of a young child. As part of the segment, Seth interviews his mother about that period of time. She had no idea that he was so tormented and recalled that he was a happy, go-lucky kid. Later in the segment, Seth is asked why he never talked to his parents about his fear of sleep. His answer was along the lines of: in the end, everyone goes to sleep and you have to deal with it on your own. At the risk of sounding cynical, I think there's an essential truth there. We're much better off giving children support, skills, and freedom, than attempting the impossible task of monitoring them 24/7.

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