Sunday, October 11, 2009

Maurice Sendak and "Where the Wild Things Are"

ONE of the fascinating things about literature -- especially popular literature -- is the way it tracks the contours of the society that produces it. which is a fancy way of saying, maurice sendak books like "where the wild things are" not only reflected those churnings in american culture in the late 50s/early 60s, it helped produce what we learned to call "the 60s."

sendak, of course, is in the news because of friday's opening of the long-awaited spike jonze-helmed "where the wild things are" film. HERE is my story from today's LATimes, where i try to set sendak and his most famous book in cultural context. i spoke to sendak, jonze, librarian/ children's writer susan patron, and historian of children's lit seth lerer for the piece.

in the years before "wild things" came out, in 1963, the big kid-lit awards were being won by books of nursery rhymes and american patriots. robert mccloskey and e.b. white had published wonderful book in the protestant-pastoral tradition. (dr. seuss, of course, had hit his stride, though, i'm told, wasnt taken very seriously by the field's gatekeepers.)

something i wish i'd had room to get into the piece: as lerer points out, the 20th century was the first in which children typically had rooms of their own -- dickens grew up with several other kids in the bedroom with him. this allowed kids to develop their own private imaginations, but also generated anxieties -- will the room be here when i wake up? are there monsters in here with me? -- that sendak's "wild things" was one of the first to address so eloquently.

i will post at least one more "wild things" related piece as we build up to the film's release.


Sara S said...

Kids in their rooms alone. Love that comment. I'm thinking of Poltergeist--wasn't the young kid in the room alone with a clown. And then you have one of the most famous kid-in-room scenes with Proust -- as Ian would say "a long time ago." And then "Goodnight Moon," which is a spooky, sad-feeling little book if there ever was one.

Scott Timberg said...

indeed, all of those are in the same category... and "goodnight moon," which i find an extremely strange book, is full of that anxiety lerer is talking about. (at least, it is when i read it.)

Pete Bilderback said...

Nice article. I think Sendak touched on something very deep about the nature of childhood in this book. Children's imaginations are full of menace, magical thinking and even cruelty, a fact that too often adults are eager to deny. European fairy-tales often capture this sense of menace and cruelty, but Sendak brought these qualities into the modern world where they had been repressed by the invention of concepts like "innocence."

Cicely said...

I was pretty alarmed by the essay in the New York Times Book Review last week that questioned whether kids "actually like" this book. Bruce Handy claims that Maurice Sendak's brand of brilliance is better appreciated by parents than by children. Another article I read about WTWTA recently, though, said that when it came out parents were not impressed by it but that all the kids were asking about it at the library.

Certainly re-reading my childhood's classics has given me a different perspective on them (the page in "Goodnight Moon" that held nothing more the words "Goodnight nobody" slayed me). So is it true that the children's books most admired by adults are not really suited for actual children? Can't one please both? Animated movies can be fun for kids and smart enough for adults, like "The Incredibles" or "Toy Story."

Cicely said...

this also reminds me of a wonderful New Yorker article by Jill Lepore about "Stuart Little" and the reshaping of children's literature:

Scott Timberg said...

cicely -- you make an important point, that the relationship of the kid and adult audiences for children's books (or kids stories, whether literary or cinematic) is complicated. part of the breakthrough of sesame st, electric company, etc was the in-jokes for the adults.
the best of sendak seems to hit a sweet spot that works with kids (who he treats as sophisticated) and adults. this is not so easy to translate to the big screen, as the jonze films demonstrates.

Scott Timberg said...

to pete: well said. as someone who knew mr. bilderback quite well in seventh grade, i can vouch that he is an appropriate debunker of the notion of childhood innocence.