Little White Lies, Where the Wild Things Are Issue

 

Every year, The American Library Association publishes a list of the most frequently ‘challenged’ books in American libraries, the books many people want withdrawn from the shelves lest young minds should be exposed to profanity, sexuality, or other undesirable influences.

 

The list includes many of the great works of American fiction: //Of Mice and Men//, //The Catcher in the Rye//, //The Color Purple//.  From Mark Twain to Judy Blume (the High Priestess of the challenged list), it is a revealing snapshot of the struggle between liberals and conservatives for the mind of the child.

 

From //Daddies Roomate// to //It’s Perfectly Normal// to //Heather Has Two Mommies//, the list runs the gamut of conservative night-horrors: homosexuality, sex, masturbation, single parentage, aetheism - all are present in this diabolical anti-canon. Even //Where’s Waldo// gets mentioned for the apparent presence of bare female breasts.

 

At 21 in the list is //In the Night Kitchen// by Maurice Sendak. Though written in 1970, this fairy story about a little boy (Mickey) and his fantastical journey through a world of milk, dough and homicidal bakers, continues to attract controversy, largely due to Mickey being naked for a significant part of the story. 

 

While some librarians first reacted by drawing Tipp-Ex pants over Mickey’s member, the free-flowing milky fluids, the batters, bottles and buildings, the pepperpots and asparagus spears, lent the book to a Freudian re-reading as an illustrated wet-dream of pre-pubescent homoeroticism. It was banned in several US states including Illinois, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Texas.

 

Such controversy might appear the reactionary lowing of middle-America when faced with the slightly risqué.  But Sendak’s work has repeatedly attracted such controversy largely because it is defiantly motivated by a subversive agenda, a struggle within children’s literature and illustration which has encapsulated some fifty years. What makes Sendak different, and so interesting, is that much of what his critics see is true. 

 

As a struggling young illustrator in 1960s New York, Sendak’s great mentor and friend was the children’s author Ruth Krauss, a graduate of the Bank Street College of Education.  Bank Street is the locus of the gradual revolution in American children’s entertainment, an experimental institute staffed by a collection of teachers, psychologists, and researchers who came to advocate a new interpretation of childhood. 

 

As Sendak recently told Jennifer Ludden of America’s National Public Radio:

 

//It was just at the point of Freud and children, and Bank Street School, hot, fresh post-war interest in not letting another generation down, renewed interest in children’s language, thinking, emotions, physical and mental development.  Ruth was a Bank Street graduate so all her books had to do with the mightiness of the child, his colossal ego, vanity, and selfishness. The whole world was him or her.//

 

Sendak had struggled to find a publisher due to his ‘European’ style - big-headed Jewish children with bellies - until Krauss gave him his first major commission.  Krauss encouraged Sendak to think critically about the meaning of his work, to re-appraise the inherent prejudices and conservatism of children’s literature at the time, including its reassertion of traditional gender roles and a strictly limited, safe, morality.

 

But perhaps most importantly for Sendak, whose childhood was blighted by illness and a family decimated and traumatised by the Holocaust, the Bank Street School was not just a celebration of the egotistical selfishness of the child but the pleasure of childhood, the unrestrained id, the pursuit of pleasure. 

 

It is this just this approach that is at the root of the //In The Night Kitchen// controversy. Sendak himself has acknowledged that the book has not just a theme of sensuality, but a sexual element.

 

//The astonishing and infuriating business on that book is that it’s a rather complex work. To have it reduced, so to speak, to a child’s penis is embarrassingly silly.  That anyone would carry on about that issue does not speak well for our culture.

 

Of course (Mickey has sexual feelings).  We have them immediately on arrival. There’s nothing in the world that you can do that is not sexual.  And the creative act is composed of its sexual components. And I don’t mean vivid, livid sex, I mean the component of sexuality, sensuality, eroticism is part of every thing. It’s what blesses our lives. Instead of seeing it in an accusatory way, blameful way, rather see it for the beautiful thing that it is.//

 

Thirty-eight years after the books publication Sendak confirmed to Patricia Cohen of the New York Times that he is gay, his long-term partner - psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn - having died in 2007. He had seemingly kept it secret until the age of 80. But times had changed, Sendak was now the grand old man of children’s illustration, and few felt it was appropriate to comment.

 

But the truth is that Sendak’s sexuality probably explain his sensual preoccupations and it is this that is expressed in his illustrations for //In the Night Kitchen//. There is an innocent homoeroticism, to his illustrations, which happen to be for a children’s book. The real question is whether that should be a problem. It was not the first time his work had questioned the boundary of the acceptable.

 

Seven years earlier, Sendak’s  //Where the Wild Things Are//, also attracted controversy on its publication, though for different reasons. In the book, protagonist Max is sent to his room without any supper for misbehaving.  His anger becomes manifest in a fantastical nightforest which grows in his room and allows access to the Wild Things, whom he tames purely by his own fierceness.  Eventually tired with the fantasy he returns home to find his dinner waiting.

 

The book was famously criticised by child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in an article in //Ladies’ Journal// which argued that Max’s abandonment in his bedroom without supper, and the terrible images of the Wild Things, would make children afraid of the dark and reassert their fundamental fear of desertion by their parents.

 

//Sendak failed to understand..the incredible fear it evokes in the child to be sent to bed without supper, and this by the first and foremost giver of food and security-his mother.//

 

Over forty years later, talking to Ludden, Sendak is still angered when reflecting on Bettelheim:

 

//I wasn’t going to lie to readers. I was going to risk a lot of outrage from librarians, and that creep of all creeps psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim.  Known by me personally as Benno Brutalheim.  He wrote a lot of things which completely destroyed the book.  (in stereotypical Austrian accent) “Don’t leave the kid in a room without a light because ze kid might have a heart attack!. Mr Brutalheim, may he rest in peace”.//

 

Bettelheim later wrote //The Uses of Enchantment//, still the seminal text on the analysis of fairy tales from the perspective of developmental psychology.  Bettelheim takes the most well-known fairy tales in their traditional, often lurid, form, and deconstructs the seething subtext of Odeipal tensions and fantasies beneath each.  The purpose of the fairy tale, he argues, is to offer encouragement and guidance through the transition from childhood to independence. It is an analysis that could have been written specifically for //Where the Wild Things Are//.

 

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Bettelheim’s critism of Sendak is that it stung him so much.  Most authors and illustrators would probably care little about the criticisms of a relatively psychologist.  But Bettelheim’s opinion mattered, because of the intensity of the times and the importance of the issue, and because Sendak is an author who understands and operates within the realm of the subconscious.

 

This can best seen in Sendak’s most famous, and cherished, works.  //In the Night Kitchen// and //Where the Wild Things Are// have some striking similarities. Both stories are dreamlike, set at night and begin in the bedrooms of the children. That Max and Mickey are clearly dreaming dissipates some of the terror of the bakers or the wild things, while not weakening their symbolism as threats which must be defeated by the strength of the child’s will.

 

Sendak himself has described the books as part of a trilogy with the much darker //Outside Over There//, in whicha girl’s jealousy and neglect of her baby brother results in him being kidnapped by goblins. As with the other two books, the protagonist (Ida) must travel into a fantasy world to reclaim the baby and resolve the story.

 

In //The Art of Maurice// Sendak, he stated: //They are all variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings - anger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy - and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives//.

 

Sendak drew inspiration for the books from troubling aspects of his own life, and his own fears.  He has described //In the Night Kitchen// as ‘about death’ and stated that the bakers were a conscious reference to the Holocaust.  He has described the Wild Things as a child’s view of adults with their fearsome oversized heads, hairy noses and teeth.  And //Outside Over There//, a work he particularly cherishes, is inspired by his sister who cared for him as a child, and his obsession with the kidnapping and murder of the ‘Lindbherg baby’.

 

These are not the usual sources for children’s books, but then Sendak states that he does not write ‘for’ children but out of a fierce duty to what he sees as ‘truthfullness’, born directly out of Bank Street and Ruth Krauss, as he related to Jennifer Ludden he is driven by: 

 

//A Fierce honestly to not let the kid down. To not let the kid get punished. To not suffer the child to be with dealt with in a boring simpering crushing of the spirit kind of way. …The books came my outlet, my rebirth, for the kind of kid I wished I could have been. //

 

Thus Sendak elides the progressive project he embodies, and has largely succeeded in spreading, his personal therapy, and the emotional support of the spirit of the child into one whole.  But most of all it has been a struggle fought within Sendak himself, ‘notoriously unhappy’ in his own words, but finding peace in his old age, in his work with a new generation of illustrators, and in the exercise and exorcism of his troubled, fertile imagination. 

 

//My work was an act of exorcism, an act of finding solutions so that I could have peace of mind and be an artist and function in the world as a human being and a man. My mind doesn't stray beyond my own need to survive.//

(Steven Heller's Innovators of American Illustration)

©2017 BY JAMES BRAMBLE