Thursday 12 December 2019

Farewell, Maurice . . . and thanks for scaring us all silly

Heidi Scrimgeour's young sons were enchanted by the children's books of the late Maurice Sendak

I didn't discover Maurice Sendak's bewitching books until I had children of my own.

My son's beloved 'fairy' godmother gave him a copy of In the Night Kitchen for Christmas, when he was almost two years old. He's seven now, and it's still a regular bedtime story in our house. But few books have stood the test of time like that, first earning the affection of a toddler with a voracious appetite for books, then remaining a firm favourite well into the more discerning days of boyhood.

These days my sons gravitate towards more sophisticated bedtime reading, preferring David Walliams' Gangsta Granny, anything by Roald Dahl, the Hiccup collection by Cressida Cowell and, in the top spot, the Harry Potter series. And yet they never seem to tire of Sendak's classics.

They were largely unsentimental when we cleared the bookshelves of 'babyish' board books to make room for boxed sets of these weightier tomes -- until we came to In The Night Kitchen, which they resolutely refused to part with. I was quietly relieved, because it holds great sentimental value for me too.

But my first reaction to Sendak's stories was consternation. My son's godmother has a distinctive flair for choosing birthday trinkets that he treasures, but this was a dark, disturbing tale of a boy who wakes to the sound of a 'racket' in the kitchen and ends up falling through the darkness, naked, into the hands of three bizarrely identical bakers.

So why do my sons love this story so? Much has been written about the appeal of Sendak's books, particularly since his death this month at the age of 83. Any effort to probe too deeply into the whys and wherefores of their enthrallment with this book seems like an encroachment on the sanctity of childhood, so I tread carefully.

"It's funny," says the seven-year-old, grinning broadly. But why? "Because you can see his privates."

Ah. Sendak's illustration of the naked Mickey prompted an outcry when the book was published in 1970, and earned it a place on the sinisterly-named American Library Association's 'Most Challenged List' -- meaning that readers regularly objected to its content.

But I suspect it wasn't really the line drawing of a smiling, naked boy that unnerved parents. Perhaps that's just a neat scapegoat -- an easy reason to decry a book that children love but which baffles adults.

When Mickey narrowly escapes being baked alive, I feel an overwhelming sense of unease. But my sons laugh out loud at the sight of a tiny hand, not waving but drowning, poking through the cake batter.

Careful not to put words into their mouths, I try to establish if they find anything frightening about such a narrative. Apparently not.

"I like this book because it's funny that Mickey swims in the milk. And it's funny that he was wearing cake mixture and gets baked in a cake, because that couldn't happen, could it?"

It's the almost imperceptible hint of a question at the end of that sentence that alerts me to the possibility that Sendak's stories serve a real, soothing purpose.

Maybe there's something reassuring about exploring your worst, irrational anxieties through a book, safe in the cosy confines of a trusted adult's arms.

My mother-in-law -- an education professional and herself a gifted buyer of books for her grandchildren -- agrees.

'The opportunity to explore and learn to deal with the fright response while snuggled up to an adult who you know can keep you safe from the biggest monster in the world is a valuable thing," she explains.

"Even as grown-ups, the scariest things we have to deal with -- those that induce the highest anxiety levels -- are the 'what ifs' and the not-quite-seen but powerfully-envisioned monsters of our imaginings -- fear of desertion or rejection or death. And at one level, at least, fairgrounds remind us that fear can also be pleasurable."

I'd rather venture into the darkness of the Night Kitchen than stomach the incessant, artificial cheeriness of many children's books. Dora the Explorer depresses me -- it's abnormal to remain irrepressibly bubbly whilst being stalked by a conniving, thieving fox.

In contrast, the chilling starkness of Sendak's stories give me hope. In them, sad and scary things are portrayed as inevitabilities, but exposing that darker side of life somehow causes it to lose its sting.

In the end, Mickey leaves the Night Kitchen and is safely returned to his bed, and in the morning there is cake. And in Where The Wild Things Are Max gets sent to bed without supper. He travels 'all through the night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year' to where the wild things are, but eventually he, too, returns safely to his room.

Where, Sendak tells us, he found his supper waiting for him. "And it was still hot."

Irish Independent

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