The Monstrous Taboo-Busting Sendak

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Last Tuesday, I was on a panel, “Wild Things and Other Taboos,” sponsored by The Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators, in conjunction with the exhibition Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work. Sendak was a taboo-buster who challenged the fundamental rules of children’s publishing. Everyone on the panel had a few minutes to discuss a taboo in relation to a book. I focused on Where the Wild Thing Are. This is an excerpt.

(Note: The exhibit features two hundred never-before-seen Sendak originals curated by rare-book dealers Justin G. Schiller and Dennis M. V. David. On display in the Society’s main gallery June 11 – August 17, 2013. A catalog Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work is also available, published by Abrams).

From Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work.

From Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work.

By the early to mid 1950s the US was in the throes of the Red Scare which mirrored anxieties about the Big Bomb and the Cold War. Fear fostered conformity. Taboos against various human activities and urges were invented to insure stability. Yet enforcing taboos is always an invitation to bust them wide open.

A postwar generation of artists, of which Maurice Sendak was a member, challenged pre-war values through systematic taboo busting. Artists of all kinds questioned blind authority; comics artists showed the unspeakable; rock n’ rollers played primitive beats, and a new kind of psychological satire was an antidote to American propriety.

Taboos ran rampant in the children’s book field too. The capricious messages from the mount about what was and was not appropriate for children to hear, see and read triggered Sendak’s ire and sparked his rebellions.

In the recently released documentary Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, Sendak says (in the penultimate interview before his death):

“There were lots of taboos in the children’s book world. The concepts of children and what they felt and thought, none of it was real. We wanted them to only think of bunny rabbits and lettuce leaves and blue skies and white clouds and shit like that. It really was like a conspiracy against children, which persists. The assumption is that children are innocent, vacant and mindless. Why give them anything?”

These taboos were handed down from librarian to librarian – guardians at the gate — and duly accepted by a complaint book industry, which simply wanted to sell units. If a book veered from the established norms it meant that librarians would likely ignore or worse, black list an artist, which was tantamount to commercial execution.

Most of these taboos were nuanced at best and arbitrary at worst. Like one that cropped up during a New York Times Best Illustrated Books jury, when Tomi Ungerer’s book about an old woman with a pet boa constrictor, titled Crictor, was disqualified for featuring the snake as a main character. A serpent, with all its evil conotations, had never been a hero before – how, the jurors asked, will a snake impact the child reader? But one member, Fritz Eichenberg, pulled Crictor out of the discard pile and fought successfully to give it an award, making the children’s world safe for snakes and more. . . . It only takes one dissent to overturn a taboo.

Sendak credits his own taboo busting, in large part, to Ungerer.

“I learned a lot from him,” he says in the film. “I learned to be braver then I was. . . .I’m proud of the fact that we helped change the scene in America so that children are dealt with like the intelligent little animals that we know they are.”

Where the Wild Things Are, published in, 1963 (which Sendak originaly wanted to call Where the Wild Horses Are) was the amalgamation of his earlier taboo-busting that started with Kenny’s Window, and continued through this next new period of picture book making.

Ursala Nordstrom, the legendary Harper’s editor, who launched the careers of Sendak and other artists and authors, known collectively as “Ursala’s Kids,” encouraged Maurice to write, what he called “very uncommercial books.”

For Sendak this meant foregoing usual cute fairy tale and moralistic stories in favor of psychologically rooted human ones that expressed the true FEELINGS of children rather than the romantic myths and fantasy dreams ascribed to kids by others.

Feelings like “outrageous rage” against parents and siblings was not just taboo in the fifties, it wasn’t proper – disrespectful! Wild Things was, in part, Sendak’s way of commenting on what had once and still tormented him, including the anxiety of loosing control in the swirl of everyday existence.

He said many times that the Wild Things were his relatives from Europe, bewildered and frightened by the idea of coming to America and not being able to dress well or look well or eat well. They were truly aliens in Sendak’s Brooklyn home and decidedly monstrous too.

Maurice once told me, with a swell of emotion: “I couldn’t bear them. . . . they were people I remember from childhood who, in their crude ways of being affectionate, really frightened me. They could have eaten me. They could have squeezed me to death..” In short, they were wild things!

Another layer to Wild Things that raises heretofore unaddressed questions in kids books, is the total absence of a Father. Sendak explained:

“There never is a father in Brooklyn because they all go to work and you never see them. My father went to work before I got up. I would always say good-bye to my mother in the morning. My father was loving, but he was hardly around. So he couldn’t be in the book because he had no character—and no place.”

I asked Sendak whether he was consciously or subconsciously saying to kids that it is okay to have many different emotions? I was surprised by his response, which nonetheless underscores all his work:

“I wasn’t interested in other kids. I was not a humanitarian or a social worker. Or even someone who understood children. I don’t have children. So I cannot pretend that I set out to help other children. Primarily, 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 surive.”

Sendak’s books were what he referred to as “pushing and striving for inner things rather than for outer things.” And yet he made those outer things as foils. The following may not be taboo busting, per se, but is indicative of the nuances that kept Sendak forever on his guard . . .

One of the fights he had with Ursula—“and her whole office”—though it seems minor, was with the last line of the Wild Things [about Max’s dinner]: “and it was still hot.” It bothered the editors, who wanted him to change it to “and
it was still warm.”

“Warm doesn’t burn your tongue,” he explained. But there is something dangerous in “hot.” It does burn your tongue. Hot meant something profound to Sendak. It is a metaphor for trouble. And according to Sendak, it makes the entire story somewhat inconclusive. No definitive happy ending. Something dangerous could still happen at the end.

Similarly, childhood doesn’t end in one story—it keeps going on and on. Or as Sendak foretold: “Max will have his dinner and then next week it will happen all over again.”

He used to joke that Max would be in therapy at 30 because that kind of anxiety, rage and disorientation will go on and on. The Wild Things has certainly gone on and on and many things that were once considered taboo, thanks to Sendak, are now accepted without question.

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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →