‘I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence’: Maurice Sendak created kid’s tales illuminating childhood’s terror as well as its magic. In this light-hearted obituary, we peruse the underbelly of classic children’s literature.
Don’t run with scissors, don’t talk to strangers, hold my hand when you cross the road - FUUUCK OFF MUM! Our health and safety-crazed state is a real dampener on childhood. I was lucky enough to grow up in the sticks scrambling around in the undergrowth, eating worms, bruising myself - pretty much borderline feral until my first days of school. But for cotton wool-coated suburban kids, reading presents an escape unavailable in everyday life.
The world can be ugly and mean - children know it, why pretend otherwise? Since the Brothers Grimm-laced cautionary tales with implicit hints of sex and violence, children’s literature has hosted all sorts of devilry to counter the wholesomeness of The Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons.
Dear Maurice, who died last week at the age of 83, not only looked like a fictional beast but preached unflinching honesty and no nonsense parenting, channeling his own Holocaust-haunted infancy into his work. He believed in letting children be themselves, whatever that might be. YES Maurice!
The world of Where The Wild Things Are is not a thinly disguised allegory and nor does it come with a sugar coated, easily digestible moral. Max is not meek and impressionable, but wild and unruly - a real bratty bastard of a child - and he gets away with it. The wild things that inhabit the tale are very real and pretty scary, like the monsters that we face in life.
Sendak was adored precisely because he didn't force feed palatable and nausea-inducing morality, but if you are seeking a book to teach your little hellraisers an essential lesson or two, might as well go for one that packs a punch and scares them witless. German DerStruwwelpeter(Shaggy Peter or Shock Haired Peter as the English adaptation dubs the menacing rogue) was read to kids across Europe and does just that, telling ten cautionary stories in which misdemeanors are revenged with horrifying punishments. For example, a boy who sucks his thumb gets his fingers brutally chopped off by an errant tailor. Be warned though, this heavy moral dimension can sometimes seem a little out of touch these days; in Story of Three Black Boys, the forfeit for racist bullying is to be dipped in ink and thus made blacker than your victim - forward-thinking for 1845, but not quite the right thing sentiments to be encouraged in your sheltered suburban babies.
His adult short stories are a heady cocktail of twisted wit and the downright macabre but Dahl's classic children’s novels are rather scary too. Who could fail to be freaked out by the Grand High Witch and her exemplary sense of smell, the rhino that kills James’ parents (of Giant Peach fame) or the sadistic and systematic way in which Willy Wonka dispels of naughty nuisance children.
The magical imagination of the chocolate factory could easily be mistaken for something by David Lynch - it's certainly warped enough. Dahl invented worlds of sheer fantasy spilling over into utter nonsense as a way of lampooning and criticizing adult deception and corruption from a child’s eye view. And those lessons we'll never forget.
Way back before Hogwarts and Hagrid, novels about magical academies were less unrealistic about what teenage wizards were capable of achieving in your average term. Any child is going to feel like a serious underachiever when holding themselves up against bloody Harry who defeats Voldemort an unfeasibly silly number of times. Mildred Hubble of The Worst Witch series blusters and blunders her way through school accompanied by overweight Maud and Enid the jokester. She trips over her laces and falls foul of teachers - that's more like it!
No listings of classic kid lit could be complete without mentioning Dr Seuss. King of rhymes and rhythms, his poetic and beautifully zaney illustrated stories ring with both the originality of a pure escapist as well as striking chords in the land of sense and reason. Controversial The Butter Battle Book saw the Yooks and Zooks arguing ferociously about the correct way to eat toast, mirroring the arms race, and ending with an ominous blank page, allowing the reader to imagine the consequences of the dispute. Rather existential and bleak for young ones growing up during the Cold War wouldn’t you say?
There is a certain urban myth holding that Seuss hated children but the truth is actually far more entertaining. He was terrified of them - their unpredictability meant he never felt comfortable in their presence. If one of the greatest children’s authors of all time recognized the wild things in them, then I think parents everywhere should take a leaf from his book, back up and loosen the reins.
What's your favourite children's book that tells it like it is?