I took a few weeks off from blogging in order to participate in some end-of-semester faculty development, finish my grading, and otherwise wrap up the school year. So what did I miss? Naomi Schafer Riley blogged irresponsibly, sparked a call for a boycott, apologized weakly, and lost her blogging gig, all in the time I was away from the blogosphere. (See the first paragraph of Liana Silva’s recent post for the details—and read the rest for her smart thoughts on why minority scholars’ voices need to be heard.) There was an election in France. Some more pseudo-mommy-wars seem to have flamed up. And Maurice Sendak died.
As a children’s literature scholar, I really couldn’t ignore that last news item. As a friend noted, all of our Facebook pages turned, for a day or two, into virtual wakes, as we shared our favorite posts, linked to interviews, and mourned the passing of a great artist. (My colleague Phil Nel probably has the most comprehensive round-up of links at the bottom of his lovely reminiscence, here; he also has a collection of tributes from visual artists that’s well worth exploring.)
I begin every children’s literature class with Where the Wild Things Are. I use it, among other things, to point out how Sendak’s child characters both escape their “real lives” in their adventures, and bring them along. Max threatens to eat his mother up, then the wild things remind him that his threat is also a promise, that the child who fears separation tries, however he can, to stave it off: “We’ll eat you up, we love you so!” It seems to me that one of Sendak’s great gifts was his contact with childhood fear and anxiety, which his work never diminishes or denies.
But what I also love about Sendak is his lack of sentimentality about mothers. We focus, usually, on the children—whether wild, mischievous, greedy, or apathetic, they surprise us as they often surprised their first critics by refusing to be innocent or sweet. But their mothers are complex as well, even if we see far less of them. Max’s mother, for example, sends her child to bed without supper, clearly angry at the havoc he wreaks throughout the house (we get the sense that it’s not the first time this has all happened, either). She never appears in the text, and goes unmentioned after that opening section — but when Max returns to his room, he finds “his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.”
We are free, of course, to imagine that Max’s father, or his grandmother, or anyone else in the house has provided that supper, but I’ve always thought it was his mother. Not because she regrets punishing Max, but because she loves him — loves him enough to let him know when she’s angry, and enough to know when she’s cooled off, too.
In Pierre, one of the Nutshell Library books, Pierre’s mother leaves him at home alone when he refuses to say anything but “I don’t care” — but when she returns to discover him eaten by a lion, she and his father rush him to the doctor where, like Little Red Riding Hood, he is released from the lion’s belly (and without harming the lion!). And in Sendak’s only pop-up book, Mommy, a toddler races confidently around a haunted house, looking for his mother and, eventually, finding her. Unlike the tiny bird in Are You My Mother?, this child seems not at all anxious — but his reunion with his mother — who is perfectly at home in the haunted house — is just as pleasing.
Sendak’s mothers, then, are just as diverse and idiosyncratic as his children — they have lives to lead, one imagines, and their children are both welcome in them (Pierre’s mother calls him her “only joy”) and welcome to their own lives, as well. There are no “mommy wars” implicit in Sendak’s books for children — there are only children, perhaps their caregivers (Bumble-Ardy has only an aunt, having lost his parents, for example), sometimes their friends, and adventures. And, often, love.
Sendak didn’t write for mothers, of course. In interviews he claimed not to write for children, either—“I write,” he said to Stephen Colbert earlier this year, “and somebody says, ‘that’s for children.’” But by writing, and illustrating, these tales of anxiety and escape, apathy and exultation, Sendak gave us all a remarkable gift, a gift that both parents and children (of all ages) can return to, again and again.