“I refuse to lie to children.”

Lovable curmudgeon Maurice Sendak, interviewed by the Guardian on the occasion of the publication of his new book, is the sort of man who says what he’s thinking.  The interview is, more or less, a list of the things that happen to piss him off.  It’s charming in the way angry people speaking their mind tends to be, so long as you aren’t personally on the wrong side of it.  But it seems to me it goes hand-in-hand with his explanation of the darkness of his latest book: “I refuse to lie to children.  I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”  Sendak, it appears, is honest in all aspects of his life.

It seems to me there’s probably no better medium for honesty than picture books.  I hesitate to judge whether one should refuse to ever lie to children—specifically one’s own children—because I don’t have them myself and am not sure what I’d do in a tough spot.  However, children’s books do often seem to try to speak to some larger truths, and there seems little point in trying to do that if you’re just going to obfuscate.  I’m not sure that it’s really that terrible to present the world to them as a happy place where hippos go to parties and put lampshades on their heads when you’re just trying to teach them how to count.  (Though, spoiler alert, even that book ends with one super sad hippo whose friends have abandoned him.)  The children’s books I can think of that don’t deal in anything particularly dark or bleak seem to me to form just one piece of the picture for kids.  I guess as long as we make sure children have lots of books, they’ll get to learn about their world from all sides.

What do you think?  Anyone out there writing for children who is contemplating these issues?  Or parents, do you consider the worldview of the story before you buy your child a picture book?

16 Responses to “I refuse to lie to children.”

  1. Tamara says:

    Not speaking as a parent or a writer of children’s books, but rather as that child I used to be:

    My childhood was pretty awful in a lot of ways, so, speaking for myself, I loved both the ones that told me the world was a beautiful happy place – because I wanted to believe that and still do – and also the ones that were very dark – because that reflected my reality.

    Blue Violets was a book about a child whose mother was dead and whose father was a drunk (I think) and she gets lost in the woods with the blue violets. Broke my heart but I loved it. And The Secret Garden? She loses both her parents and then lives with an uncle who is always gone. And Harriet the Spy? It lets a girl be angry and act out. How subversive!

    I think it’s important to validate people’s existences, to see a representation of yourself, whether you’re 7 or 70. I remember not finding hardly any books from the point of view of someone like me as a kid (girl, in the West, rural, etc.), and I felt left out because of it. But the darkness did validate it in some ways.

    But another feature of these dark books is that they almost always had a happy ending. Or at least some sort of uplift, even if everything wasn’t resolved. Even Where the Wild Things Are ends happily. I was thankful for that.

    PS It’s a whole other issue to talk about going beyond telling the truth to exploiting something. Violence or sex, say. A really hard line to draw.

  2. RamseyH says:

    My kid is in the picture book range right now – he’s almost two, and able to sit for some longer stories as long as they have pictures. I think what’s important to me is having a mix. I’m not afraid at all to read him sad stories, or stories with sad or scary elements. And I’m fine with silly stories as well. It’s good for him to hear all sorts of stories, because the world is in fact made up of all kinds of lives. Monkeys counting numbers? Yes. Doggies lost in caves? Yes. Naughty little boys who end up with a bunch of monsters? Yes. A little bunny whose mother loves him enough to chase him when he runs away? Yes. All of that is life. All of it is true.

    • Lauren says:

      Your use of the word “elements” seems key to this discussion. Babar’s mom got shot, sure, but most of that story is about living the fancy high life (and, well, the supposed upsides of colonialism, but that’s a topic for another day). When I think of children’s stories that have darker aspects, they still seem pretty light overall.

  3. Mother of Three says:

    Yes, let’s show toddlers picturs of mass graves and mutilated animals. How about picture books for the tykes called Susan Smith Sends Her Boys Down the Cliff? Or Tot Mom on Trial? Or The Wild Ride of Genocide? For the sake of the children let’s not hold anything back.

    • Lauren says:

      Good point. Regardless of how high a premium you place on honesty, it’s pretty unlikely any kid needs things to this extreme. If genocide is a fair representation of your world, you’ve probably got much bigger issues than whether a kid in a book has a happy life, and what’s the point of terrifying children for whom that isn’t their reality. They have plenty of time to learn how terrible the world can be when they’re older. Sendak talks a big game, but his book doesn’t appear to be anywhere near that bleak.

  4. Tamara says:

    Good point, Mother of Three. I agree.

    But what about the child that is molested when they are 6, or 5, or 4? (Not to say that I was.) Or witnessed a murder? Or is abandoned by their father before they were born and also by their mother because she’s psychologically damaged/on drugs/an alcoholic? By saying the world is a beautiful happy place, exclusively, you deny their reality. You make them feel even more hideous.

    And, also, back to the point about exploitation of subjects.

  5. Rowenna says:

    What I find interesting is that truth = dark. Between the “YA Saves” outcry months ago and this–why is is that honesty means depicting darkness? I’m not really an optimist and I’m certainly no Pollyanna, but there’s plenty of good and bright things to share and celebrate, too. When we say “we have to be HONEST with kids” we miss that, by selectively picking “honesty”, we’re depicting a slanted world.

  6. Tamara says:

    I’m not saying all the time, but sometimes the truth is dark, and it’s often the dark that goes unacknowledged.

    • Lauren says:

      So you’ve spoken as a child and as a parent–in terms of your selection of books for your children, do you seek to show them a more complicated view of the world? I mean, hopefully, your children’s lives can easily be reflected in books with a really upbeat worldview, so ideally the issue isn’t the same for them as it was for you. But is this something you think about when you’re buying books for them?

      • Tamara says:

        That’s it exactly. I want to show them a more complicated worldview. I want to be honest with them. If they ask me a question, I tell them the truth as best I can. I don’t tell them more than they’re asking but enough. For example, if they ask about sex, I’d give them the basics but wouldn’t go into the mechanics, unless they ask more in-depth questions. On the anniversary of 9/11, I showed them the images of the planes going into the towers. When my son asked about war, I told him it was people killing other people.

        I do protect them, of course. Of course! I don’t show them gruesome videos of people being killed or other graphic things. Would I limit their reading about murder at a young age? Good question. It would depend on the nature of it. If they came across it without me knowing, I wouldn’t be upset at them, though, and we’d talk about it a lot. There’s murder in the newspaper all the time, and I wouldn’t limit them from reading that.

        And you are absolutely right – they have a much more upbeat life – more opportunities, and they see themselves reflected back through the attention of their parents and other ways. They’re happy kids. OMG, how could I do the same thing to my kids!?!

        Good question about what I look for in kids books. I have to admit my first response is to how well written they are – writer’s curse. I love books that are playful with language (Skippy Jon Jones and Dr. Suess and books by Sandra Boynton, whom you mentioned).

        I like books that are surprising and sometimes that overrides how well written they are – for example, there is a troll book, can’t remember the name, about a naughty little girl who helps a troll who isn’t very good at being a troll, and then the book ends something like: “The one thing the troll remembered after all these years was … that the girl tasted like chicken.” My kids were really perplexed at that at first, but I thought it was a good change from a predictable ending, and it made them think. Not that I don’t like happy endings, I swear!

        I guess I would say I’m less interested in limiting their choices and more in making them think and see the world from many different perspectives.

        Sorry if I’ve gone on and on, but you can tell it’s a subject I feel strongly about.

  7. Joan Reeves says:

    I’m commenting from the standpoint of a mother of 4, not as a children’s author. I think one must take several elements into consideration when it comes to dark reality vs. lighthearted. Some of these elements are the child’s age, general maturation, and the child’s basic personality–good parents know which of their children can take a bit more reality and which cannot.

    All that should be taken into account. Books for children don’t just entertain or teach basic concepts. They help develop the child’s worldview. I much prefer creating a worldview in a child where there’s hope and optimism rather than despair and pain.

    If you’re reading a story to your child that shows the grim reality that too often characterizes “real life,” just be sure there’s also a balancing message of hope, coping, and optimism too.

    Best wishes,
    Joan Reeves

    • Lauren says:

      Very good point about personality. I was a total scaredy cat as a child–I probably couldn’t have stomached any more reality than was on offer in the average children’s book.

      Just as you suggest, I do think that people who focus on darkness typically counterbalance with hope and optimism, often to an unrealistic degree. But unless you’re Sendak, realism is probably not the most important criterion, especially where children are concerned.

  8. Julie Nilson says:

    It depends on the kind of “darkness” we’re talking about introducing to children (and I’m talking about kids young enough to be reading Sendak, not young adults). I think that stories where a little boy misbehaves and imagines going off to live with monsters, or a snotty kid says “I don’t care” one too many times and gets eaten by a lion are fine–maybe even cathartic. Little kids appreciate books about children who aren’t always perfect, and they know that the monsters and lions aren’t real.

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