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?