On June 10, 2013, Maurice Sendak would have been 85. Maurice Sendak was the author of the beloved children's book, Where The Wild Things Are, in which a boy named Max makes mischief "of one kind or another" before announcing to his mom his intention of
"eating her up." Mom promptly sends Max to bed without his supper.
When I opened my laptop on June 10 and saw the Google Doodle paying homage to Mr. Sendak, I couldn't help but recall that just the night before, on the Season 3 finale of HBO's Game of Thrones, a certain bratty boy named Joffrey was making his own sort of mischief, announcing his intention of serving the head of the late Robb Stark to Robb's grieving sister. Like Max, Joffrey gets sent to bed without his supper.
Could it be that this was Game of Thrones's own homage to Mr. Sendak?
Perhaps. But I think it's more likely that Game of Thrones and Where the Wild Things Are were simply both making use of a universal literary archetype -- that of the "naughty child" -- to convey a profound message. In the case of Game of Thrones, the message is that Joffrey may wear the king's crown, but he is nothing more than an ill-tempered child. In the case of Where the Wild Things Are, the message is that parents are expected to love and care for their children even when they don't exactly like their behavior, and children should be secure in the knowledge that their parents will love them and take good care of them even when they make a "wild rumpus".
As I considered these two "naughty boys" getting sent to bed without their supper, it occurred to me that the moment when Max realizes that his mother has brought him his dinner - and that no matter what, she loves him "best of all" -- has been with me throughout my entire childhood and my entire adult life thus far. It's been more than 40 years since I first read Where the Wild Things Are, but I can still see the pot roast that I imagined on Max's plate. I still feel relief at the thought that Max's mom didn't leave him alone in his room feeling hungry and abandoned.
In 40 years, will I still remember Joffrey's temper tantrum? I can't say with any certainty. But I CAN say that in 40 years -- if I'm lucky enough to be here -- I will still sometimes come back to that moment when Max detects the aroma of the "good things" on the plate his mother brought to his room.
I suppose that's just the way it is with children's literature. When it's done right, it connects with us on some visceral, primal level -- somewhere beyond conscious thought -- delivering foundational life lessons that shape us into the people we become and remain imprinted on us throughout our lives. Here are eight more examples:
1. Frosty The Snowman: Life Lesson -- Impermanence Is Part of Life
A snowman in Armonk, New York comes to life and makes friends with a group of children, frolicking around the village square. But when the sun grows hot, Frosty realizes that his time is limited. Instead of grieving his inevitable end, he resolves to make the most of the time he has left: "Let's run and we'll have some fun before I melt away," he urges the children. When he knows his time is up, he asks his young friends not to cry and promises to return some day. Notwithstanding that promise, Frosty helps his friends -- and all children -- accept that seasons change, snow melts, and nothing ever stays the same.
2. Cinderella: Life Lesson -- You Can Overcome a Crappy Childhood
Ever since Cinderella's dad got remarried to a stepmother from hell, Cinderella is abused, neglected and treated like a servant. Would anyone blame her for growing bitter and mean? Would anyone blame her for having crushingly low self-esteem? When she finally gets a chance to go to the ball, would anyone blame her for staying out all night? Would anyone blame her for sleeping with the prince to try to keep him interested? But she doesn't do any of the above, and when the prince comes to find her, would anyone blame Cinderella for being mortified by her her horrid family? But she isn't, and she makes no apologies for them, seemingly understanding intuitively that their behavior is not her fault. Essentially, Cinderella is the ultimate blueprint for how to survive a dysfunctional family.
3. The Cat in The Hat Comes Back: Life Lesson -- No Problem Is Too Big To Handle
Two kids are doing household chores while their mom is out shopping, when an anthropomorphic cat shows up, asking for a piece of cake... which he wants to eat in the bathtub. Certainly, no kid should ever let an anthropomorphic cat (or anyone else, for that matter) into the house when there's no adult present. But that's just the beginning of their problems. The cake in the bathtub leaves a pink bathtub ring, which is carelessly allowed to morph into a fiasco involving six feet of pink snow. Just when it seems that the there's no way to clean up the mess, they focus, pull it together, assemble a team and produce an effective solution.
4. We're Going On A Bear Hunt: Life Lesson -- Face Your Problems Head On
A happy little family decides to go on a bear hunt, and although they claim not to be scared, they seem fairly freaked out by every obstacle they encounter. Nevertheless, they cope beautifully, recognizing in each case, "we can't go over it, we can't go under it... We've got to go through it!" That's some pretty amazing advice, and honestly, it's there in my head whenever I have to face anything unpleasant in my life.
5. Madeline: Life Lesson -- Anyone Can Get Sick, and That's Okay.
Madeline is a fearless and petite boarding school girl in Paris. The sort of girl who poo-poo's the scary animals at the zoo, it's a shock when one night she is rushed to the hospital with appendicitis. But you see, it can happen to anyone, even to Madeline. In fact, after the rest of the girls see that she's doing fine and that she is proud of her scar, they all want to have their appendix out too. If you are familar with my writing, then I am sure it won't surprise you that Madeline is deeply ingrained on my psyche.
6. Little Red Riding Hood: Life Lesson -- Don't Be Naive
We all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood. She skips through the woods to Grandmother's house only to discover that Grandmother looks exactly like a Big Bad Wolf wearing Grandmother's nightgown. And Grandmother is nowhere to be found. Instead of trusting her instincts and getting the hell out of there, Little Red Riding Hood ignores her instincts and engages with the Wolf. As her doubts can't help but creep in, she asks the Wolf for reassurances, which he happily provides... right up until the moment he's devouring her. If only Little Red Riding Hood had listened to her gut, she wouldn't need to be rescued from the Wolf's.
7. Good Night Moon: Life Lesson -- It's Good To Go To Sleep
It can be difficult to let go of the day and fall asleep at night, but Goodnight Moon can help. Even if saying goodnight to the comb and the brush and the bowl full of mush on your own nightstand is not particularly relaxing, the beautiful poetic litany of "goodnights" recited throughout the book can make going to sleep seem deliciously tempting. Try digging this out of the boxes in your basement and see if it isn't true.
8. Hansel and Gretel: Life Lesson -- If It Seems Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is
Hansel and Gretel are kicked out of their house by their horrible stepmother. When they find their way back, she tosses them out again. So you'd think that they would have their bad-lady radar up when they stumble upon a house made of sweets that's occupied by a witchy-looking woman who encourages them to eat to their heart's content. Unfortunately, they have to learn the hard way. But now that Hansel and Gretel have done the work, you don't have to. If you stumble upon a house made of candy, it's probably a trick. And that goes for anything else that seems too good to be true.