January 21, 2013
The Inspiration and Art of Children's Books
I believe that children's books occupy a very important, sanctified part of our memory. There is a kind of magic to them. Probably that's partly because of the way they imprint on us—enjoying our Mom or Dad read to us in bed; hearing a favorite story that we only get to listen to at our Grandparent's house. I remember my Dad reading me The Hobbit when my family was in Alcapulco. The floor of our beach hut was sand, and I could hear the ocean outside while Bilbo invisibly approached the sleeping dragon.
I think people have a personal feeling about the children's books that they love, which is deeper than the books discovered in adulthood. These stories are fundamental to who we are. I think Maurice Sendak typified this quality in a profound way. He understood something about the way children exist in the world, which is part of what makes his work so lasting and vital; he didn't ever simplify the experience of being a child. He wan't saccharine or cute. His stories felt true because they contained elements of terror, of extravagant boasting, and of the animal urges we all have. That is why perhaps, his stories always felt like they were speaking to you, rather than down to you.
I remember in an NPR interview with Terry Gross, Sendak spoke about a promise he made to himself: never to forget what it felt like to be a child. I think most kids swear this oath to themselves at one point or another. I remember making that promise myself. I had a running list of things I would never do to a kid when I crossed over to the other side of the river, into adulthood. Most of the things on the list had to do with never underestimating the depth of a of child's ability to remember. What children don't have is experience to measure new encounters against. What they don't yet have is "wisdom."
On one side of this coin shows itself in the face of a child's hysterical crying over the loss of a toy, or the fear of a horror, or the rage of an injustice. There is nothing to measure those experiences against, therefore, they all register as seismic. The other side of the coin, however, is the perpetual sense of awe, because everything is new, demanding understanding. And this, I think, is the quality of experience all great children's books are able to capture—the sense of immediate, strange, and dazzling wonder.