The world is currently mourning the death of Maurice Sendak, the award-winning author and illustrator of the children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, and a host of other books that have populated many a child’s bedroom for decades. With Sendak’s death has come a reflection about what it was that attracted children to his books. The nearly unanimous answer is that his books acknowledged children to be deep and complex human beings – a rare occurrence in the genre.
I’m a strong proponent of instilling a love for books early on in children (I realize that is hardly a political stance, as I can’t imagine anyone would argue reading at a young age is a bad thing.) The question remains, however, of how to go about igniting that passion when your child prefers playing with your iPad.
I’m no child psychologist (or even a parent), but I would argue that authors such as Sendak are the key. Where the Wild Things Are is the tale of a boy who runs away to a magical world full of wonderfully grotesque monsters, after he is sent to his room. It is about a child’s disobedience and search for himself and for his own place in the real world.
Each child’s search for a story that touches him or her is unique. For me, my love of the written word began in first grade with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. Laura was a really cool chick. She wasn’t perfect, and her life definitely wasn’t a fairy tale, but that’s what made her awesome. Even though I didn’t face the hardship of 19th century pioneers, Laura still encompassed a character I could get on board with – someone who envied her pretty blonde older sister and hated the mean girl who bullied everyone.
For my best friend in fourth grade, it was Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, a story that confronts much more than most children’s books. It is a tale of loneliness and death – subjects that many would consider too dark for a 9 year old. Yet, there was something in that story that reached out and touched her, and many other young readers.
“From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions,” said Sendak in 1964 when accepting the Caldecott Medal – basically the Pulitzer of children’s books. “Fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can.” A book that helps children do just that will stay with them much longer than a game of Angry Birds.