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Lessons in Parenting
Missing Maurice Sendak
Published on May 9, 2012 by guest author: J LeBlanc

A great children’s book author passed away this week. He is probably best known as the author of "Where the Wild Things Are," a favorite of ours, but we also love "The Nutshell Library" (which has accompanying songs by Carole King from a 1970’s era television special), "In the Night Kitchen," and "Outside Over There."

Maurice Sendak is known for not sugar-coating the life of a child: The children featured in his stories are brazen and selfish at times, loveable and imaginative at others. In the course of reading to my son, I noticed there is something that sets apart the really well-known children’s book authors, and a part of that is the realism that they attempt to portray.  Sendak’s hero Max is terrorizing the house before he is sent to bed without supper, but he is more than simply a mischief-maker, as we realize when he suddenly wants to be with someone “who loves him best of all." Dr. Seuss is another of our favorites, and I hope my son will pick up on the message "Green Eggs and Ham" has for the picky eater. While my son has yet to really warm to Beatrix Potter, I love her stories and how the animals act like little boys and girls, such as when Tom Kitten and his siblings run around getting their nice clothes dirty playing outside.

There are a lot of newer children’s books out there and a surprising number of them are not very good. First, too many celebrities think they can write children’s books. Nothing against John Lithgow - I admire his acting - but I picked up a children’s book written by him at the library the other day and it looked like lackluster folk song lyrics written in tribute to his dogs. There are others who seem to take children’s book writing more seriously, but they often make childhood seem too saccharine. Take for example, "Guess How Much I Love You." It is, as a mother at one of my playgroups pointed out, basically a competition between parent and child as to who loves whom the most. The parent wins - big surprise. What’s more, it’s just not that interesting to read. Another author we’ve run into frequently is Karen Katz. We have a copy of "Counting Kisses," which I have altered. Rather than reading to my son about how someone is kissing the baby’s “yummy, chubby knees,” a description only a parent will appreciate and maybe not even then, I have focused instead on who is kissing (mom, dad, sister, cat, dog, etc.) and the body part, minus the strings of syrupy adjectives so as to teach my son about the people in the household and body parts, in addition to numbers.

When I researched ways to stimulate my son’s mind, I read that it was good to have books that were straightforward, so as not to confuse the young child. We have a lot of books like this. Maurice Sendak’s and Dr. Seuss’s books are often not as straightforward, but I feel like they must stimulate more higher-order thinking, especially the ones with a story to follow. I think the secret of these two authors is that they didn’t take children for granted as easy audiences. Good writing is good writing, even if the words are few and the pictures many. By the way, good illustrations help a lot too.   This is another thing Sendak, Seuss, and Potter have in common - they are true artists. 

Click here for more information about Maurice Sendak’s life and legacy.

J LeBlanc is a former high school teacher who resides in Lebanon, N.H. She is currently taking a break from teaching to stay home with her 8-month-old son.

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Also, a related post by J LeBlanc on how it's never too early to start reading aloud to children

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