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  September 27, 2004

Children's Books Should Address
Serious Issues, Says Sendak

Authors of children's books have a responsibility to write about serious issues, says Maurice Sendak, internationally renowned children's author and illustrator.

Image: David Woods and Maurice Sendak

Author Maurice Sendak, right, and David Woods, dean of fine arts, look over some of Sendak's work stored at the archives in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. Sendak gave the first Robert Gray Memorial Lecture September 16.
Photo by Peter Morenus

"There is no more time for the bunny rabbit books," Sendak told the crowd that packed Konover Auditorium in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center Sept. 16 for a discussion with a panel of faculty and students from the School of Fine Arts.

Shielding children from realities like death is an insult to them, Sendak claimed: "Children are offended. They know when they're written down to."

Sendak's presentation was part of the Robert H. Gray Memorial Lectures in the Arts series, established in honor of the late dean of the School of Fine Arts. Gray, a painter, was dean from 1991 to 1999.

Sendak won the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are, which combines design and narration to examine a child's response to anger. He also won the international Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1970 for the body of his work, the only American illustrator to do so. This year he received the first Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, an international prize for children's literature established by the Swedish government. He is also a distinguished set and costume designer for opera and ballet. In 1990, he received an honorary doctorate from UConn.

"The difference between a bad artist and a good one is, the bad artist seems to copy a great deal," said Sendak, quoting from William Blake. "The good one really does copy a great deal.

"I'd like to place myself in the latter category," he added. "Where does it come from? You steal it. It's a very simple thing. It's what I've been doing all my career. Pictures, music, ballet, street scenes, anything is there to take. There's no such thing as an original."

Sendak criticized recent "trivial" books written by Hollywood stars that "reduce their language and sensibilities to what they think is appropriate. These books are not written for children, but for grandma who likes the bunnies," he said.

Death is often not treated in a real way in children's books, Sendak said. "It sickens me that all the guts, passion, and terror - which children can take - are eliminated."

In the Night Kitchen, written by Sendak in 1970, was challenged by some American parents' groups across the United States because the little boy in the story was shown naked. "No one abroad had trouble with a penis," he said.

"I did not intend to cause a scandal. I thought everybody knew that was there," he added, eliciting laughter from the audience.

Authors who want to craft children's books that "have all the vital information about life" have to become fighters, Sendak said, "because the department that sells the book is not on our side."

The son of Jewish immigrants, Sendak says his life has been "haunted by the Holocaust" during which many members of his family disappeared. His work Brundibar, both an opera and a picture book created in collaboration with Tony Kushner, is based on a children's opera written in a Nazi concentration camp and originally performed by children while they lived there.

"This is the book I lived to do," Sendak said. "I thought this would be the end of the Holocaust nightmare, but it is not."

He said he has reached the "Helen Hayes plateau" of life, referring to an actress who died in 1993 at the age of 93. "You are an honored elderly person," he said. "Nobody can treat you badly any more. All your enemies have either died or just given up, and then you can do whatever you want."