Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Dragging The Monsters Into The Light

I've never spoken about this, but I had occasional bouts of insomnia as a child. Nothing major or disruptive. Just, once in a while, I'd awaken at three-thirty or four in the morning and, unable to sleep, would pull the chain on my lamp and reach for a book. I had the top part of an old Hoosier cabinet converted in to book shelves, on which sat among many titles, The Little King, The Little Queen, and The Little Monster, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and Where The Wild Things Are.

While the first two stories had their charms, it was Sendak's marvelous tale of a little boy who conquers the monsters who inhabit his room at night that always had pride of place. Not that my childhood was a time of monsters. On the contrary, I think I was a cossetted, if not spoiled, child, with a large area of security around me provided by parents who pushed and prodded in many areas, all the while giving me time and space to be a child. Far from a place filled with worry and fear, my room at night was a space of comfort and safety; in this, I now know, I was in a distinct minority. Far too many children, when the light goes out at night, see and hear in the darkness far too many disturbing, hurtful things. Sendak's refusal to sweep this aspect of childhood under the rug, but face it head on, perhaps in the process offering children the tools for beginning to gain control over those parts of their lives that only came out after dark, is among the masterful acts of artistic courage in our lifetimes.

With his passing, Sendak has left us not only the marvelous creatures who inhabit their own land, ruled over by a child who refuses to be cowed by them, but a large legacy of children's literature that never once flinched from telling children the often painful truth that the world is a difficult, sometimes even horrible place. All the same, it is a place where children, who are and understand themselves to be among the most powerless people nevertheless have resources to confront these ugly realities. Perhaps, given time and imagination and courage, they can even master them. We offer our children great possibilities when we hand them works of literature like this, works that do more than just entertain. Through the power of Sendak's prose and images, we tell children that the dark need not be feared, but can in fact be conquered on their own terms.

Adults forget the many fears children face, the way a whole new world comes in to existence when the light switch is flicked and the door snicks shut at night. Sendak remembered, though. Rather than reassure children with the unknowable comfort of adult realities (I tell my girls all the time, "There's nothing in the dark that isn't there in the light."; surely a sign I, too, have forgotten what it means to lie huddled under a blanket because of a noise, a passing shadow, or sad to say, far worse), he offered them a way through the fear to the possibility of freedom and that most elusive and dreamed-of adult state of affairs: control over the things that terrify us.

Virtual Tin Cup

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