Soothing a Child’s Heart

By Sara Evans

Myths and fairy stories both answer the eternal questions:  What is the world really like? How am I to live my life in it? How can I truly be myself? — Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment

Our children are grieving; they miss their schools and their friends, their birthday parties and play dates.  They miss beloved grandparents and nannies, aunts, uncles, cousins and babysitters. They have experienced Easter, Passover and Ramadan, Mother’s Day, graduations, sports events and religious school–all in two, flat dimensions, on screens. An entire season has been excised from their lives.  If we adults cannot begin to comprehend what has happened to our world, how can our children be expected to understand?

Death has become a leitmotif. We cannot completely shield our children from it but we can help to allay their incomprehension and soothe their fears. 

The world of children’s books is awash with stories of death and dying, of a beloved Nana or Grandpa, of peers and of pets. One that has stood the test of time, is The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst.  First published in 1971, this book has simple, elegiac illustrations by artist Erik Blegvad. (Maurice Sendak noted of Blegvad, “He demonstrates the genuine illustrator’s sensitivity to his text.”) This book has remained at the top of the recommended lists for a reason: It is really good.

Viorst cuts right to the chase: that narrator, a sad little boy tells us, “My cat Barney died last Friday.”  He tells us he was too sad to eat his chicken or even his chocolate pudding, that he was too sad to watch television.  He’s so sad that he goes to bed, and when his mother comes to kiss him good night, she proposes holding a funeral for Barney the following day. She asks our small narrator to think of ten good things about Barney to say at the ceremony.  He remembers some really special things about his beloved cat, about how he was brave and cuddly and purred in his ear, and only once ate a bird. But after nine good things, he is stymied. He can’t come up with a tenth. (Any one of us who has eulogized a friend knows that feeling.)

After Barney’s funeral, the boy and his friend Annie indulge in the ultimate theological debate.  Annie insists Barney is in Heaven. Our little hero, a consummate realist, insists that Barney is in the ground.  His father refuses to come down on one side or the other. “We don’t know too much about heaven,” he gently tells Annie, who is clearly a True Believer. “We can’t be absolutely sure it is there.”

Later, the boy’s father gives him a packet of seeds to sprinkle on Barney’s grave. He tells his boy that one day they will grow to be leaves and flowers. He explains that things change in the ground and one day, Barney will help the seeds and  grass and trees to grow.

In bed that same night, the boy recounts to his mother the nine good things about Barney he originally came up with.  And then he adds his tenth: “Barney’s helping to grow flowers…and that’s a pretty nice job for a cat.”

A few weeks ago, my niece in New Mexico emailed our family: “My daughter Isabel’s birthday is in a few weeks. What she really loves is stories.  Would you send her one?”

What children crave and need in this strange time are traditional stories, stories with a predictable narrative arc, a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories give children an armature on which to hang their anxieties, and a lens though which to view the world. They want stories that have endurance and drama, stories of resilience, and stories that engage their full imagination.  The venerable Dr. Johnson wrote in the 18th century, “Babies do not want to hear about babies.  They like to hear of giants and castles.”

Giants and castles, the very stuff of fairy tales, abound in both the traditional and contemporary children’s canon. Sometimes the giants are monsters or fierce animals; sometimes the castles are deep, dark forests. But since prehistory, when people gathered around the fire, since the stories of Ninevah and the Odyssey were told, our favorite tales have shared these common elements—a hero ventures into the dangerous unknown, performs surprising and daunting tasks, and safely returns home.  

Animals are a comforting presence in stories from all cultures. Some are small and friendly, like Pooh Bear and Barney, others huge and dangerous. Think Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood, Billy Goats Gruff; Beowulf’s Grendel, the terrifying witch Baba Yaga with her chicken legs and Kipling’s jungle books in which Mowgli converses with creatures great and small, teaching children that they, too, are part of the natural world.

The brilliant and prolific Maurice Sendak loved animals and had a never-ending retinue of dogs throughout his life. He illustrated the beautiful “Little Bear” books by Elsa Holmelund Minarek, showing the enduring love that flows between a bear and his wise mother. One of his most charming books is Higglety Pigglety Pop, Or There Must Be More to Life.  That book is an homage to his beloved Jennie, a Sealeyham terrier, who packs her leather bag and ventures across the world. She ends up a star of the World Mother Goose Theatre, where, during every performance, she eats a mop—made of salami.

Sendak observed,  “You cannot write for children….they’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.”

His 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are has been of interest to children since its publication. It has also been an adult obsession. It has been praised and castigated, copied and banned. It has appeared in many editions, several films, in endless articles and countless PhD theses.  Wild Things is arguably the most controversial children’s book ever published.

We all know the story: Misbehaving Max has been sent to his room without supper, a classic time out.  But his imagination takes over, and he sails away for a year and a day, to the Land of the Wild Things. There they party up a storm, have a “wild rumpus,” and crown Max King of All the Wild Things. This story turns the history of children’s literature on its head. The canon of books that admonish little ones to behave and explore the perils of not being “good” is vast. Max, having vanquished the Wild Things by bonding with them and prevailing over them, sails back to his room, where all is safe and stable—and his supper is still warm.  Perhaps the most controversial aspect of  Where the Wild Things Are is that it gives children permission to behave badly for awhile.

Neither man nor beast, animal nor human, Sendak’s wild things are, as he insisted, the relatives who used to visit when he was a little boy. Loud, crude, intimidating.  Not quite animal, not quite human, they are lovable monsters.  “We’ll eat you up; we love you so!” the Wild Things serenade Max.

This controversial book was awarded the coveted Caldecott Medal in 1964, one of four Sendak would garner in his lifetime. In his acceptance speech, Sendak notes the obvious need to protect our children from anxiety-provoking experiences,  “But,” he says, “ from their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions…fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives….it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”

Every Sendak fan, (a love/hate binary group if ever there was one), has a favorite book of his.  Mine is and ever shall be the complicated, beautiful and allusive “Outside Over There.” 

Years after In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak realized that it was time to finish his picture-book trilogy. “I realized,” he wrote, “that I had been living in rural Connecticut for six years….So I wanted my heroine to be a country girl.”  The synergy between image and rhymed language in this book is nothing short of breathtaking. The art is delicate and complicated; the language nuanced and cadenced.  And the story is the very stuff of epic itself.

“When Papa was away at sea and Mama in her arbor…” it begins. The semi-catatonic mother sits there, guarded by their trusty German Shepherd (another of Sendak’s favorite breeds).  Little Ida is tasked with minding her baby sister. We all know it — that brief, unguarded moment, the split second of inattention in which bad things happen. Ida is busily playing her Mozartean wonder horn, when the goblins slip in and kidnap her baby sister, leaving a changeling in her place.  

Ida realizes what has happened.  “They stole my baby away,” she cries, “to be a nasty goblin’s bride!” Then she makes another, near-disastrous error. She goes backwards out the window into “the outside over there.”  Clutching her wonder horn, she travels through stormy clouds and seaside robber caves, until she finds herself in the middle of a goblin wedding—where all the characters  look just like her baby sister.

Ida plays a frenzied tune and the goblins dance until they churn into a dancing stream.  The only one left is her sister, laying cozily in an eggshell. Ida rescues her and carries her along a broad meadow, home to their mother.

Here we have all the elements of the perfect story.  The moment of inattention; the near fatal error, the perilous journey, the daring rescue, the safe return home.

Like Max, our children are brave. Like Ida, they are resilient and good at solving problems. And like the nameless boy in Barney, they are honest and realistic. 

Maurice Sendak knew he’d hit home when a seven-year-old boy wrote to him asking, “How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are?  If it is not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there.”

That boy is in now his fifties. This summer will be the Wild Rumpus writ large.

Sara Evans is a lifelong New Yorker and the East Coast editor of Reinventing Home.  She has written about travel, child development, gardening, antiques and the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living

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