I was on a short writing retreat last week--a time and place away from news and social networking and daily obligations. Yes, heaven. But two news items snuck into the idyll: the death of Maurice Sendak and President Obama's announcement coming out in favor of gay marriage. I cried and sighed and smiled; both of these events revolve around children and telling truths.
Maurice Sendak, though he wrote fiction, was a master truth-teller. I would like to take out that "though" because of course we tell truth when we write fiction as well as non-fiction, but sometimes the "outside" world forgets that. But when I say he was a master Truth-Teller, I mean Truth with a capital T. And Teller with a capital T. He was not afraid to hit the tough subjects when he was writing and drawing for kids--death, AIDS, fear, anger, homosexuality, the Holocaust, love. Because he knew that kids want and crave and need the truth. About everything.
On this little retreat one night as we cooked dinner, the talk turned to sex (education), as it often does when five mothers are together, especially mothers whose kids span the ages--twenties to teens to twos. When did you tell, how did you tell, what should I say? And the overwhelming answer was: tell the truth. And also, get Robie Harris to help you.
People who write for children are devotees of telling the truth, and we learned from people like Robie and Maurice Sendak. I was so sad that Sendak died, but so happy that he lived. And wrote and drew. And told the truth. His books made a huge impression on our sons and lines from all of them are part of our family lexicon. "I don't care." "Let the wild rumpus begin!" And for some reason, especially, "Milk for the morning cake." (Why don't we have cake for breakfast, though?!) If you haven't read the obituary in the New York Times, treat yourself to it. Margalit Fox wrote one of the most wonderful obituaries I've ever read. I think Sendak would be pleased. I understand his NPR interview is great, too. I haven't listened to it yet. I hear one needs a lot of tissues.
When I read that President Obama finally came out in favor of gay marriage, I sighed, "Oh good." My friend in the room below me said, "I know." (Thin walls.) That was all we said at that moment (we were writing) but she knew what I was talking about and I knew what her reaction was.
President Obama finally came out in favor of gay marriage, it is said, not because of his Veep's declaration or because of the North Carolina embarrassment, but because of his daughters. Apparently they told him that love between two people is love between two people. They should be able to get married. Who knows? Maybe they had been telling him that for a long time. Maybe he had been telling them that. (We can only hope.) But it's the truth and it seems they told him it was time to Tell the Truth. It so often takes children to lead the way to the truth. Because they just seem to be unafraid of it. Up to a certain age they don't have the defenses and the filters and the biases that adults have. We who write for and teach children know this.
In 1969, E.B. White told George Plimpton and Frank H. Crowther in a Paris Review interview, "Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly."
He goes on to say that "Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn't know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention."
Master Truth Tellers deserve all the respect, adulation and thanks we can give them. Most of the great ones, like White and Sendak, were actually humble. Maurice Sendak knew that children often ate his work. He loved that. They read it, they loved it, they ate it. Fine with him. But those who write for children are also proud of it. Sendak did not love when people disrespected him or the genre. And yet he didn't think he was changing the world (I disagree). He told Vanity Fair in an interview last August, “A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re the kiddie-book man!’ I wanted to kill her.”
E.B. White said in that same Paris Review interview, back in 1969, "A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world. He must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge."
I would say that goes double and triple for those of us who write for kids. Because kids demand and deserve the truth. Give it to them and they will lead the way.