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“I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” – Maurice Sendak

In my experience, the widely held perception is that it’s easy to write a book for kids, and that less talent is required in doing so than in writing for adults. Why? Because kids are simple things, right? Their most complex emotion is I want ice cream, and their aspirations don’t venture much past I’m gonna try not to wet my Pull-Ups today!

Right. That’s why parenting is so easy. (Note the sarcasm.)

Like the skills we learn from our parents, some books are not left in childhood. Some books mark us for a lifetime, and as adults, we still carry them with us. Books like Margaret Brown’s Goodnight Moon, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, beloved works by Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss.

The authors of these books have something in common: they tell the truth. As adults, we want to protect children, and rightly so, but in our quest to preserve their innocence, we sometimes attempt to remove from their consciousness what is real, and this is a mistake.

Maurice Sendak, an award-winning writer and illustrator who died last month, was adamant about this, that whatever we do, we must be honest with our children.

(Watch Stephen Colbert interview Maurice Sendak, and then YouTube more interviews. The man was a genius. Listening to him will change your life. Links to his interviews are provided at the end of this post.)

He once told the story of a little girl who had witnessed the 9/11 attacks. “I knew a little girl who told her parents – because her school was close by the twin towers when it happened – and she told her father that she saw the butterflies coming out of the windows. And only later said: ‘They weren’t butterflies. They were people.’ But she lied, at first, to make him more comfortable. And that’s what kids do – they are immensely courageous. And they sacrifice a lot. And they try to play mute and dumb because – well, it’s kind of the expectation of their parents.”

I remember this very feeling as a child. When I was around the age of seven, I read a quote that was something like this: “Childhood ends the moment you learn you are going to die.” The magnitude of its unapologetic honesty struck me. I repeated the quote to my mother and she reacted with horror. “Elizabeth, that’s terrible! Why are you reading things like that? Where did you find it?!”

Children learn quickly that they are not expected to say what is true; they are expected to say what is cute. They familiarize themselves with what is “right” and what is “wrong,” and I’m not talking in terms of morality. They know to censor themselves, for our sake.

This, in my opinion, is the greatest tragedy we could inflict upon the next generation. Kids shouldn’t have to say anything to put us at ease, or conversely, not say something because it will make us uncomfortable. Children live in the same world you do, and they are not incapable of understanding it. Timeless children’s authors know this. They write honestly about what is real, trusting their small readers to respond with the intellectual fervor that they know those readers are capable of, not because they are children, but because they are human.

Links (watch these! Maurice Sendak will change your life…)

Stephen Colbert interviews Maurice Sendak: Part 1

Stephen Colbert interviews Maurice Sendak: Part 2

Maurice Sendak talks about passion, comic books, and William Blake

Maurice Sendak on Death (and Life)

What were your favorite books as a child? Which ones do you still carry with you?

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