Where will the wild things go now? More than children’s literature lost out with the death of Maurice Sendak, a world-famous artist and writer of children’s books who died May 8 at 83—but not before upending a world of fear by exposing it. His book, Where the Wild Things Are, has become an American classic mostly because it radically altered our depiction of childhood innocence. Instead of pastel colors and play toys, Sendak gave children a chance to look at the monsters that live outside of us so that they could look at the monsters that live within.
In 2009, Sendak told the Associated Press that, “There’s a cruelty to childhood, there’s an anger.” He did not view childhood as a place of safety but as a place of untold demons. Sendak had many of his own. His parents immigrated to the United States from Poland, and he was tortured as a child by images of what happened to his remaining family during WWII. He believed that his writings were a way to confront the sadistic nature of human beings and allow the memories of those in his past to live on through his words and illustrations.
In a radio interview, Sendak confessed that he believed that children were never troubled by his work, only adults. Children related to his images; they loved his monsters. The criticisms he received across his career came from adults who were afraid to associate childhood with darkness.
Elie Wiesel, who was not as lucky as Sendak to be on American shores during the Holocaust, wrote about fear in many of his works. The quote above comes from his play, Zalman, Or the Madness of God. Wiesel faced fear, not as an abstract image lying under a bed or in a closet, but as a real, tangible force to be reckoned with daily. In an interview, he described the fear that would grip him and other children on Christmas and Easter when neighbors often beat up neighborhood kids. That fear only got worse. He understood, too, how fear paralyzes us and torments us, preventing us from actualizing our best selves. As an adult he overcame many of these fears and became a force for religion and humanitarianism. Not afraid to speak out, Wiesel gave license to others to tell their most frightening stories and thereby gain control over them.
But perhaps our deepest fears are not to live in darkness but to live in light. Marianne Williamson tapped into this fear and writes; “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us…You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.”
Ironically, we often fear our success. Through the illustrator’s imagination or through the cold facts of Jewish history, we have been handed an opportunity to face our fears, to overcome them and ultimately to shine.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.
Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list.