Brain Pickings

Maurice Sendak’s Darkest, Most Controversial Yet Most Hopeful Children’s Book

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A moving cry for mercy, for light, and for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of hopeless darkness.

One of Maurice Sendak‘s most misunderstood qualities, yet also arguably the very same one that rendered him one of the most innovative and influential storytellers of all time, was his deep faith in children’s resilience and his unflinching refusal to allow the fears and self-censorship of grownups to sugarcoat the world for children, who he believed possess enormous emotional intelligence in processing the dark — an evolution of Tolkien’s assertion that there is no such thing as writing “for children,” which Sendak echoed in his final interview, indignantly telling Stephen Colbert: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!'”

But while many of Sendak’s books have been deemed controversial precisely out of this misunderstanding, from the banning of In the Night Kitchen to the outrage over his sensual illustrations of Melville, no book of his has drawn a thicker cloud of controversy than the 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (public library) — an unusual fusion of two traditional Mother Goose nursery rhymes, “In the Dumps” and “Jack and Gye,” reimagined and interpreted by Sendak’s singular sensibility, with enormously rich cultural and personal subtext.

Created at the piercing pinnacle of the AIDS plague and amid an epidemic of homelessness, it is a highly symbolic, sensitive tale that reads almost like a cry for mercy, for light, for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of incomprehensible heartbreak and grimness. It is, above all, a living monument to hope — one built not on the denial of hopelessness but on its delicate demolition.

On a most basic level, the story follows a famished black baby, part of a clan of homeless children dressed in newspaper and living in boxes, kidnapped by a gang of giant rats. Jack and Guy, who are strolling nearby and first brush the homeless kids off, witness the kidnapping and set out to rescue the boy. But the rats challenge them to a rigged game of bridge, with the child as the prize. After a series of challenges that play out across a number of scary scenes, Jack and Guy emerge victorious and save the boy with the help of the omniscient Moon and a mighty white cat that chases the rats away.

But the book’s true magic lies in its integration of Sendak’s many identities — the son of Holocaust survivors, a gay man witnessing the devastation of AIDS, a deft juggler of darkness and light.

St. Paul’s Bakery and Orphanage, where the story is set, is a horrible place reminiscent of Auschwitz. In the game of bridge, “diamonds are trumps,” a phrase with a poignant double meaning, subtly implicating the avarice of the world’s diamond-slingers and Donald Trumps in the systemic social malady of homelessness — something reflected in the clever wordplay of the book’s title itself, suggesting that homelessness isn’t limited to the homeless but is a problem we’re all in together, equally responsible for its solution.

Jack and Guy appear like a gay couple, and their triumph in rescuing the child resembles an adoption, two decades before that was an acceptable subject for a children’s book. “And we’ll bring him up / As other folk do,” the final pages read — and, once again, a double meaning reveals itself as two characters are depicted with wings on their backs, lifting off into the sky, lending the phrase “we’ll bring him up” an aura of salvation. In the end, the three curl up as a makeshift family amidst a world that is still vastly imperfect but full of love.

We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are thumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Without walls

Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do

In many ways, this is Sendak’s most important and most personal book. In fact, Sendak would resurrect the characters of Jack and Guy two decades later in his breathtaking final book, a posthumously published love letter to the world and to his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. Jack and Guy, according to playwright Tony Kushner, a dear friend of Sendak’s, represented the two most important people in the beloved illustrator’s life — Jack was his real-life brother Jack, whose death devastated Sendak, and Guy was Eugene, the love of Sendak’s life, who survived him after half a century of what would have been given the legal dignity of a marriage had Sendak lived to see the dawn of marriage equality. (Sendak died thirteen months before the defeat of DOMA.)

All throughout, the book emanates Sendak’s greatest lifelong influence — like the verses and drawings of William Blake, Sendak’s visual poetry in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is deeply concerned with the human spirit and, especially, with the plight of children.

Complement this many-layered gem with more of Sendak’s lesser-known work, including his beautiful posters celebrating the joy of reading, his unreleased drawings, his formative, rare vintage illustrations for William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and his provocative art for Melville’s Pierre.

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C.S. Lewis on True Friendship

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“Friendship … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.”

“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” Emerson marveled in his exquisite meditation on friendship. But what, exactly, is at the heart of this “just and firm encounter”?

In his insightful 1960 book The Four Loves (public library), C.S. Lewis picks up where Aristotle left off and examines the differences between the four main categories of intimate human bonds — affection, the most basic and expressive; Eros, the passionate and sometimes destructive desire of lovers; charity, the highest and most unselfish spiritual connection; and friendship, the rarest, least jealous, and most profound relation.

In one of the most beautiful passages, he considers how friendship differs from the other three types of love by focusing on its central question: “Do you see the same truth.”

Lewis writes:

Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not.

[...]

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague, or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.

Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.

The Four Loves is a superb read in its entirety, provocative at times but invariably thoughtful throughout. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love and a curious history of the convergence of the two in “romantic friendship,” then revisit Lewis on suffering and what free will really means, the secret of happiness, the key to authenticity in writing, and his ideal daily routine.

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The Little Red Schoolbook: An Honest Vintage Guide to Teenage Sexuality, Education Reform, and Independent Thinking

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“Leaders remain leaders only as long as you let them.”

In 1969, shortly after the Summer of Love swept America, Danish schoolteachers Søren Hansen and Jesper Jensen penned a slim and provocative book for teens as “a protest against the Victorian/authoritarian school system with its robotic discipline,” encouraging young people to think for themselves, to question social rites, to demand more of their education, and to explore their sexuality without shame. While aimed at kids, these refreshingly lucid principles of identity and interpersonal dynamics applied just as elegantly to grownup domains like romance, the workplace, and the creative process. It was at once an instant success and a publishing debacle — read by parents, teachers, and students from Japan to Mexico, it was translated into twenty languages but quickly stirred great outrage by precisely those robotic disciplinarians it sought to challenge. The Greek publisher was thrown in jail, the UK authorities confiscated all copies from the warehouse and successfully prosecuted the publisher under the Obscene Publications Act, and the Pope proclaimed the book immoral. A highly censored second edition was published, but it quickly went out of print. For decades, the original remained unavailable and, due to this very forbidden-fruit quality, a highly prized item.

Now, nearly half a century after its initial publication, the original and uncensored version of The Little Red Schoolbook (public library) is at last released — a book as refreshingly honest and elegantly straightforward as its cover design. Rather than dated, its idealism, insight, and practical advice on everything from education to sexuality ring with remarkable resonance in the context of today’s culture, well beyond the intended audience of teenagers.

For instance, the book’s piercing critique of education sounds like it may have been written today — in fact, fragments of it can be found in such highly quotable contemporary counterparts as Sir Ken Robinson on changing educational paradigms and Seth Godin on the success myths the industrial economy has sold us. Writing in 1969, Hansen and Jensen describe the same broken system at work today:

Education should teach you how to find out about the things you need to know and give you the opportunity of developing your own particular talents and interests to the full. The trouble is that few people really know how to do this. Those who do know, or at least have some good ideas, are not the people who actually control the education system. The system is controlled by the people who have the money, and directly or indirectly these people decide what you should be taught and how.

[...]

The industries and businesses that control our economic system need a relatively small number of highly educated experts to do the brain-work, and a large number of less well educated people to do the donkey-work. Our education system is set up to churn out these two sorts of people in the right proportions — although it doesn’t in fact succeed.

Illustration from 'My Teacher Is a Monster' by Peter Brown. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that Adrienne Rich would come to echo a decade later in her spectacular commencement address on why an education is something we claim rather than get, they add:

What you get out of your education will largely decide what you get out of your whole life. So you have a right, and a duty to yourself, to insist on getting the best possible education. You should know how the present system works and what its limitations are. But you must not let this stop you demanding a proper education.

But rather than a document of lamentation, the book is a toolkit of empowerment, teaching young people how to handle with elegance and dignity their inner struggles and interpersonal dynamics — skills that help navigate the education system but, more than that, help navigate the complex world in real life. Their advice is worded simply enough for kids to understand but also emanates a purity of conviction that jolts grownups out of our convoluted cynicism.

One of the most poignant chapters deal with the art of persuasion and the role of honesty in influencing people:

To have influence it’s important to remember

  • That it’s easier to influence someone if you like them and they like you.
  • That the most influential thing you can do is to be honest (and tactful).
  • That you need to know the person you want to influence — and to understand why he does what he does.
  • That a person who’s frightened is hard to influence: he often gets angry so as to hide his fear.
  • That it’s best to bring disagreements out into the open if everybody knows they exist. That discussing and sorting out disagreements is a good way of learning more about each other. It also helps clear the air.
  • That if words fail, you can try positive action.

In a section titled “Honesty is Influence,” they point to the lack of honesty between students and teachers as a key culprit in the limitations of the education system — insight that, once more, applies to so many other aspects of our everyday lives:

If everybody dared to be honest with each other all the time, our present school system would collapse very rapidly. But as a rule neither teachers nor pupils dare to be honest with each other.

Neither teachers nor pupils usually dare to say that they’re bored. And even if a teacher knows this, he can’t usually face up to it and deal with it. So you should realize that if you speak the truth to a teacher in one way or another, he will be influenced, even if he doesn’t show it at the time.

Truth can be told in many ways.

Illustration from 'Advice to Little Girls,' Mark Twain's irreverent encouragement of girls to think independently rather than blindly obey social mores. Click image for more.

When honesty alone is not enough, Hansen and Jensen presage James Murphy’s modern aphorism that “the best way to complain is to make things” and speak to the power of action, the other key element of influence:

If being honest doesn’t work and all your suggestions get talked to death, then act to show that you mean what you say… The best way to act is to simply do what you’ve talked about for so long. If there are things you’ve wanted to introduce into school — whether in lessons, in breaks or after school — and you’ve been refused, start them by yourselves.

Noting how difficult it is to influence someone who is afraid of you — something David Foster Wallace would capture beautifully decades later in his spectacular definition of what makes a great leader — Hansen and Jensen write:

Most bad and authoritarian teachers are tied up in knots or afraid of something or other. They’re often afraid of their pupils and think they have to appear strict and unapproachable. They’re afraid that the pupils may be right and that they may be wrong. They’re afraid that there’ll be chaos if they give up their power and authority.

This fear arises because they don’t believe in other people’s ability to organize themselves and find their own solutions to problems. This lack of faith in others may be due to a lack of belief in themselves. They’re insecure and have to rely on their authority all the time.

[...]

If your teacher is frightened of you and therefore afraid of doing anything new with you, he’s usually very hard to influence. In order to influence each other, it’s necessary to feel reasonably secure. So to influence a frightened teacher, make him feel secure. Show him you’re willing to cooperate. Give him a real chance to explain what he’s trying to do. If you ask to do new things, explain that this is not in order to test him out, but so that everybody can be freer and therefore enjoy themselves more. Once he realizes that in some situations things can be done in a different and freer way than he has known so far, it may be possible to make some progress.

Teachers who are afraid that things will get chaotic if they take off their masks, their false authority, won’t usually go further than allowing something new “just for once” or “as an experiment”. Make use of this opportunity. If the “experiment” works, the teacher should obviously be willing to do it again.

This principle, of course, applies as much to the dynamics in the classroom as it does to the dynamics at the workplace, in politics, or even in the family — a recurring tendency across much of the advice in the book. They later add:

Democracy is built on action. This doesn’t mean unconsidered actions, but active contributions towards getting things changed. Democracy comes from below.

A section that appears, on the surface, dated is the one about corporal punishment — something long since outlawed in schools, but at the time widely practiced across the school systems of the world. But what makes the discussion of it pertinent is that corporal punishment, an extrinsic motivator using negative reinforcement to promote a desired learning behavior, is simply the flip side of standardized praise for achievement, something widely practiced today and shown to be ineffective in promoting true growth — for the very same reasons that Hansen and Jensen decry corporal punishment, namely the haplessness of extrinsic motivators compared to intrinsic ones and that attention rather than reinforcement produces achievement. They write:

Time and time again it’s been shown that corporal punishment can do serious harm to disturbed, backward or mentally handicapped children. Yet it’s most frequently used on precisely these children. These unfortunate children often show their distress in “abnormal” or “delinquent” behavior. What they want is more attention and encouragement. What they get is a slap or a caning. This can make them even more disturbed and backward — and it isn’t even effective in stopping their “abnormal” behavior.

Corporal punishment isn’t effective on ordinary children either. If a teacher gives you a cuff round the ear (often quite unjustifiably) it doesn’t make you change your attitude and really pay attention: it just makes you resentful. If you get called to the headmaster’s room for a caning you may be a bit afraid and it will hurt for a while. But it doesn’t miraculously make you “see the light” and transform you into a “nicely behaved little boy.” At best it’ll make you try not to get caught again. And when it’s over, the chances are you’ll treat the whole thing as a big joke.

But Hansen and Jensen’s most important point is one of values, encouraging independence of mind and personal integrity — the very capacity Jeanette Winterson argued so beautifully that art helps us cultivate. They write:

Don’t blindly accept the values of grown-ups. Think things out for yourself and base your judgement on what you really believe.

They circle back to the question of leadership with a thoughtful section on group organization and the fluidity of roles in successful groups:

Some people — real leaders — are always more active and decisive than others. But some people — bad leaders — always say more than others and listen less. Some are forever giving orders and bullying others “under” them. Some are on top, others are at the bottom. Groups like this are organized like a pyramid.

Groups don’t have to work like this. There are many ways of organizing things. You can create democratic cooperation, so that everybody feels that he belongs and has a real influence in all the group’s decisions.

This means that you’re not limited to a particular role, that you can at times lead or be led, according to the situation. It often means that you have different leaders for different things…

It’s worth knowing that two kinds of leaders often emerge. There are those who want to decide everything themselves. They use their power to give themselves the jobs they want and they try to dominate when decisions are taken. And there are those who don’t try to decide everything themselves but give others real responsibility and use everybody’s energies and talents to the full.

Leaders remain leaders only as long as you let them.

But perhaps the best, most timeless, and most poignant section of the book is also the one responsible for the controversy and censorship — the chapter on sex. Hansen and Jensen begin with a wonderfully worded, almost poetic, seemingly simple yet profound morphology of sexual relations:

People go to bed with one another for many reasons.

  • They are close friends and enjoy talking to one another — with their bodies as well.
  • They do it because people need sexual satisfaction, and masturbation is no longer considered to be enough.
  • They may lack security and seek it through sex.
  • They may be under pressure to do it because everybody else in their group boasts about their “conquests”.
  • They may use sex as a way of exploring their own identity.
  • They may have deep feelings for each other and perhaps want to have children.

Whatever the reasons may be, and however many people you may go to bed with, it will have consequences for each person.

Sex may or may not involve strong feelings. Strong feelings may or may not involve sex.

The only way to avoid unforeseen consequences in sexual relationships is for both people to be honest with one another about what they are looking for.

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' Kurt Vonnegut's favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality. Click image for more.

In the same era when children were sending Judy Blume distraught and endearing letters about masturbation, and a century after Mark Twain satirized society’s hypocrisy about the subject, Hansen and Jensen offer an entertaining matter-of-factly aside:

Some girls, and a very few boys, don’t masturbate. This is quite normal. It’s also normal to do it. Some do it several times a day, some several times a week, some more rarely. Grown-ups do it too. If anybody tells you it’s harmful to masturbate, they’re lying. If anybody tells you you mustn’t do it too much, they’re lying too, because you can’t do it too much. Ask them how often you ought to do it. They’ll usually shut up then.

In another passage of refreshing lucidity, they offer special attention to the female sexual experience — something consistently regarded, especially in that era, as either taboo or, at best of minimal, secondary importance to the discourse on sexuality:

Having an orgasm is usually called coming… Coming is less obvious for a girl. The feeling is different for each girl. It can be intense pleasure or excitement or a feeling of relief. Some girls come a lot faster than others. It may take some experience for a girl to find out what coming really is for her.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the first half of the twentieth century. Click image for more.

In a particularly prescient passage that illustrates both how far we’ve come in the decades since and how much baggage of bigotry we have yet to undo, they consider the question of homosexuality mere months before the historic Stonewall riots:

In purely physical terms, homosexuals make love just like anybody else, although of course they can’t have intercourse in quite the same way. Their love and their feelings are just as real and genuine and natural as anybody else’s.

Many of them have great difficulties because in our Christian culture they are considered sick, abnormal or even criminal. In many other cultures homosexuality is recognized just like other forms of sexuality. Homosexuality has recently been made legal in Britain, but only “between consenting males over 21, in private.” However homosexuals are still often persecuted by ignorant people. (Female homosexuality, which is called lesbianism, has never been illegal in Britain.)

Many homosexuals live together in stable relationships. The time will come when homosexual marriages are recognized.

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' a 1968 satire of conformity-culture written and illustrated by a high school girl. Click image for more.

Hansen and Jensen springboard into a wider discussion of difference and nonconformity, as relevant today as ever, and resonant across a multitude of cultural contexts — a reminder of what we intuit so deeply but, for a variety of internal and social reasons, often fail to enact:

It’s normal to be different. We all are.

People use the word “abnormal” to mean many things. They may mean something which doesn’t fit in with their particular standards (for example regarding school or religion). They may mean something which goes against the traditional view of what is right and wrong. They may simply mean something of which they themselves are afraid.

“Abnormal” is a very dangerous word. It’s often used as an excuse for the persecution and repression of some people by others. It’s particularly misused in the sexual context.

It’s not considered abnormal for people to have red hair or collect coins or play the bagpipes. So why should it be considered abnormal for some people to fall in love with others of their own sex, to like unusual positions for intercourse or to like being caressed in an unusual way.

If you’re not allowed to enjoy special interests which don’t harm anybody else, it’s usually because of other people’s intolerance. You may feel that you’re the only person who experiences things in a “strange” way, and you may think you are abnormal. It can be a help to discover that there are many other people who are almost the same as you. There always are.

The Little Red Schoolbook, long subjected the very same persecution of out-of-the-ordinary thought that the book itself challenged, is well worth a read now that, at last, we live in a culture ready for it. Complement it with An ABZ of Love, an equally progressive vintage Danish guide to sexuality that Kurt Vonnegut sent to his wife.

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