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Video Reviews: Children's author rouses folks with 'Wild Things,' soothes with 'Little Bear'

Friday, August 10, 2001

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

As I'm talking on the phone with Maurice Sendak, there's a wild ruckus at the door involving his German shepherd Max (who was not named, by the way, after the little boy in his classic book "Where the Wild Things Are").

"There's someone at the door," Sendak says, "and he's going to go eat them. And that's OK with me."

I can hold on, I tell the legendary children's author and illustrator.

"No, no," he says calmly. "I want to watch him eat them."

It's not the typical comment from a children's book author, but Sendak is far from the typical children's book author. With their sly humor and stunning imagery, his books pushed the boundaries of what was appropriate subject matter for kids, beginning with "Where the Wild Things Are," which was controversial upon publication in 1963, won the Caldecott Medal a year later and is now one of the top 10 selling children's books of all time.

Several years earlier, in 1957, Sendak, who has written and illustrated 12 children's books and illustrated more than 70 others, began working on Else Holmelund Minarik's series on "Little Bear." The gentle stories of a little cub from a proper family are known to kids now as an animated series for Nick Jr., and this week the first full-length video, "The Little Bear Movie," is released.

In the video, Little Bear takes an adventure in the woods where he befriends a wild bear and is so innocent he doesn't even realize that a mountain lion he meets along the way is a threat. It illustrates what a safe existence the little cub leads.

"When the books were published in the late '50s," Sendak says, "the great thing about them is that they were wish fulfillment. Every kid in the world would like to have a home like that, where it's unconditional love from Mom and Dad, where you're always safe, where every need is satisfied. That's not real life. It's what children wished was real life, that's why the books were successful. I never had that kind of childhood. Elsa, who wrote the books, never had that kind of childhood. We were inventing the perfect childhood, or she was, 'cause she wrote them. It was an idealized childhood back in the late '50s, so can you imagine how idealized it is now."

Little Bear's scenario is very different from that of Max, who in "Wild Things" quarrels with his mom and is sent to his room where he goes on a romp with a band of sharp-toothed monsters. It created a ruckus of its own when it came out.

"When that came out, there were psychologists who said, 'This is a bad book. Any mother who sends their child to bed without dinner is a terrible mother.' They objected to that, they objected to him being so rude to his mother, they objected to her yelling back at him, they objected to the Wild Things being too scary. They objected to everything. When it was first published it was very novel and different. In fact, a very important psychologist [Bruno Bettelheim] said that. He did take that back later in life. He did me a lot of damage at the beginning. Now it's a classic and cult book and showered with praise. And I know it's going to be on my tombstone, I just know it. And of course, I won't care, 'cause I'll be dead."

At the time, though, he says, "I was scared out of my mind. I was only, like, 32 ... I was shocked at the reaction. To me, it was just another picture book. I didn't think it was that original."

As a result of "Wild Things," Sendak's career took a different turn and continued that way with his next publication.

"I was a decent, honorable illustrator, a good boy. Librarians loved me and I did these nice books like 'Little Bear.' They didn't expect any trouble from me and I was invited to tea at the library. Then I did this vicious book and suddenly I was controversial. And you get pigeonholed in America. After 'Where the Wild Things Are,' I published 'In the Night Kitchen,' which was a scandal. It was banned from libraries, and people were shocked because the little boy had a penis and gee whiz, I thought everyone knew that. Imagine that being a surprise. Apparently, there had never been front male nudity ever in a children's book, and I didn't know that. I didn't think anything that stupid would be a big deal. But it was a big deal and it worried me a lot because kids are just learning about their bodies and adjusting to their bodies. By banning the book or covering him with a little jock strappy thing only tells the kids that there is something wrong with the most natural thing in the world, your own human body."

Sendak, now 72, grew up in Brooklyn a sickly child born to poor Jewish parents who came to this country from a Warsaw ghetto. Most of his father's relatives were murdered in Auschwitz, and Sendak grew up haunted by their stories. He says that having older siblings in the house, he was never interested in reading children's books as a kid. He chose not to have children of his own, fearing that "to fail as a parent is to fail on the highest level."

Sendak says that if one thing binds his work, it's that "I've always been obsessed with the idea of children and their survival. Everything I've written or illustrated has been about that. If you have this fabulous unconditional love, you're getting everything you're supposed to get. But people are born all the time who are unwanted, as you well know. My interest has always been the humongous heroism of children -- or bears."

Other new releases:

"RUGRATS: DECADE IN DIAPERS, VOL. 1 & VOL. 2" (Paramount) 3 1/2: stars "Why are we eating cookies shaped like our butts?" It's the kind of line (about Valentine's cookies) that separates Rugrats from most of the other kids' stuff out there. These two volumes, running a whopping 161 minutes total, contain the 10 favorite episodes -- as chosen by the experts, the fans. My favorites: "No Bones About It," in which the babies try to take a bone home for their dog Spike, and the brilliant "Reptar on Ice," a send-up of hoky family entertainment.

"RECESS: SCHOOL'S OUT" (Disney) 3 stars: Friends all away at camp? You'll relate to T.J., who's stuck at home with nothing to do, until he discovers a little problem at the school: A maniacal ex-principal is planning to shoot a laser beam at the moon in order to change weather patterns and do away with summer vacation. It's a little much for the usually down-to-earth show, but hey, this is Hollywood. We get a groovy soundtrack, '60s flashbacks, burp jokes, ninja fights and corn chowder dumped on a bald guy's head. The only thing missing is Alice Cooper.

"THE BOOK OF POOH: STORIES FROM THE HEART" (Disney) 2 stars: You'd have to be a miserable wretch to come down on Pooh, but here goes. This full-length release combining puppets and computer animation is slow and clunky, the characters come off as whiny old fuddy-duddies and the songs had me lunging for the mute button. Plus, what kid who would be young enough to watch this would know what Tigger means by your "Mental Altitude." On the other hand, we can't knock the message: We're all unique in our special way.

Sendak's cub meets a new friend in "The Little Bear Movie."

Chris Callis

Maurice Sendak: "I've always been obsessed with the idea of children and their survival."

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