Law and Conversation

July 20, 2011

Three to read from Maurice Sendak, and how we create our families

The other day I added Maurice Sendak‘s “Nutshell Library,” composed of “Alligators All Around,” “Pierre,” “One Was Johnny,” and the immortal “Chicken Soup With Rice,” to my personal list of series books everyone should have read before the age of 21. If Sendak wrote or illustrated it, it’s hard to go wrong, in my experience.

“Where The Wild Things Are” is probably Sendak’s most famous book. Here are three more wonderful but not quite as well known books that Sendak either wrote or illustrated:

1) “The Wheel On The School,” by Meindert De Jong. This Newbery Medal winner for 1955 is a wonderful story of what children can achieve when they’re motivated and organized.

2) “Zlateh the Goat,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. This earthy, timeless tale is suitable for children and adults alike. The Great Books Foundation has included it in its Shared Inquiry student anthologies for the early grades from time to time.

3) “The Bat Poet” and “The Animal Family,” by Randall Jarrell. The former, which I read only as an adult, is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. The latter, which I read many times as a child and loved, is also wonderful, though, contrary to John Updike, I think “The Bat Poet” is even better. For each, Sendak’s drypoint (?) illustrations perfectly enhance the story.

“The Animal Family,” which has to do with a family in the woods made up of a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx, and a boy who was a foundling, made me think about how many people create their own families, sometimes because they don’t have many close biological family members, sometimes because they don’t find their biological family members congenial or because they’ve grown away from them, and sometimes because they live far away. Naturally, that line of thought took me to musing about how social customs and practices have influenced the evolution of family law.

Though there’s great current popular emphasis on family, it seems to me that creating family-equivalents from unrelated friends must have a long tradition in the Americas and Australia, as Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts in her stories of Christmas and other occasions with the Boasts and Mr. Edwards in her “Little House” books. The alternative would have been a solitary existence–fine for some, but probably unbearable for most. Now as then, true friends are more valuable than rubies.

Marriage and adoption are the most common and accepted ways for those who aren’t related by blood to create families. In the last couple of decades, the law around the world has been rapidly changing to encourage marriage and permanent relationships by permitting marriage or civil unions between adult same-sex partners.

Though there’s great wisdom in current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s famous quote, “It takes a village” to raise a child, courts and legislatures have understandably proceeded with great caution when considering claims for custody or visitation of minor children from persons other than the children’s legal parents. In my home state, for example, the Illinois Supreme Court has grappled with such issues in headline-making cases such as “Baby Richard,” in which the court reversed the termination of a biological father’s parental rights, and Wickham v. Byrne, in which the court invalidated the state’s then-existing grandparent visitation statute. In the latter case, the court found it troubling that the statutory standard, the “best interests and welfare of the child,” put grandparents on the same footing as the child’s parents. It felt that courts should second-guess parental decisions only when a child’s health, safety, or welfare was shown to be at risk. The statute has since been amended.

You can listen to an interview with Maurice Sendak here on NPR. Did Maurice Sendak’s works make an impression on you when you were a child? Have you reread them on becoming a grown-up, and if so, did they inspire you with any fresh insights?

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2 Comments »

  1. Oh, my goodness don’t get me started on books written or illustrated by Maurice Sendak! The two volume Juniper Tree and Other Tales From Grimm, Higglety, Pigglety Pop or there must be more to life about the death of his beloved dog, Jennie, a personal favorite: I Saw Esau, also, his for grown-ups illustrations for Melville’s follow-up to Moby Dick, Pierre and for Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea: The Light Princess by George MacDonald, and truly one of the greatest childrens books of all time, a modern rival to any myth or fairy tale, Macdonald’s THE GOLDEN KEY!

    Comment by Kerry — July 20, 2011 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

    • Delighted to get you started on Maurice Sendak, Kerry–I love the passion for his art in your response!

      Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — July 20, 2011 @ 8:30 pm | Reply


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