Sparked by Words

When our oldest son was nearly four and I was well on my way to delivering a baby of unknown gender, my husband and I wandered into a bookstore in the nearby mall. Back then bookstores were not mega edifices, I’d never heard of Maurice Sendak, and the space allotted for picture books was a single half-shelf near the floor. Our budget was too tight for even one book. Still, Where the Wild Things Are stood out for the cover image of a chubby monster with human feet dozing near an ocean. That was my kid, a brilliant, adorable boy who drove me nuts sometimes.

We purchased the book knowing we’d do without the few extras that marked our thin-wallet lifestyle. When it comes to your kid, you suck in a bit to give what you know he should have. I had very few toys as a child, but I had books, and my kids would have books. Still, why choose this picture book to represent my all-time favorite W book when the list at the bottom of this post notes some of the most incredible stories ever written?

It has something to do with childhood, something to do with art, and something to do with the continuing evolvement of human beings.

We all begin as wild things, our dividing first cells connected to the atoms that indicate some kind of life, then developing into homo sapiens. As Newborn Progeny announces his presence with wails and flailing fists, we parent-adults sprint to satisfy his needs – food, comfort, a safe place to sleep – eventually understanding we are giving in to outrageous demands. Food, comfort, a safe place to sleep, entertainment on demand, the center of attention all the time, and everything now, now, now. We parent-adults are exhausted, grumpy, and lacking substantial nourishment, but we still adore the little moppet until we see that he isn’t always so cute and he can take care of some of his own needs, dammit.

There he is, selfish Max in his wolf suit, a wild child who stomps to his bedroom, soon overrun by a forest of Amazonian dimensions. A boat sails by and picks him up to deliver him to the place where the wild things are. Where he belongs, dammit. Who of us does not remember roaring their terrible roars at the injustice of rules, gnashing their terrible teeth when asked to apologize for bad behavior, rolling their terrible eyes at parental expectations, and showing their terrible claws in defense of all things Child? Max may have been only four or five, but I’m certain his terrible attitude continued throughout his teenage years. My sons’ did, as did mine a hundred years before.

Where the Wild Things Are is not about the innocence of babyhood or the curiosity of toddler years. It’s about the primal non-compliance of every growing child who says, “No, I don’t want to, you’re not the boss of me, you can’t make me, I won’t.” And turns his back on you. Every parent (and every teacher) knows this kid: the girl who throws a temper tantrum until she nearly stops breathing, the boy who flings all his toys onto the floor, the child who tears the heads off dolls.

Max partakes of a “wild rumpus,” an activity akin to play. He and the monsters hang from trees and strut in a parade. Best of all, he finds a safe and peaceful way to vent his fury – he retreats into his imagination where he is king of the wild things, until he becomes weary with his rebellion and returns home. Consequences are painless and fleeting, a natural outcome of letting a tantrum deflate on its own, showing the way a child should be able to deal with his demons, if the adults are understanding. The end of the time out, a renewed chance to win favor with his mom. After all, Max is only five.

Sendak’s illustrations show Max as the captain of the ship that sails to the land of the wild things, the monsters themselves featuring huge claws, bulbous eyes, and sharp fangs. They’re not really terrifying but more like a kid’s stuffed animal with a few pointy parts added. Pictures are buffed until soft, rendered with delicate pen and ink lines over pale watercolor washes. They don’t stab you in the eyes – they sidle up to you, letting you linger. The layout of the book lends to its brilliance. Several pages show double-paged illustrations with no words, and the very last page reads simply, “and it was still hot,” with no image at all.

As an art teacher, the story of Max and the wild things provided inspiration for the creation of hundreds of wild monsters, all manner of paintings and collages crafted by my students. I encouraged them to explore every abominable or fantastic thing they could think of. And they did. Because all kids need an outlet for the things without names or borders that rage inside them. Because they do, at times. And that’s what Maurice Sendak understood. We are not perfect as parents, teachers, adults, and not when we were kids either. We were and still are full of fears of the unknown, ire at what seems unfair, confusion over what we cannot grasp. Life is not just, and all we want to do is hang from the trees and make mischief.

We know this wild little one, whether big or small, who wants someone to hug him no matter what. Someone to listen to his outrageous complaints, to hear his ridiculous excuses, to tell him it will be alright. Someone to keep supper hot until the spell of rage is over, the wolf suit lies discarded on the floor, and the child has completed the journey home.

Let me give you a hug, Max, my student, my child, my son. I will love you forever, “back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day,” as long as it takes, as much as you need me. It’s what we parents (and teachers) do – we wait it out until it’s spent.

Maurice Sendak understood the great paradox of childhood: beneath the imploring eyes, between the small shoulders, a child of enormous strength and righteous indignation must learn to grow into his power with grace. But it takes a very long time and a whole lot of failure and a gigantic amount of patience before the monster becomes human. As an art teacher, eager to hang my students’ monsters on the wall. And as a parent, waiting to comfort my child at the end of a very arduous journey.

I still marvel at Sendak’s economically worded story, a skill I have yet to master. He describes the psychological territory of a child in less than four hundred words. After reading Wild Things to my sons and my older grandchildren hundreds of times, I sent my copy to my two younger grandchildren for many more years of enjoyment.

Where the Wild Things Are was written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. It won the 1964 Caldecott Award for “the Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year.” It remains one of the most requested and beloved books ever. Miss you, Maurice. Love you always, Max, Noah, Ethan, and our four Grands. Dinner is waiting – and it’s still hot.

I look forward to learning about your favorite W fiction books.

Other books that were serious contenders for W:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Watership Down by Richard Adams
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
White Oleander by Janet Fitch,
The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
The World to Come by Dara Horn
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Row Publishers

Advertisements

Comments on: "W is for Where the Wild Things Are" (20)

  1. Sharon, how have I not heard or read this book! I just rue the fact that my son, nieces and nephews are too old for this…do I have to wait for the grandchildren then?!😀😃 Just from the cover photo I’m hooked on the style of illustrations and I’m so happy you could use this with your students over the years. The story is touching and so true and must have given you strength during the tough days. What a serendipitous purchase and yes, I’m the same, books are never a luxury but a necessity!

    I’ve been waiting for the ‘Ws’ and had a few contenders myself ready: Wild Swans by Jung Chang is a classic as far as I’m concerned. Another is The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse. A more contemporary read about grief is Who We Were Before by Leah Mercer.

    You’re soon coming to the end of the alphabet…what will you do then??😀❤️

    Like

    • Annika, I loved reading your comments – really, you must go to the library and check out Where the Wild Things Are – though it might already be borrowed. Sendak has often been noted as someone who touches the child within, whether that person is still a tyke on a trike or driving a car. Thanks for your W suggestions – you’ve been making my TBR list quite long, you know.

      As for what I’ll write next: I plan to publish a post about how I wrote this A to Z series as it entailed much more than I originally expected. New ideas also rising on the horizon, but probably not another A to Z for a while.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This was an enthralling and fantastic read. Thank you for putting so many associations together with such an engaging and important children’s book. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

    Like

  3. RedheadedBooklover said:

    Hi ! I never normally comment on other people’s posts but I just came across your blog and I have to comment and tell you that I adore it! Your blog is so wonderful, I am so happy I just came across it. I am going to follow you right now so I can keep up to date with all of your posts; I look forward to your next ones! Keep up the great work (:

    Like

  4. Wonderful book, Shari. Luckily, new parents can get it for free at the library (for a checkout period–I constantly renew). It’s well worth the read.

    Like

  5. You have many of my favorite W books on your list. I’ve read Where The Wild Things Are countless times over the years. For whatever reason when I do I think of Lord of the Flies.

    Like

    • Actually, I totally get the connection to Lord of the Flies, though it’s a very dark and violent book – kids way over the boundaries. Wild Things is just little ones being little ones.

      Like

  6. I have read Watership Down. I still remember parts of it too. I have gotten War and Peace and Wuthering Heights on Kindle but have not read them yet.

    Like

  7. FINALLY Shari! A book I’ve read. (or at least remember reading) I love love love this book so much so that I bought a wild thing stuffed toy – the one that has the red beard. I named it Dr. C. Everett Koop because it looks just like him.

    Like

  8. What a fabulous post! I adore Maurice Sendak and I love the way you analyzed this story. So, true! I definitely had a bit of that rebellion. But more, I’m just thinking how lucky those kids were to have such an insightful and thoughtful art teacher. I wish you had been mine!

    Like

  9. Well, this just takes me back! I still have the book on my shelf–read it to my girls back in the day! Loved your review and your list of other W books!

    Like

  10. I think we’ve all read this one. It never took as one of my kids’ favorite, but that’s not something under my control. At least they all liked Go, Dog, Go. 🙂

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: