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