Thank you, Maurice Sendak

In picture and word, Where the Wild Things Are remains a sublime testament to the untamed emotions of childhood.

Nancy McDermott

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On Tuesday night, I let the late Maurice Sendak’s most famous child, Max, put on his wolf suit again. And in that moment, I remembered just what a pleasure it is to read Where the Wild Things Are. Its words, its pictures, its length, even the sound of the turning page are… exactly right. They are, in a word, ‘genius’.

I didn’t always think this way. As a child I thought Where the Wild Things Are was the most frustrating book of all. I loved the rich colours and texture of the illustrations, the transformation of Max’s bedroom and the private boat. The Wild Things were familiar but fantastic, like those flip-books with hundreds of combinations of different animal heads, bodies and legs. Parrot plus qualia plus lemur; bear plus bull plus crocodile.

And yet… nothing much happened. There was the wild rumpus of course, but that was brief, even a bit boring, and Max went home the next morning. His food didn’t even get cold! I often lingered over the book, either trying to draw in the same style or just staring at the pages, wishing the words would fulfill the promise of the illustrations. For a long time I nursed a secret grudge against Sendak for denying me.

And then I grew up and had a ‘Max’ of my very own.

Reading the book now, I can see it for what it is: an ode to the untamed emotions of childhood and that most universal of experiences – banishment to the darkened room where the ceiling hangs with vines and the walls become the world all around. It is the place where we plot our escape until at last we sleep.

Here is the ebb, flow and dissipation of a tantrum distilled into a night. Here is the longing for independence and the journey back to the place where someone loves us best of all.

The book was published in the early Sixties, a sort of golden age of psychoanalysis. Sendak himself talked about his books in almost therapeutic terms as stories in which children learn to master their feelings and get to grips with the reality of their own lives. And perhaps that is a part of Where the Wild Things Are.

Yet in a world where children’s literature tends to be viewed as a means to transmit a message or to impart some social skill, Where the Wild Things Are is far more than a therapeutic instrument. It is one of those great books children and adults love simply for the beauty of the pictures, the rhythm of the words, for the ritual of pausing to tuck in, or be tucked in, with a kiss, and the sheer joy of reading the last page: ‘And it was still hot.’

Thank you, Maurice Sendak.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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