“The magic of childhood is the strangeness of childhood, the uniqueness that makes us see things that other people don’t see.”
“I’m just clearing the decks for a simple death. You’re done with your work. You’re done with your life. And your life was your work.”
–Maurice Sendak, TateShots: Maurice Sendak and Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak.
Maurice Sendak has died and it’s broken my monstrous heart. Sendak’s books were a huge part of my childhood and likely a huge part of who I have become as an adult. (And, hey, we both love Herman Melville). But one Sendak book was more important to me than any other: Where The Wild Things Are.
My fondness for Sendak is powered by his work and his recent interviews, which are a hoot. I’ve linked to some in this piece. One of my mentors, Diane Wakoski, once told me that her poetry was the best and most interesting thing about her, that anything else would disappoint readers. So focusing on this book is my way of paying respect to Maurice Sendak at his best.
I don’t remember the first time I read Where The Wild Things Are or when it was first read to me. It seems like my whole life, the book’s been inside me, a secret land of monsters. Since 1963, Where The Wild Things Are has been adapted into a 1979 Oliver Knussen opera with libretto and designs by Sendak; a 2009 movie * by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, in collaboration with Sendak; and even a ballet. The story is only 338 words long and the art is almost joyous, but Sendak’s cross-hatching gives it a nervous edge and mutes the palette. William Blake was an influence on Sendak, and there are echoes of Blake’s illustration and ecstatic visions of other worlds, even in a little boy named’s voyage to the Wild Things after being sent to bed without supper as punishment for a day of acting a “Wild thing!” in his wolf suit.
Where The Wild Things Are is easily read as an allegory of childhood anger, powerlessness and parental authority. This reading’s evident in Jonze and Eggers’ film adaptation and in the opera, from what Sendak describes. The little boy, Max, is angry and the film captures a child’s anger pretty well—the complex mix of powerlessness and love; the reality of dependence versus the desire for independence. With the monsters, Max re-enacts what he sees as the state of things. After using his newfound power as King of the Wild Things to declare a Wild Rumpus, Max sends the Wild Things to bed without their supper, the inevitable consequence of monstrous behavior.
I recognize the book’s psychological and allegorical truths, but those are adult readings. They contain—when they cannot avoid—the “strangeness of childhood.” As a child, I did not experience the book as an allegory. The Wild Things were real to me, and if they symbolized anything, it was the existence of monsters. What resonated with me wasn’t even Max’s experience of childhood. What I found alluring was simpler—the monsters themselves and the possibility of being or becoming one: the exciting art depicting their fangs, claws, scales, manes, pelts, horns and snouts and all that those things imply. Sendak not only understood children and childhood very well, he understood monsters and their appeal very well. Adults say, “There’s no such thing as monsters,” but children take monsters for granted. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a monster is also a monster.
I loved Where The Wild Things Are because I have always loved monsters. As a little girl, I loved monsters more than anything else. Not metaphorical ones, real monsters—the wolf man, Godzilla, Grover. I loved drawing them. I loved pretending to be one. I wondered about their lives. I would make cities out of my toys and lay waste to them as a daikaiju. I sang with the monsters on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I envied kids in another class who played “Werewolf” with their teacher at recess. And I hurried home from school to watch the Japanese tokusatsu shows. Every weekend, I watched monster movies on Son of Svengoolie, Creature Feature and Chiller Theater. And all those monsters on The Muppet Show and Monster Island offered me alternatives to Max’s sojourn with the Wild Things.
So while Where The Wild Things Are was one of my favorite books, I didn’t identify with Max. In fact, I found Max… disappointing. His wolf suit was not monstrous enough. He bossed around much better, in my snobbish taste, monsters. I didn’t want a personal boat or a crown. Wild Rumpus aside, the things Max did with the Wild Things weren’t what I would have done. I identified with Max’s desire to be a monster, but not his desire to rule over them. And Max’s cruel reign alienated me. I never wanted to be King of the Wild Things and I certainly never wanted the power to punish them. I just wanted to be a monster Rumpusing Wildly among monsters. I’ve since come to terms with Max’s wolf suit, putting it in the context of old stories where people become wolves or bears as easily as taking off and putting on an animal suit, cape or skin. Where The Wild Things Are resonated with my own longing for something more than the seemingly mundane world and a suspicion that there was more to the world.
But, of course, I read around Max. I found my own story, imagining what I would do with the Wild Things, and I think that shows how good the book is. The narrative is simple and clear but evocative and can be read in many ways, even my preferred literal one. I don’t always see Wild Things the way Sendak did—I don’t imagine them singing things in Yiddish no one should ever say to a child as they do in his opera, for instance—but the book is deep and honest.
Maurice Sendak was always honest in his work. And I miss him. The wild things in my heart roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth. They cry:
“Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!”
This month’s piece is part of M.O.S.S.’s Hairy Beasts Assignment. Carol Borden was on Monster Island Resort to discuss werewolves around the same time she was working on this and that conversation informed this article. The planned Planet of the Apes article has been pushed back to next month.
(This essay originally was published at The Cultural Gutter).