Where The Wild Things Are
by, 05-18-2012 at 11:07 PM (2312 Views)
Last week the children’s book author, Maurice Sendak, passed away. May he rest in peace. The New York Times had a fine obituary.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/09/bo...pagewanted=allMaurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. He was 83.
I’ve only read one of Mr. Sendak’s books, the one he’s famous for, the one I bet most people have read, and as it turns out my all time favorite children’s book, Where The Wild Things Are. I never actually owned the book as a child, but I do remember reading it in the library all the time. I have a very clear memory of being about seven or eight sitting at a table at the library on the corner of 60th street and 17th avenue going through the book, the feeling of time standing still, a feeling of something lurking over my shoulder as the boy Max enters that imaginary world of the wild things. I don’t know how many times I picked up that book there, but it was frequent. I’m not sure if that memory was of the first time I picked up the book or a subsequent time of which I would have known the story well. I remember sitting on that wooden child’s chair at that small children’s table, the wood a pale oak stain, the chair having a concave plate for a back support, the table cluttered with books. It was all so eerie. One moment Max is punished to his room and the next he’s entered a night world of dark forest, raging sea dragons, and an island of monsters with jagged, sharp teeth, fierce nails, and horns. I think it was the shape of those teeth that froze me. How could a boy just wonder off like that? I would have been so scared if it were me. And yet I followed Max in.
It’s really hard to pin down what makes Where The Wild Things Are so unique. There are not a lot of words to the story. It’s almost all pictures. The art is more alluring, more enticing, more seductive than the actual story line. The story line is simple, perhaps even ordinary. A bad boy runs off, encounters wild creatures, conquerors them, and returns home where now, matured from his experience, he’s reformed and accepted. It’s a permutation of the various hero motifs, a blend of the knight on a quest, Odysseus on his odyssey, Theseus entering the cave, Beowulf overcoming Grendel, the prodigal son returning home. Only there is no violence. Max overcomes the wild things with a penetrating stare, a magical power of the will.
The Times obit identifies Sendak’s uniqueness in his contrast to traditional children’s stories.
It’s the visual uniqueness of the wild things, “huge, snaggletoothed, exquisitely hirsute and glowering maniacally,” (from the obit) that generates fear and awe, freezes the blood, and penetrates to the core of the brain, to something primal, at least that of the seven year old boy in the library. But Max is unafraid and appropriates the power of the wild things. While the art work is exquisite, the story shouldn’t be minimized. What captures me about the story is the inherent parallelism. The wild boy that meets wild creatures and tames them and who in turn is tamed from his experience. It’s classically balanced: the parents punish him and yet forgive him at the end.In book after book, Mr. Sendak upended the staid, centuries-old tradition of American children’s literature, in which young heroes and heroines were typically well scrubbed and even better behaved; nothing really bad ever happened for very long; and everything was tied up at the end in a neat, moralistic bow.
Mr. Sendak’s characters, by contrast, are headstrong, bossy, even obnoxious. ..His pictures are often unsettling. His plots are fraught with rupture: children are kidnapped, parents disappear, a dog lights out from her comfortable home.
A largely self-taught illustrator, Mr. Sendak was at his finest a shtetl Blake, portraying a luminous world, at once lovely and dreadful, suspended between wakefulness and dreaming. In so doing, he was able to convey both the propulsive abandon and the pervasive melancholy of children’s interior lives.
His visual style could range from intricately crosshatched scenes that recalled 19th-century prints to airy watercolors reminiscent of Chagall to bold, bulbous figures inspired by the comic books he loved all his life, with outsize feet that the page could scarcely contain. He never did learn to draw feet, he often said.
What’s coincidental is that Sendak grew up in same Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst that I did. I wonder if that library was there then. It would have been the 1930’s when he was seven years old, so probably not. He did go to Lafayette High School, which was the football rival school to my New Utrecht High School. It makes me wonder at what part of the neighborhood he lived. He and I then are connected, though a bit more than a generations apart, in a way that people who looked at the same buildings can say they understand the images that nurtured them. Was there something in Bensonhurst that might have inspired the wild things? I’m not sure, but there were a class of roughnecks running about in the streets who could have been called wild things. And those roughnecks are archetypically Brooklyn, Brooklyn past, Brooklyn present, Brooklyn future.
It does strike me that Where The Wild Things Are is a boy’s tale. The story is rendered from Max’s point of view, and Max is kind of a rowdy, boyish boy. I wonder if girls enjoy this story as much as boys. I gave this book as a present to one of my nieces when she was small. I assume she read it. She never mentioned it, though she’s never mentioned any of her books. Well, time flies because she’ll be entering college next year.
I ‘ve been reading the book to Matthew since before he was two years old. He definitely enjoys it, though I think he focuses on different parts than I did. While that seven year old boy that was me focused on the mystery of the forest and potential savagery of the wild things, Matthew seems to be captivated by bad boy Max getting punished and then the rumpus play when Max takes up with his now wild thing friends.
It could be the age differences. Two year olds and seven year olds have different sensibilities. He enjoys it that Max, now made King, rides on top of the shoulders of the minotaur-like creature. Matthew even calls the minotaur “daddy” since it reminds him of riding on my shoulders.
I know a few years ago they made the book into a movie, but it got such bad reviews that I didn’t go see it. I caught a few minutes of it on TV and it did look bad.
Finally I think I should end this with the same letter the author received from an admiring little boy. It says it all.
“Dear Mr. Sendak,” read one [letter], from an 8-year-old boy. “How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there.”