The Enduring Legacy of Maurice Sendak
June 10, 2013
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[Editor's note: Maurice Sendack, the beloved children's author and illustrator, would have been 85 today, as this spectacular Google Doodle reminded us. Though he was the mind behind many fine works of children's literature, Where the Wild Things Are remains his enduring masterpiece—one of the finest children's books ever written. As the public remembers his work and his legacy, RELEVANT returns to this article, written when Where the Wild Things Are got the film treatment in 2009.]
In the pantheon of children’s literature, Where the Wild Things Are seems to strike a peculiar chord. It’s a story you’re probably familiar with, far more ambitious than you’d think possible for a 10-sentence picture book. Nowhere to be found are the sleepy hums, the innocent mirth, or the moralistic head-pats that so marks its genre. No, Wild Things has an ominous quality to it—depicting a very dangerous world in which Max, the wolf-suited hero, has his mettle tested by harrowing monsters. In fact, when Maurice Sendak’s tale was first published by Harper & Roe in 1963, it was widely regarded as too scary for kids. The book only gained attention when youngsters began clamoring for it, and then became a classic in 1964 after winning the Caldecott Medal for “Most Distinguished Picture Book.”
Precocious young Max stirs trouble around the home. His mom calls him a “wild thing” and sends him to bed without his supper. Taking an if-that’s-way-she-wants-it-then-fine attitude, Max sails away on his private ship to where the wild things are. These creatures are ferocious, but Max proves that he’s wilder—they make him their king and engage in a primal romp throughout the moonlit forest. But Max, having proved his own fierceness, decides to leave the creatures for home, where supper is waiting for him and is still hot.
Here, almost 50 years later, it’s getting the big-screen adaptation—either the Midas Touch or kiss of death for kids’ books. The hype for the film is deafening. Die-hard fans, many of whom are now college grads, are salivating with glee, watching the inspired trailer on repeat and buying Wild Things T-shirts in bulk from Urban Outfitters The story has struck a chord that can still be sounded with apparent ease, and though it’s easy to find a nostalgic sort of love for any number of childhood stories, Where the Wild Things Are is different. It’s difficult to see this much fuss over, say, a Berenstain Bears movie.
The themes invoked in Where the Wild Things Are are easy to resonate with, but, in typical children’s book fashion, they are too familiar to be very easily reckoned. Max’s plight is not just the plight of bad little boys—it’s one of our most common feelings: unfairness. In being sent to his room without supper, he’s being subjected to powers bigger and stronger than him, and no matter how much he wants to be big and tough, his life seems well out of his control. He lives in a world that doesn’t seem to play by the rules, and doesn’t acknowledge his own assessment of himself. Max, as can be seen on virtually every page of Where the Wild Things Are, is mad.
We’re familiar with that. We’re in the same place that poor Max finds himself: a world that we just can’t quite seem to get the hang of. We’re being fired from our jobs. We’re being hassled by our landlords. We’re being dumped by our significant others. And then there’s God, and He’s the one I’ve sort of been leading up to.
God’s pretty easy to get mad at. The world’s gone all wrong, life is impossibly difficult, He seems to be the one to blame. Maybe you’ve given your all to Jesus, only to find that He wants a little bit more. Maybe you think you’ve got a better way figured out, one without all those pesky rules, but you just can’t shake the feeling that God’s sitting on your shoulder, insisting that His way is better. You’re mad, ready to run away, but it’s impossible.
Max leaves the world where he belongs but does not understand, for a world where he does not belong but understands perfectly. When the wild things make their first startling appearance, Max meets them with stubborn fearlessness. They’re bigger than he is and gnash their teeth, but he commands them to “BE STILL!” and stares them down until they’re thoroughly cowed and call him “the most wild thing of all,” making him “king of all wild things.”
In these creatures, Max finds what he wanted (so it seems). The wild things affirm his own wildness—what was punishable has become praiseworthy. Where he was once helpless, he’s now king. Where he was once subject to the whims of people bigger than him, he now has monsters that follow his lead. His anger is a means of escape to world where he’s finally taken seriously, and it’s also the means by which he takes control. Every temper tantrum should yield such happy results.
It’s part of Sendak’s complex moral. While most children’s books caution their readers against anger, Where the Wild Things Are lauds its cathartic power. It takes Max indulging his anger—instead of repressing it—for him to find any sort of solace. It’s something that we know inherently to be true but rarely acknowledge: there’s something to be said for being mad.
We’ve felt Max-like fury at the forces in our lives, be they personal, professional or divine. We fantasize about being in charge, and getting the unmitigated approval of our peers, bosses, professors, pastors and crushes. And, of course, our sometimes boundless rage at God, who deals out disappointment and discouragement so liberally. We snarl, like the Psalmist, “Why do the wicked prosper?” We pitch fits like prodigals, running away and indulging our wild sides.
It’s an act God probably expects from us, given how often it happens. He’s been dealing with His angry servants since the very beginning. In the Bible, God fields the rage of such giants as David, Job, Jonah and Moses with patience—never shushing their complaints with any sniper-like lightning bolts from the sky. He listens; He lets them have their say. “The LORD is like a Father to His children,” the Psalmist says in Psalm 103:13-14, “tender and compassionate to those who fear Him. For He knows how weak we are, He remembers we are only dust.”
Rebelling against God—wagging your middle finger at Him and heading out on your own—yields serious consequences (just ask Samson). Anger, venting your confusion and disappointment, is an honest emotion—it’s taking God seriously enough to really talk to Him, and it’s cleansing. But there is an important fact to take into consideration when you’re mad at God (or anyone else), a fact Sendak didn’t ignore in his book.
Max doesn’t set up shop with the wild things. He tames them and goes home. Supper’s still hot, mom still loves him and everything’s the way he left it. His imagination has bled out the anger, and his fantasy world hasn’t lived up to the real thing. He’s had his tantrum, and he’s calling it a day. Max’s return journey is the most important point of his trip. He knows when it’s time to move on.
It’s a good trick, but hard to learn—how to be mad without being bitter and keep your catharsis from being a crutch. There’s not exactly an easy way to learn all that, but Where the Wild Things Are does offer a hint: “The king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”
Whatever Max might not understand about his mother’s rules, he trusts her love.
Go ahead. Be mad. Shout your questions. Punch a wall. Color with red and black. Go to where the wild things are. But dock your boat, mark your trail and remember your own weakness. You could never be half as mad at God as He is in love with you.
In fact, He loves you best of all.