The childhood wisdom of Maurice Sendak

As many people as there are who love the book Where the Wild Things Are, it may be strange that I never read it until tonight. At least, I don’t remember ever reading it before, and the story didn’t seem at all familiar. I have to admit to being somewhat puzzled at it being a favorite book for so many, and being described as being appealing to adults as well as children.

One reader comment at amazon.com helps explain it somewhat to me:

There’s some deep message in it for little children coming to terms with their own creative and destructive instincts. It doesn’t preach, it has no moral or message really, but it is somehow liberating in that it addresses the desires a young boy has to join the wild things and his wish to eventually return home to the comfort and safety of his family.

Perhaps I have never come to terms with my destructive instincts. (My husband complains that I almost never even express anger; indeed I find it very difficult to do so.) I don’t identify with a desire to join the wild things, and while I did get homesick sometimes as a child, for me “family” represented as much “the wild things” as comfort and safety.

My 9-year-old wondered what I was reading (I found Sendak’s story in an anthology of children’s literature that I bought back before I ever had kids), and read the story when I was done. I’ll have to ask him what he thinks of it.

Looking at the wikipedia page about Maurice Sendak (who was born 81 years ago today), I realize that I have read at least one other book by Sendak. I don’t remember if I ever owned it or only read it in the church library, but I read Higglety Pigglety Pop!: Or There Must Be More to Life as a child, several times I think. I found it both appealing and strangely disturbing at the same time. Perhaps, like the dog Jennie, I was convinced there must be more to life. But the situations Jennie faces in order to meet the standard of “experience needed” scared me.

I think Sendak does have a good deal of insight about children. Wikiquote lists several:

Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious — and what is too often overlooked — is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.

Children are tough, though we tend to think of them as fragile. They have to be tough. Childhood is not easy. We sentimentalize children, but they know what’s real and what’s not. They understand metaphor and symbol. If children are different from us, they are more spontaneous. Grown-up lives have become overlaid with dross.

I believe there is no part of our lives, our adult as well as child life, when we’re not fantasizing, but we prefer to relegate fantasy to children, as though it were some tomfoolery only fit for the immature minds of the young. Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.

Children are willing to expose themselves to experiences. We aren’t. Grownups always say they protect their children, but they’re really protecting themselves. Besides, you can’t protect children. They know everything.

Besides that, he’s a great illustrator. Besides the books written by Sendak, some of my favorite books as a child were illustrated by him – though at the time I paid no attention to who made the drawings. I liked the Little Bear books, and one of the favorite books in our house was What Do You Say, Dear? – a very amusing approach to teaching manners. My mother liked to quote from A Hole is to Dig, though I don’t know whether I ever saw a copy, complete with illustrations, until I bought the anthology mentioned above.

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