Like every Sendak story, “Where the Wild Things Are” explores his preoccupations, chief among which are the vicissitudes of his own childhood, and the temerity and fragility of children in general. His narrative is almost always about a child in danger whose best defense is imagination.
I love reading Maurice Sendak books with my girls. The transgression, the danger, the nudity.
I love Where the Wild Things Are because it starts with Max being pissed at his Mom about dinner. Max fantasizes about a land away from his parents, where he is all powerful. I think Robin wishes that sometimes. Sometimes I am arbitrary, confusing, powerful, and terrible. My kids get mad at me. That’s ok. They should see that in a book. Sometimes Robin says, “I hate you. I do not love you. I will not be sad when you die.” It’s not a far cry from, “I WILL EAT YOU UP.” Kids get mad. That’s ok. Like the best kid’s shows, WTWTA envisions a fantasy world for children where adults are peripheral at best, and where they get to break the rules, try new things, and enjoy the wild rumpus. It’s the numinous for kids: a trembling and exciting fear — awful and awesome.
But my favorite Sendak book is In The Night Kitchen, which imagines a cityscape of salt shakers and boxes of cake flour. Just like Max, Mickey starts out a bit cranky: he hears a sound in the night and yells QUIET DOWN THERE!
Then he floats out of bed into the light of the night kitchen. Mickey almost gets baked in a cake, then makes his own airplane out of bread dough to fly and escape. He pours milk for the bakers who need milk for the morning cake.
My girls love this story: they chant and sing with Mickey, they admire his plane, and they giggle at his penis.
In sixth grade, I did a project on Maurice Sendak, researching his life and stories. I loved his irascibility and his insistence that children in his books look and live like he did: an immigrant child in a city, with parents who were sometimes tender and sometimes terrible. Like Sherman Alexie, Maurice Sendak was unsentimental about childhood, and I think that’s why his books resonate so deeply with actual children. They don’t sugarcoat childhood as a magical, perfect, innocent time of life, but place children in their real world contexts, and encourage them to use their imaginations to become powerful.
RIP Maurice Sendak