I remember the day I first discovered the magic of Maurice Sendak. Intrigued by the dozing monster on the cover of this slim volume tucked away in my elementary school library, I pulled its taped spine from the shelf and cracked opened the well-worn pages.
Trouble begins on the first page. A little boy in a costume, acting naughty, goes to his room without dinner. Then, strange things happen. Trunks and foliage sprout from the floorboards and bedpost, stretch skyward, knocking away walls and windows. The ceiling retracts, exposing stars and clouds suspended above “the world all around.”
What luck: A private boat with his name on it sails him far away across a choppy sea to a land of monsters, which he tames with his staring trick.
What an amazing — and scary — thing to have happen to your bedroom, especially when you are a kid in trouble. Nothing like that ever happened to me. The story reminded me of a time when I was young and I thought I’d have a solo adventure in the woods. When I was too far to run to safety or call for help, I heard the sloshing and branch-snapping of a large animal in the swamp. I stood still, heart bouncing in my chest, breathing heavily but quietly, until the sounds receded. Bear? Deer? Swamp monster? I’m sure I couldn’t tame it with my staring trick, but I did wish for a magic vehicle to sweep me away.
Much like that swamp encounter, my heart races as I thumb through the pages of “Where the Wild Things Are” ignoring the words at first in favor of drinking in the mesmerizing illustrations, which are neither too cheerful nor overly terrifying. As I sit cross-legged on the little carpet, I flip back to the beginning over and over, to carefully study the metamorphosis from tame to wild to tame again. I decide which monster is scariest: it’s a tie between the one with the rooster beak and the one with the bull horns.
There is danger but there also is power in this tale. I believe in monsters of all shapes. Some live in the shadows behind the attic door in my upstairs bedroom, others lurk under the bed. Some live in the bright light of day, visible to all, but only scary to me. I have no power.
It didn’t take long for someone else in the library that day to notice I was hoarding “Where the Wild Things Are.” He stomped over and demand I turn it over for his perusal. Reluctantly, I handed it to him and watched as a crowd of boys gathered around to follow Max’s journey. From that day on, it became a game of who’d get to the book first.
I’m sure I thought about Max’s adventure that night as I lay under covers, gazing at the sturdy walls, wondering if they had the potential to transform into something wild, or if my roof might retract to show the heavens.
I thought about it years later when I had my first child and the book was gifted to us. My little Girl from the West loved it so much she called it “Wild Rumpus.” I’d read it and we’d jump up and down in her room, roaring our terrible roars and gnashing our terrible teeth, making our own wild rumpus. I still have the framed print I made for her third birthday. It now hangs in our downstairs bath, an homage to the power of imagination. My husband, also a fan, brought to our marriage two copies of the book, along with soft cover collection of Sendak’s art.
So it was with surprise today that I learned Sendak died. I wasn’t sure I knew he was alive. NPR aired an interview with Terry Gross from the ’80s. He was a brusque, to-the-point kind of guy. I listened with pleasure and interest. l liked how his mind worked, how he marched to a different beat.
A little reminder to us all: our children are wild and they have incredible imaginations. Let us tame the former to reasonable standards and the latter to no extent at all.