Where the Wild Things Are shifted my literary landscape profoundly. When I first encountered the book, it was six years old. I was three. We became the best of friends.
With it, I learned the magic trick of staring into monsters eyes without blinking, and so learned to face my deepest fears. I reveled in the Wild Rumpus, and as I grew up I sailed through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year to where the wild things are. I kept sailing to those wild places, over and over and over again.
I did not think much, in those days, of the daring mind that took me to those wild places. I did not think of the artist who understood the darkness and cruelty of childhood and who knew our need for stories that explored those dark depths. I never thought of the man who gave us slightly scary, slightly goofy adventures and who with astonishing gentleness always brought us home at the end. The man who knew that it was important that our dinner be waiting for us and still be hot.
I did not know anything about him, but I read his books for over forty years. In college, I had stuffed dolls of Max and his monsters on my desk, and once grew frantic when my favorite monster was “kidnapped” and held for a ransom of freshly baked cookies by someone on my college dorm room floor. Years later, my own children played with those dolls while I read the book to them. I do puppet plays of Where the Wild Things Are with preschoolers at the library, sharing that beautiful poetic text and my favorite wild monsters with each new generation.
It was only today that I wound up listening to Terry Gross’s four interviews with Maurice Sendak. And I wept. I did not know that Sendak, like me, was haunted with the legacy of the Holocaust. I was raised by a woman with numbers on her arm and an implacable anger at the world. Sendak felt unloved by parents who were in the midst of grieving for all the family members they could not save. I identified with his struggles, and gloried in his choice to make his last years about his art, his way.
Sendak was an atheist. In the last interview he did with Terry, he said:
You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson — she’s probably the top — Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life.
Sendak talked about how he didn’t believe in an afterlife, and yet how he wished that there was one so that he could see his friends and loved ones again. Like him, I don’t know if there is an afterlife. But I like to imagine him sailing back over a year, and in and out of weeks, and throughout a day into the night of his very own room.
Mr. Sendak, may you always find supper waiting for you, and may it always still be hot.