Where the Wild Things Are… Still

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.

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About Hilary Moon Murphy

Hilary Moon Murphy's fictional life currently takes place in 1836, within the boundaries of Washington, D.C.. Before that, she has fictionally lived in an ancient China that never was, Mahatma Gandhi's India, and a magical San Francisco. She is a firm believer in Sacred Cows, especially those that are really elephants.

Comments

Where the Wild Things Are… Still — 4 Comments

  1. In this post, I talked about one of the books that altered the literary landscape of my childhood. I’d love to hear which books altered your landscape and how.

  2. What a lovely post. I only recently saw a live interview with Mr. Sendak for the first time. I’d no idea that he was such a curmudgeon and I was extraordinarily pleased by this discovery. He had a biting wit and no qualms about stating his mind.

    Sendak’s work became popular when I was already adult, but even so, I was immediately attracted to his books. I had nephews fortunately so became acquainted with Sendak while reading to them. I remember “Where The Wild Things Are” because it had that crazy “coloring outside the lines” sensibility (or lack of sensibility!) to it. A bad boy being rewarded by friendly beasts – I heartily wished I’d had such stories in my childhood of good girls like Honey Bunch, Nancy Drew, and so on.

    To answer your question: what book did alter my landscape? Well, my very first favorite book that I read (and was read to me by my mother) was “The Contented Little Pussycat”. I loved that book so much that before I could read by myself, I pored over and over it just to look at the pictures. One of the first things I did after getting hired at Borders was to order a used copy of it, since it has long been out of print. It could probably stay out of print. The art wasn’t quite what I remembered, although still rather unique. The message was simplistic and yet resonated with my childhood anxieties. How was the pussycat able to stay contented when all the other animals around him were so nervous and fearful? Some sort of positive thinking or taking one day at a time. Not a bad message by any means and I must have dearly wanted it to rub off on me.

    For a real landscape changer, I needed to be older. My mother gave me “Out of the Silent Planet” by CS Lewis when I was thirteen for Christmas. Talk about the right book at the right time. I was beginning to question religion and faith and it was CS Lewis who ironically gave me a different perception of God and angels altogether. From there I was able to breakaway from my Catholic upbringing and by the time I was sixteen, was pretty much an atheist for life (occasionally softening into periodic agnosticism). So ironic to think that CS Lewis had such a hand in my descent into godlessness.

  3. The childhood favorite that I tracked down as an adult was “The Forgotten Door.” I was so fascinated by the story of a boy who fell through a doorway from another world, into our own, and whose people had outgrown warfare and violence. I suspect that book is where my lifelong fascination with fantasy and science fiction began.

  4. Nice post, Hilary. I heard a piece about Sendak on NPR in the last day or two. Like Maggie, I’d no idea of his personal story.

    As to childhood books…the stone tablets were so heavy, that’s what I remember. Sorry, maybe not quite that long ago. I first recall reading Nancy Drew and a couple Hardy Boys followed swiftly by all the Tom Swift books I could find. The “book” that made the greatest impression on me as a child was the encyclopedia set in a gradeschool classroom–maybe 4th grade? I started a school year at “A” and read my way through to “Z.” It was a treasure trove of amazing information.