Where the Wilds Things Are is 50 years old. 50 years! The golden jubilee! Can you believe it? Wasn’t it only last week I was sitting cross-legged on my large, rainbow colored beanbag chair thumbing through Maurice Sendak’s books, savoring every illustration and sketch? I’d wrestle with symbolism and meaning. Just who are those Wild Things? Why are they so scary?
I recall every night before bed my mother would read to me. I wasn’t hard to please. I requested the same rotation of books: Alice in Wonderland, Chicken Soup with Rice, In the Night Kitchen and, of course, Where the Wild Things Are. To this day, whenever I feeling angry at the world, like the main character Max, or just in need of a nostalgia boost, I'll pull out my old, weathered copies and just read. Sometimes aloud. It’s comforting. It’s "Chicken Soup with Rice" for my soul.
A half century later, the story of a little boy in a monster outfit who is sent to his room for bad behavior still works. Adults and children alike can understand and embrace the universal meaning. It’s about growing up. It’s about learning to deal with uncontrollable aspects of humanity: fear, anger, aggression and loneliness.
The cynic in me also sees it as a tale of really bad parenting. Max’s rage turns into a psychotic episode. His emotionally unavailable mother doesn’t know how to deal with her child’s outburst. She sends Max to his room and, well, starves him. By today’s standards her parental skills might seem cruel. Child protective services might be knocking on the door and Max would be subject to removal proceedings.
But that’s the story we all know and love. Many fairy tales harbor a dark, criminal underbelly. Recall Hansel and Gretel, for example. Those two wayward children get lost in a forest, enslaved in a witch’s hut and then eventually committed murder in the first degree by slashing said witch’s throat. Enough said.