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.
Regardless, of how we interpret the book, Sendak’s story will live on for generations to come because it’s a classic marriage of story and memorable illustrations.
Before Sendak died, he appeared on The Colbert Report. The interview itself was a hilarious deadpan back and forth ping pong match between two geniuses. But something else really stuck with me about the interview. Sendak said, “Childhood is a time of torment…the best thing a parent can do for a child is accept them for what they are.” Words so simple, yet brilliant and encapsulating. Sendak understood children. That’s why is he a literary demi-god.
Sendak’s work titled Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons is on display now at the Walt Disney Museum. It’s a collection of 50 Sendak works along with 50 statements from celebrities and noted personalities who were influenced by the iconic book just as much as I was. The exhibit runs from May 23-July 7.