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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Kid Lit: Re-reading Sendak

AT THE BOOKSTORE CHECKOUT COUNTER, the thirtysomething clerk flips over a copy of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (HarperCollins) and breaks into a grin.

“I loved this book!” he said. He repeats this several times, then admits, “I don’t know why.” 

First published in 1963, Sendak’s poetic and brilliantly illustrated book achieved something that not all Caldecott winners can boast. It has become a classic.  You can probably find more learned students of children’s literature with thoughts on why, but here are mine. 

Sendak writes and draws the tale of Max, whose crossness gets him sent, supperless, to his room, where his imagination spirits him away.  He sails to a land full of “things” with yellow eyes and claws and sharp teeth.  These things are both winsome and scary. We and Max suffer that dreamlike uncertainty about whether he will succumb to their mortal threat. 

But in the end, Max tames them – or at least gets them on his side, and they are all wild together, dancing beneath the moon.

The book contains a mere ten sentences. It ends on a proper children’s book note, with Max safely back in his bedroom. But this is still an edgy story. Subversive. 

For a while, Max and wildness are free of parental interference.  It’s a little weird to read this to your own children, who you are likely to wish would simply behave and have no wildness to exercise. But if you are a child, there’s something perhaps reassuring to have your untidy feelings be given such respect.

Twice in recent months, “Where the Wild Things” has come up in conversation as an example of extraordinary artistic achievement. This is why I went hunting down a new copy recently. The last time I’d read it, when my own kids were young, I had either not noticed or forgotten that images literally get larger as Max moves into the fantasy world. As the book opens, Max is playing in his house. That modest first drawing is framed by lots of white space.

By the middle of the book, three two-page spreads are occupied entirely by images of Max and the Wild Things giving way to the wild rumpus. Then the size recedes again. There is no picture at all on the book’s last page. This is one of those moments in literature where the technique seems, in hindsight, to have been inevitable.

It wasn’t. Sendak, who wrote and illustrated the book at age 32, had to think of it first.  Indeed, he invested such attention in every word. Each page is so well-considered. So if you’ve never read “Where the Wild Things Are,” or if it’s been a decade or two, consider discovering it as an adult.

We may be old, but we’re all still a little bit Max, too.

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