by Dennis Polifroni
I remember the first time I read a book by myself. It was a frightening proposition. I was just beyond the realms of still sounding out words like FAN-TAS-TIC and IN-CRED-IBLE and I always opened a book with the comforting knowledge that my father was in the next room to help if I got stuck. To read, like all ventures of that time, was to take an arduous step. It was like praying that my glove came up at just the right moment so the baseball wouldn’t careen into my young face and demolish my teeth. It was relative to the cautions I took when my old man removed the training wheels of my bicycle and i sped off into the streets with my fingers crossed.
My mother was also cautious in all the new experiences that came way to her first child. When a skateboard was introduced, I was given knee and elbow pads and a hard plastic helmet that, all combined, made me look like a Navy Seal rushing into combat. I was one of those kids that came to school dressed neatly and with a tie and jacket and I was always fitted with tiny briefcase for everything and anything that would be required in a class room. I had pencils and pens, a role of scotch-tape, scissors with the rubber finger guards, a stapler, reams of paper and high-lite pens up the whazzoo. Along with that was my lunch which could feed an army and all this was sealed in Tupperware cause she thought that germs and bacteria were a very real threat to me and could keep me home and her away from the Soap Operas that were her mid-day excursion between cleaning the house and getting ready for me and my brother to come home.
I think my mother may have been in a rush when she selected the first book I was ever to read on my own at home. I know that when she plopped it in front of me, dressed in wrapping paper and ribbon, she made it very clear to my Grandmother (her mother, who was always with us after she finished work) that the book came highly recommended for children my age, was the winner of many awards, and was pretty easy reading for a little one first starting out. That the book was about acting out, raising a ruckus and anarchy was something she wasn’t too happy about when I read it to her nights later.
As with any present given to me on a day that wasn’t my birthday or Christmas, I ran with the gift, still wrapped, straight to my room. Tearing away at the paper that fell in pieces to the hard-wood floor, I rushed to my desk, wiped the lenses of the thick, black framed glasses I wore back then, and marveled at the cover of the book. As it’s been ever since those early days, books have always been something sacred to me. If it were a paperback, you couldn’t borrow it as I didn’t like the spine creased and always wanted it to look good when on the bookcase shelf. I would always open a book carefully as not to crease the pages and lightly touching each corner so as not to soil the paper. Books, particularly the ones with pictures, were doorways to the adventures of my mind. Books took me away from the noise my younger brother was constantly making and my mothers screaming over everything that we needed to do, did and had done. In an Italian/American household few speak as much as they, often, YELL!
Flicking on the over head lamp of my bedroom desk, I opened the book and was immediately taken by the pictures inside. They were pen and ink confections colored by water-color paint. I had never seen detail of this type in something so fantastical before. The monsters all had different faces that were strewn with giant ears or horns, low brows and flaring nostrils. Some looked like birds and some looked like bears. The ones that really caught me were the ones that looked like a few different animals sewn together. With their big feet with toes just as large, they tramped around their world on an island. It was an island you could only get to from a small sailboat that crossed the sea in the night as created by your dreams.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was that book that forever changed the way I thought about books. It changed my life. Sure, I was an avid reader even as a kid. I consumed books faster than most in my grade and circle of friends. But my circle of friends was small, I was always being picked on (glasses, neat as a pin, cautious mom, tons of allergies and the brightest kid in the class who knew about things like opera and classical music), was the regular butt of many a joke and liked more by the girls than I was by the boys (this came back to the boys in a big way when, in high school, the objects of their affections were making out under the bleachers with me and not them). I was “sensitive” and books were the make-up for all the times I was the last pick for a game of dodge-ball or a tournament of ice hockey. Books, particularly this one, were pages and pages of a world I wanted to run to. Books were characters I related with better than the people I spent time with every day. Books were a place where nerdy little geeks like me could go and be accepted (glasses and all). The story of Max and his journey to that island was similar to the dreams I had of escape from the cruelties that being a “joke” kid brought on. Max dreamed of being the King of HIS world and his journey was one I tagged along on many times since that first reading.
Maurice Sendak, the author of WHERE THE WILD THING ARE, died today at the age of 83 years old. Author of many famous childrens books, WILD THINGS is the one that made him his fortune and captured the imaginations of children and their parents for decades since it’s release. It’s a lauded work that has see many publishing’s, won the Caldecott medal for best of the year (1964) and was the darling of librarians seeking a single piece that would inspire young children to take the first steps to read. On the other hand, the book was also the focus of many parents that thought the book too bizarre and violent for young minds. It scared many an adult with its exploration of the “other” side of childhood and many denounced the book as being an inspiration for youths to speak out and act out. Sendak waited a long time for the book to gain its mass audience as the book wasn’t well received on its initial pressing. However, in cases like these, kids know better and within months of it’s first issue, libraries across the globe couldn’t keep a copy of it on the shelf for very long. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is, in most probability, the childrens picture book that most childrens books are measured by and aspire to be.
The story, for anyone that doesn’t know it by now, follows the exploits of a randy little boy named Max. Acting out one night, Max is sent to his room, dressed in his wolf costume, without dinner. As he wallows in anger for not being understood, he falls asleep. In his dream state, he jumps on a boat and crosses the violent seas to an island. Upon grounding the boat, he is greeted by monsters of all shapes and sizes. The monsters take him deep into the jungles where they whoop and holler and bark at the moon, showing off there wild side the same as Max had tried to show his mother that night at dinner. The monsters are amazed by Max and his size and the size of his hollers and barks. Max, they surmise, is truly the wildest of all the creatures on the island and they crown him the King of their world. On his journey back to his room and across the violent seas, the monsters wave good-bye to Max, the only one outside their world they have ever accepted. Upon grounding the boat in his room, Max awakens to realize that there is a time and a place for his wild side and that that place is in his dreams and on that island he hopes to visit again.
With this story, Sendak created a release for children all over the world. He proclaimed, in less than 25 pages, that every child who acts out isn’t necessarily bad. He announced that we all have a little bit of the wild thing in us and that running with that compulsion was, at times, necessary to discover the complete person we all are. While he has written and illustrated many books in his career (IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN is a book that could give THINGS a run for the money), it’s this strange tale of Max and the creatures of his dream that has spoken the loudest and the work the author is best known and remembered for.
Looking at WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE now (and I’m holding a copy of the book in my hands right this second), it’s really amazing to think that something like this, something so psychologically analytical, could catch fire with so many kids over the course of so many decades. The story itself is a deeply probing look at the analysis of anger and where it can take a young mind. The book is really about taking revenge on the authorities that control us all and, although it’s all boiled down to a dream for Max, it really condones a kind or anarchy that we all find attractive at some point in our lives. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE feeds the notion that we all deserve to go a little mad from time to time, that it’s healthy to release the pent up frustration we all (young and old alike) have in a world that is so complicated and so controlled.
Sitting at my desk as a boy, I remember reading that book again and again. On rainy days I would open it up and copy the pictures on white paper with the crayons in the super-sized box (54 colors in total). On lonely nights I would journey with Max back to that island across the violent seas.
The funny thing was…
Sometimes I wished we didn’t have to come back…
I think I’m about to take that journey again.
(June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012)
One of my heros and one of the true greats. He will be sorrily missed.