I blame Maurice Sendak. It’s all his fault. And when he died last month at the age of 83, it all came back.
This is about the things we carry from childhood into the rest of our lives.
There are stories that shape us, stories that teach us new ways to look at the world. If you’re lucky, you read one of those when you were young. If you’re very lucky, you might write one of those. And if you’re truly blessed, you might write more than one.
I learned to read very early on. Until high school, I was usually the most widely read person in my class. I read everything. I never got beat up, because I always asked bullies to let me finish this chapter first, and they lost interest. A teacher later called me an “omnivorous” reader. Since I didn’t recognize that word, I went and looked it up. And it was true.
Luckily for me, my mother recognized this early on, and always kept the shelved stocked with books. I tore through Dr. Seuss in the summer before 1st grade. By third grade, I had moved to Jack London and Lewis Carroll. Because she never censored or forbid me from reading anything in the house, I raided her Harold Robbins novels, and in 4th grade, I may not have understood why things were “turgid” or “heaving” but I knew it must be good. A 4-volume set called the Life Cycle Library taught me about reproduction in 3rd grade, so I didn’t understand why it was such a hush-hush thing to talk about it in 6th grade Sex Ed. You want to talk about where babies come from? Sure, what do you wanna know?
“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another.“
But the first book I ever bought with my own money was a slim little volume, maybe 48 pages, that was more picture than word. That book was “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak. I remember seeing the blurb in my schools book club flyer and liking the art. So I carefully gathered my nickels and dimes together and placed my order, and when I got it, I took it home and devoured it. It’s slight in terms of verbiage, running just over 330 words.
But in those 330 or so words…
If you haven’t read it, then your childhood was for naught. Telling the story of a wild child named Max, who goes on a fantastical journey to a lush island to become King of the Wild Things, “Where the Wild Things Are” opened my eyes to what was possible… how powerful we children were. Because of our imaginations. Our wonderful, terrible imaginations. This was special secret knowledge, and it must have slipped through the barrier of “you’ll understand when you’re older.”
Knowing this, I hid the book under my mattress, because if my parents ever found out about this, there must be terrible repercussions. They couldn’t know anything about this. So I hid it away and read it in secret, my wonderful private piece of truth. They first thing I ever remember hiding from my mother.
But one day, I accidentally left the book out, and my mother walked in, and the book was right there, right in the middle of the floor. I held my breath, not listening to a word she said, making acknowledging sounds. Chores? Uh-huh. Homework? Sure. Feed the dishes, eat the dog? OK, fine. Yeah, mom, I feel great, why?
And when she left without commenting on the book, I realized something…
Oh my god, my parents are blind!! They must be, to ignore something ticking like a time bomb right in front of them!! How could she not see it? Or maybe something more…. Maybe the force of my will was so great that I made her not see it.
Or maybe… maybe it was something else. Something darker.
Maybe when you grew up, you forgot the power in words, in images. The sense of wonder. The limitlessness of your mind. Maybe it got shrunk by bills, and work, and daily mundane chores, and even by us kids themselves. Maybe it grew dim and faded under the weight of numbers and calendars and books without pictures.
Or maybe you chose to let it go, because it was easier to lead a simple, unimagined life than to live with the weight of what you had lost. Peter Pan took Wendy and the boys to Neverland, but when she grew old, she lost the strength of her Happy Thoughts. Maybe that’s what happened to my parents.
Max’s mother sent him to his room, and he ended up in another place completely, but was still home in time for a warm supper. Because that’s what parents do. They give us roots and wings. I look forward to the day when I can share this book with my children.
Or even better, pretend I don’t notice it on their floor. And see where their imaginations take them.
I write not because I want to be rich and famous (though I do), or because I want to leave a legacy of some kind (also true), but because I want someone to feel the same things I felt when I first read that books. I want a reader to realize how great and complex and beautiful and tragic and emotional and ordinary and extraordinary the world is. And it all started with “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Like I said, I blame Maurice Sendak. And bless his every breath.
What book did it for you?
“Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”
As quoted in “Questions to an Artist Who Is Also an Author : A Conversation between Maurice Sendak and Virginia Haviland (1972) by Virginia Haviland”
― Maurice Sendak