Here we are, the one hundredth review! (I can’t believe I’ve stuck with this project for so long!) For this personal milestone, I decided to talk about my FAVORITE book, the one that undoubtedly created a love for books (and monsters and magic) in me: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
Maurice Sendak – Where the Wild Things Are (1963/1991)
I’ve already told this story a few times (most recently in my article on the DEATH of the Cowlitz County chapter of RIF), but I’m going to tell it again. Back in 1977, when I was a kindergartener at Barnes Elementary School in Kelso, Washington, I was allowed to pick a book, for myself, to KEEP, for free, thanks to the Reading is Fundamental program. I was THRILLED at the idea of getting a book, and I picked Where the Wild Things Are, undoubtedly because of the brilliant and wonderful cover. The book had a massive impact on me, inspiring my love of reading, inspiring my love of monsters, and encouraging me to use my imagination, make up stories, and draw. The impact of this ONE BOOK cannot be overstated. I didn’t OWN very many books when I was younger, but because of this book, I spent countless hours in school and public libraries, searching for new stories.
And now, at 45 years of age, I still find this book enchanting. The primary reason for this book’s endurance is Maurice Sendak’s art. He draws seemingly simple characters, but they are magnificently shaded and shaped through minute cross-hatching lines. In fact, EVERYTHING in this book is painstakingly marked and scratched and cross-hatched to perfection. Just LOOK at that cover—the illusion of depth, the feeling of reality that Sendak managed to capture with just a few colors and those thousands upon thousands of little lines, is unbelievable.
The main character, Max, (our only tie to humanity—though he is OBVIOUSLY a “Wild Thing” himself), is also brilliantly conceived. He has a rascally expression on his face and is outfitted in what looks like a one-piece pajama outfit that has had toe-claws, a wolf’s tale, and a hood with ears added to it, and once he puts this suit on he isn’t just wearing a wolf suit, he BECOMES a wolf, capable of atrocities, like eating his own parents. For their own safety, Max’s mother sends him to his room—WITHOUT his supper. Wolf-Max, however, can’t be confined by four walls, and escapes when his room becomes a forest before his eyes. He boards a boat and sails across dangerous seas, eventually coming to a land where WILDNESS is allowed to be expressed, without restraint. The monsters and beasts who inhabit this land recognize, in Wolf-Max, a TRUE MONSTER and declare him their KING. Wolf-Max proceeds to cut loose, howls to the moon, swings from the trees, and is worshiped by the monsters for his fierceness. Eventually, human-Max comes back into control of his body, and—his wild urges spent—he sends the monsters off to bed without THEIR suppers (which, now that he’s human again, might have included HIM.) He escapes and floats home, discovering a supper set out for him by his unseen family—and the final page of the book ends NOT with wild illustration, but with civilized and very HUMAN written language text (the counter to the section in which Max was cavorting with the beasts, pages with brilliant and evocative artwork but in which no written language was present.)
There is so much about this story that I love. As a child, I loved the monsters—Sendak’s chimerical creatures with bird heads and scales, monstrous troll faces and furry bodies, horns and fangs and claws, and occasional stripes… These represented fear and danger, but in a way that the child INTIMATELY embraced! They threaten Max, both at the beginning of his adventure, and again as he is leaving—but he’s not afraid, because they are HIM.
I also loved the transformations that occur. We don’t know Max without his suit, be we KNOW he is wearing a suit because we are told so on the first page of the story, “The night Max wore his wolf suit…” he is transformed, possessed, by the wolf OR set free by the suit, allowed to express his TRUE SELF—which doesn’t mesh well with the civilized society that his unseen parents represent. He is punished for his wildness, and an attempt is made to RESTRAIN him, but it backfires because Max is magic. His prison is no match for Max’s powerful imagination, and he watches, with glee, as the walls of this room melt into a deep forest, next to an ocean where a boat waits with his name painted on the side. Then Max sails, not a great distance, but across a great amount of TIME (weeks and months and almost a year) to a place where his wildness is respected and worshipped.
It’s still a brilliant book, and of course it frightened some parents, who banned the book from schools and libraries, but that’s almost understandable if we really look at what’s happening in the story. This much wildness, this much imagination, it’s a recognition of the fact that humans ARE JUST ANIMALS, that we can try to HIDE behind civilization, but we are also WILD. Children in particular. At the end of the book, Sendak brings us BACK to the human world, when Wolf-Max removes his hood and returns to language over emotion and image, but ONLY AFTER he has satisfied his primal self. What a great story…
Of course, for most people, especially most kids, it’s just a neat picture book about monsters. And really, that’s probably enough. However YOU want to look at it, Where the Wild Things Are is still my favorite book, and Maurice Sendak one of my absolute favorite artists of all time.
And THAT’s my 100th review! I’ll start compiling a book of the reviews as soon as I finish one of two other projects. If you’ve enjoyed any of these reviews, send me a note and let me know which books you liked! Hopefully, I’ve pointed you towards a few things you’d never heard of or, perhaps, might have forgotten. If so, I’ve done my job! Thanks for playing!!!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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