“And he sailed off through night and day…to where the wild things are.”
May 17, 2012
Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.
This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on May 13, 2012.
In 1981, I wrote a term paper for a college course on children’s literature. I was so fascinated and absorbed by the topic that I had to set time limits on how long I would work on it, so I could focus on other courses. Don’t get me wrong; I liked my other courses. But nothing compared to delving into the creative mind of Maurice Sendak.
Perhaps some of my intrigue came from not meeting the Wild Things until I was a student teacher in college. The preschoolers in our campus nursery school would find any Sendak book on the shelf, as if there was a secret child magnet sewn into the binding. Then they would find me, and tug on my hand until I stopped whatever I was doing, and plop happily into my lap to hear their favorite stories. In my younger, more flexible years, I could fit three children in my lap and tuck another two in under my arms. Together we would venture Into the Night Kitchen, or sail with Max in and out of a day and over a year to Where the Wild Things Are. They could read them again and again. So could I.
In my early 20s, my favorite presents were books from Sendak’s collection and stuffed animal creatures from Wild Things. As a young mom, I could have read his books to my children by memory, but who would want to miss sinking into the rich illustrations on every page? The experience was insatiable.
What was so compelling about these stories?
In many ways, Sendak went for the emotional jugular – not a typical approach for a modern day children’s author. Instead of thinking of fantasy as a distraction from the emotions of childhood, or a framing of its preciousness, he understood it as a powerful tool to grasp the most primal, human emotions that are part of us from our youngest years.
It wasn’t without controversy. Published in 1963, librarians, teachers and critics cringed at the story of a boy angry at his mother, chasing his dog with a fork, and running away from home to party with monsters. It was as if Sendak was putting the idea of being angry at a parent’s discipline, or running away, into children’s heads for the first time.
Sendak thought that nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, each character’s words and images connected so profoundly with the primal feelings of childhood that children resonated from the first words: “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another…”
In his 1964 acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal, Sendak said:
“Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious — and what is too often overlooked — is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”
Yet it isn’t only the fears and frustrations of childhood that Sendak communicated with such mastery of words and art. He understood the sensual pleasure of childhood. In the Night Kitchen finds a young boy, Mickey (inspired by his childhood hero Mickey Mouse), sliding from his bed into a bowl of dough in a night bakery, naked. As Mickey dreams his way through the events of the bakery, the texture and intensity of children’s dream lives swim from the pages. Mickey joins the mysterious night world of adventure, one typically kept from sleeping children.
Ultimately, Sendak could see and accept the world through a child’s eyes: fears and anxieties, frustrations and triumphs, the comfort of food and the sensuality of being human. He embraced the authenticity of childhood, and accepted the dreams as readily as reality. Though dramatically different in personality, to me he is a kindred spirit to Fred Rogers, who also accepted children just the way they are.
Today Blue Beast watches over my office door at the nursery school, much like a sly, silent guard. If a child forgets their favorite rest time snuggly, Beast will offer to step in. But mostly he is there to remind them that they are safe, loved as children, and accepted just the way they are.