I have an odd confession to make, even odder in that I’m making it on the day of Maurice Sendak’s death. I didn’t like Where the Wild Things Are as a child. I didn’t want anything to do with Max, and the story was somehow…unsavory. I read it, but it never took a place in my heart the way so many books have over my life.
From where I stand now, not liking Max is perfectly understandable. He is everything that is least likable about small children: egotistical, demanding, pointlessly cruel. There isn’t much to like.
Still, that isn’t why the book left me cold. No, that happened because it just flat-out confused me.
There’s an irony for me that child “experts” of the time thought Sendak’s book would be too disturbing for small children because Max was sent to bed alone and without his supper. Frankly, that was the part of the book I understood best. Max was a miserable child and was mildly punished for it. End of story.
Only that was where the story began. Then it went places where I just couldn’t follow.
The miserable child escaped and went on adventures. Monsters didn’t scare him but…but did what he wanted them to do. They listened to him. They put him in charge. They all misbehaved together, joyfully.
Then, despite all that, despite finding a place free from fear and from rules that weren’t made for small children, Max decided he preferred his home. And his home turned out to be a good place to be. The miserable child was rewarded not just with adventures, but with treatment that was better than all of those adventures put together.
It made no sense at all.
I was a far better behaved child than Max, and I got a far worse deal. My punishments weren’t revoked. The monsters that lived in my room would not be stared down. I never got to tell the world how it should work.
I could, perhaps, have taken the lesson that bad behavior was what brought rewards, but I knew, with the kind of knowledge that can only be beaten or ground into you, that that was dangerous thinking. Nothing else, however, could make that book anything but a puzzle.
Nothing but time and the perspective to understand that what confused me was exactly the point of the book. Yes, small children are horrid little monsters in many ways. No, that shouldn’t mean that their inability to act like adults should cost them dearly and continually. Even at their worst, they should still be loved, in obvious ways.
It turns out to be a very good book. The limitations were all in me and in my circumstances. Somehow, that makes me extra sad today.