The quote in the title is from someone special we lost yesterday, Maurice Sendak passed away at age 84. Best known for ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ Sendak was a prolific writer, publishing more than 18 books and illustrating over 100.
Sendak was seen by many as a cynical, grumpy man. And I always suspected he was, but for no other reason than the world around him was strange and perplexing. Sendak pulled no punches with children. He told the truth.
Being a child is the single hardest thing any of us will ever do. Period. You come into this life knowing nothing, having to be cared for, and the instant you learn how to get away, you’re dragged back over and over again. You’re shorter than everything, can’t understand what adults are talking about, forced to learn facts you care nothing about, made to eat food you don’t like, and you have to be in bed at the same time every night. While around you, people are eating cookies in the middle of night, going to movies in the middle of the day, and generally seeming to have a much better time than you are.
As an adult, you understand that you’re doing these things for your children to protect them, help them learn and prepare them for life. Sendak’s argument was always, just be honest, your kids can handle it. And he was right.
Sendak has only a tenuous connection to Disney, some citing Fantasia as his inspiration to become an illustrator. However, he did seem to enjoy Disney, authoring two introductions to Disney books: “Mickey Mouse Movie Stories” and “The Disney Poster Book.”
“Where the Wild Things Are” was published in 1963, and is still one of the most popular children’s books in the world. Why? We could debate for a while, but I think it’s because it puts on paper what children feel when they’re angry.
Much like Mr. Rogers, Sendak allowed children to be angry. Not throw a fit, hit your brother, hold your breath angry, but a simmering, thoughtful anger. The kind revenge fantasies come from. The kind you work through yourself, then come to the hopeful conclusion that life is more important than this, you gather yourself up, and go have a slice of pie your mom made.
Notice how Max accepts his punishment with only a small amount of indignation. He retreats to his room, then to another land altogether. Now, is the island in his mind, or is it real? That’s for you to decide. Spike Jonze’s film version in 2009 presented an allegory. The Wild things are bits and pieces of Max’s personality and family. It’s his job as king to figure out how to make all the pieces work. A country divided cannot stand. For me, the book is Max’s simple desire to be in control, then slowly understanding that those with power sometimes need someone else to help them deal with life.
Even in the face of ’Oh, please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!’ Max calms the wild things and allows them to grieve and grow on their own terms. Because they can, like children can a lot of the time.
The fact that there is no father in the story is what brings me to the Disney connection. Does Max have a father? We don’t know. The movie tells us no, he doesn’t. But this plot device gives the child an instant vulnerability. Go back and think of how many Disney and/or Pixar movies contain a child with only parent, or only one parent who cares for the child: Snow White, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Santa Clause, Princess and the Frog, Up, Tron Legacy, Mars Needs Moms, Chicken Little, Ponyo…
And the ones with no parents at all: Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sword and the Stone, Mary Poppins (the parents are never there for the children), The Rescueres, Aladdin, Tarzan, Meet the Robinsons, Lilo and Stitch, Tangled…
Children instantly understand not being cared for and the anger that comes with it. It’s how we deal with the emotion that Sendak presented to us in such a special way.
You can go online and read more about Sendak’s love of his parents, his coming out of the closet, the controversies over his books and his general view on life, but what I want to say here is Sendak gives me hope. Hope for other adults never forgetting what it was like to be child. Honestly, we were all kids once, how hard is it to remember?
It’s always bugged me a little that people have latched onto Max as some kind of counter-culture, do what you want, devil-may-care character. If he’s any of those things, its because he’s a kid, they’re supposed to be like that. And while I do a lot of grousing about never forgetting childhood, when you are an adult, you have a job to do. Take care of yourself and your family before you prance down the street in your Max costume. If anything, let your children run down the street and be Wild Things, and be there when they come back. Always.
The “Where the Wild Things Are” film was only made with the express consent of Sendak, Jonze going so far as to include Sendak in the script writing process. It was in the very first trailer that I felt these two men had captured what it means to be a kid: Max is asleep on Carol’s back, walking through the woods. He awakens and asks where they’re going. Carol says he wants to show him something. The camera follows them through the woods, catching rays of the rising sun. Music plays.
For me at least, this is childhood, waking up each day to fresh hope and letting someone show you something you’ve never seen before. May we all never forget this.
RIP sir, you will be missed.