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The Wild Things and us

Books

On hearing this morning of the death of Maurice Sendak, four days after he suffered a stroke in Danbury, Conn., I pulled out his 1964 children's classic Where the Wild Things Are for yet another read-and surely not the last. For more than 40 years-through 12 children and 13 grandchildren, through cultural, political, and religious 180s-I've remained a loyal fan.

Perhaps this generation cannot appreciate how radical a departure Sendak's approach to children's literature was. Let me just say that in 1970 as a wild and crazy tattooed hippie reading the story of Max and his wild night to my firstborn, Samantha Sunshine, I felt affirmed and delighted. This was a far cry from the Dick and Jane books of my childhood. And if I wanted to be anything, I wanted to be as far a cry as I could from tidy tradition.

And obviously so did many more. Over the next four decades, schools and public libraries would be flooded with thousands of children's books whose text and pictures rode roughshod over the status quo. Many would be thinly disguised attempts at propaganda, not written for the love of children but the love of ideology.

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Perhaps this is why a decade ago in his Breakpoint column Chuck Colson blasted Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are as emblematic of the "unfettered rebellion" that eventually gave rise to the counterculture.

By that time I was a different person-though ironically still a member of the counterculture since I was living in the Bay Area as a Christian conservative homeschooling mega-mom. And yet, though I'd jettisoned most of the reminders of my hippie past, Where the Wild Things Are was still a favorite read chez Curtis.

By that time, too, I'd become a writer myself and was digging deeper to understand what made writing work. On assignment for Christian Parenting Today for an article titled "Story Power," I had a timely opportunity to address the widespread Christian misunderstanding about Sendak's signature book-and more, to proclaim why I considered Where the Wild Things Are a must-have book for any family.

At least for any family that wants well-behaved kids. The fact is that far from celebrating rebellion, this classic treasure actually instructs children in the art of taming their emotions. Not in the form of a sermon-which would never work because children are abstract thinkers-but in the form of a story. It is through stories that ideas come to nestle in the subconscious of young children, addressing their inadequacies and relieving their fears.

Keeping this in mind, here's the real scoop on Where the Wild Things Are:

  • Max misbehaves at dinner and is sent to his room. (Max has parents who care enough to punish him when necessary.)
  • Max sails away to an island full of Wild Things. (Max cranks up his tantrum-a "wild rumpus" with the Wild Things.)
  • Max, "King of All the Wild Things," finally commands them to stop. (He realizes he can take control of his emotions.)
  • Though the Wild Things beg him to stay, Max sails home again. (He makes the right decision.)
  • In his room, he finds his warm dinner still waiting. (His parents haven't stopped loving him.)

According to C.S. Lewis, "A book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then"-a standard that might well eliminate two-thirds of the children's books in public libraries. I can't help but smile when I think of my 57-year-old husband, Tripp, sharing with great gusto the several pages with no text-where the Wild Things are dancing around, well, wildly-with Native American-type chanting "Ay-yuh-yuh-yuh, Ay-yuh-yuh-yuh" for several minutes before Max tells them to stop.

As I ponder these things this morning-Maurice Sendak's death, the contribution his book has made to the life of our family, and the full circle I've come as a mother-it occurs to me that my own life has followed the story arc of Max: running from rules, the wild rumpus, awakening, commitment, discovering the meaning of unconditional love.

"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," Sendak said in 1964 upon receiving the Caldecott Medal. "And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things."

Some of us just take longer to grow up than others.

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