Saturday, November 14, 2009

Let the Wild Rumpus Start!

I tried to talk myself into going to see the new movie of Where the Wild Things Are, but to no avail. I knew, you see, that in order to make any picture book into a movie, Padding Would Occur. Then I heard from a friend that Max in the movie is portrayed as a 9- or 10-year-old, which, as she pointed out, means that behavior which seems perfectly ordinary in a child of five (as in the book) seems a bit pathological in this older kid. Plus I learned that pop psychology had reared its ugly head. And while ugly heads are de rigueur in Sendak's book, they're of the monster kind, not the chichi psychoanalytical kind.

On a happier note, I give you my two favorite factoids about Where the Wild Things Are, both from an essay called "Visitors from my Boyhood" by Maurice Sendak in William Zinsser's Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children (1990). The first is that Sendak originally conceived of a book called Where the Wild Horses Are, but he couldn't draw horses, so he switched to monsters. The second follows close on its heels:

Then, very gradually, these other creatures began to appear on my drawing paper, and I knew right away that they were my relatives. They were my uncles and aunts. It wasn't that they were monstrous people; it was simply that I didn't care for them when I was a child because they were rude, and because they ruined every Sunday, and because they ate all our food. They pinched us and poked us and said those tedious, boring things grown-ups say, and my sisters and I sat there in total dismay and rage. The only fun we had later was giggling over their grotesque faces—the huge noses, the spiraling hair pouring out of the wrong places. So I know who those "wild things" are. They are Jewish relatives.
That's all the psychology this book can bear, if you ask me.

I will add that I read a few of the earnestly positive reviews of the WTWTA movie and got the message that the director has created something new that works in its own right. I waffled a bit, then went to the bookstore and surreptitiously read the movie picture book. Suspicions confirmed—pop psychology runs through the adapted story like a musical motif. Or a ton of bricks, whichever you prefer.

Yes, I know Sendak himself likes the movie, grumping in a curmudgeonly if not wild way that anyone who thinks it's too scary can go to hell. More power to him, and to anyone who has enjoyed the movie.

Still I choose not to sully my love of the book by seeing the movie.

There are those who are not in love with the book, of course. My mother is one of them. She is irritated by it, for lack of a better word. And she is not a wimpy person. I've never quite figured out why she doesn't like it, except perhaps the obvious: she dislikes a book that encourages children to be wild. Since she raised seven children and had to tame them with the trick of looking into all their yellow eyes personally, this is understandable.

So why do I love the book? Why do I think Where the Wild Things Are is the best picture book ever created, bar none?

I am not alone in feeling this way, you realize. When Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 did a poll designed to identify the top 100 picture books of all time, Sendak's 1964 Caldecott winner topped the list. (Number two was Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd's Goodnight Moon and number three was Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, in case you're wondering.). Furthermore, Where the Wild Things Are has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide in the nearly fifty years it's been in print.

Again, what's the appeal?

It helps to consider the platonic ideal of a picture book, which is to say, a tight interweaving of words and pictures with a text so compact and lovingly crafted that it is often compared to a poem. What's more, a picture book needs strong characters and plot, conflict, and feeling without sentimentality. In other words, all the trappings of a successful novel, but telescoped into a tiny format. That is what Sendak has achieved in this book.

What's more, he manages to convey the key conflict of childhood—getting mad at your mom , or more to the point, her getting mad at you (How could she? How dare she?). Sendak combines this homely motif with the hero's epic journey, borrowed from traditional fairy tales. The dragon slayer sets out, slays or at least tames the dragon, and comes home covered in glory. Or in this case a wolf suit.

Then there is what I call the F Factor, the freshness factor. In a world dribbling with derivation, Where the Wild Things Are is perenially filled with strangeness, such as the wolf suit, the forest growing in Max's room, the boat appearing (sea monster included), the very language describing his epic journey, and of course the wild things, their crowning of Max as king, and the lovely, jubilant rumpus.

The overused phrase "a celebration of the imagination" does come to mind, since Max essentially creates his own world.

In the same way that Sendak the writer can turn a phrase, Sendak the artist has the ability to turn a visual phrase. As the book looks homeward, we read:

"Now stop!" Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.
Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat, so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.
The expression on Max's face on this page, with its utter wistfulness, is simply perfect, the more so because it is juxtaposed against the isolating absence of the three wild things around him, who are lost in drowsiness and sleep. (We also get the little side joke of Max being the one in charge, and of feeling his own inclination to send someone to bed without supper.)

Some people have been put off by the talk of "eating people up," both from the wild things and from Max yelling at his mother. Food sends Max to his room, food draws him home again, and the last page with "and it was still hot" is an acknowledged tour de force. In another essay, "Jack and Guy and Rosie" from Origins of Story: On Writing for Children (edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire, 1999), Sendak tells of a teacher who asked a class of emotionally disturbed children to explain the book We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. Sendak reports:

One answer was from a little boy, who said the book's message was that you should eat a lot because all my books feed you: because in Wild Things there was dinner, and in In the Night Kitchen there was cake, and in Higglety Pigglety Pop! there was everything to eat. In Jack and Guy there was a lot of fresh bread. So he saw my works as a meal, which is as good a compliment as one could have.
Maurice Sendak turns anger into hunger, and he turns anger into a party. He tames the wild thing in this book, namely Max, by giving him what might smarmily be called a creative outlet for his energies. In doing so, the author-illustrator summons the inner world of a child.

Oops. That sounds like the psychology I was bemoaning earlier. My point is that each child is a universe of thoughts and hopes and energies. Each child is a place. Rather than psychoanalyzing that place, we should rejoice in it. I will clarify that I am not referring to the goals of the self-esteem movement. Rather, I believe with a sort of simple faith that every person on this planet contributes uniquely to humanity and should be considered a component of something resembling a historical trust, a brain trust, some kind of trust, a mutual treasure.

Stories give us examples of this vast individuality like gifts, the way Sendak gives us Max—feeding us all a hot supper.

Make no mistake, this book is not about telling kids to be wild. It's about telling kids they are loved despite their wild side, the wildness every one of us has and needs to nurture/tame one way or another. In Maurice Sendak's hands, this is not a smarmy message, just an eerie truth whispered across days and weeks and years.

I have Sendak on my mind in part because I recently read Gregory Maguire's Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation. (Yes, that would be the same Gregory Maguire who penned Wicked.) In case you hadn't guessed, reading this book will show you that Sendak himself is a wild thing. I suspect the best children's writers often are.

What surprised me is the extent to which Sendak includes homages to various works of art and other creative luminaries in his illustrations. Maguire spends time pointing out these homages, beginning with a surreal tour of Sendak's home studio/gallery. Happily, Maguire's snatches of essay simply act as Vanna White hands, framing the bountiful illustrations.

Making Mischief is designed for children's book afficionados. It's kind of like a coffee table book, although it's not fluff. Maguire goes on to talk about Sendak's influences, which range from German Romantic painters and Mozart to silent films and Mickey Mouse. The author riffs on Sendak's themes and evocations of emotion, reminding us intriguingly that "[c]hildren's lives are fiendishly hard." Maguire includes a number of unpublished works of art, courtesy of Sendak's own collection—I especially liked one of a boy and an elephant (100). Maguire provides us with a look at what he feels are Sendak's Top Ten works of art. And finally, he pulls off the amazing feat of retelling Where the Wild Things Are using illustrations from Maurice Sendak's other books.

Reading Making Mischief brought more favorite Sendak works to mind. I think the Nutshell Library is still one of the best children's books, or rather sets of children's books, ever—Chicken Soup with Rice is especially marvelous (with still more food!). The expressions of the myriad small children in Ruth Krauss's classic A Hole Is to Dig showcase Maurice Sendak's mastery of human emotions, captured in the slightest strokes of ink. Less well-known books that you might want to seek out include Sendak's illustrations for a collection of Grimms' fairy tales titled The Juniper Tree and a picture book by Charlotte Zolotow called Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present. Have you seen Sendak and Sesyle Joslin's What Do You Say, Dear? and What Do You Do, Dear? They are very, very funny, putting all of the other children's books about good manners to shame. Then there are Else Holmelund Mindak's Little Bear books, classic easy readers illustrated by Maurice Sendak with great tenderness. You'll find that in addition to creating his own books, Sendak has made other people's writing live and breathe. Another example is his 1984 edition of George MacDonald's tale, The Light Princess, a story made new by Sendak's pen-and-ink illustrations. And of course, we have Sendak's creepy rendering of an obscure fairy tale, Outside Over There, plus his own cool-but-controversial In the Night Kitchen. (Little boys have penises. Who knew?) For a complete listing of his books, try the Wikipedia entry for Maurice Sendak.)

It's important to understand that Where the Wild Things Are irrevocably changed the way people make picture books, and perhaps books for older children, as well. Maurice Sendak taught us that children's books are for children, not grown-ups. That a book for children can surprise us with creative cartwheels rather than plodding didactically across the page. And most important, that children are wild and mysterious, not just "cute." I thank Sendak deeply for opening the doors he opened. And no, I'm still not going to see the movie.

However, there's a visual treat I will recommend to you, and that's artist Cory Godbey's website, Terrible Yellow Eyes, which you should visit if you haven't already done so. Godbey has organized an invitation-only gallery of art in homage to Sendak's classic, which, considering Sendak's own penchant for homage, is perfectly fitting. The numerous works of art depict Max and the wild things in a satisfying array of styles. The collection had its own gallery showing in New York City a few months ago, but you can scroll down and see them all at Godbey's site. Being a fan of evocative illustration, a few of my favorites are "After the Wild Rumpus" by Brittney Lee (posted 6/12/09), "The Crowning of All Things Wild" by C.G. Young (7/10/09), and "Through Night and Day" by Joel Furtado (7/24/09). Two other pieces I'll mention are a steampunk work by Bill Corman titled "Steam Thing" (9/4/09) and a very funny one called "And It Was Still—Wait a Minute" by Willie Real (7/31/09).

Note for Worried Parents: Gregory Maguire's book, Making Mischief, is clearly intended to be read by a grown-up audience. Also, WPs will probably want to keep two or three of the pieces of art away from young eyes.


Heidi Mordhorst said...

Oh, boy, Kate--it's nice to meet you. The strength of my visceral reaction to the trailer for WTWTA shocked me: how dare anyone, Maurice himself included, sully the perfection of this book? In this post you have voiced, with supporting evidence, my reasons for refusing to see this movie and for forbidding my kids (7 and 10), who would probably love it, from seeing it (just as nobody watched any version of Charlotte's Web before they heard it read).

Not only that, you pointed me in new and exciting directions along old paths and reminded me that part of what I do well as a teacher is to "believe with a sort of simple faith that every person on this planet contributes uniquely to humanity," to help each child cultivate his or her particular brand of wildness. To go a step further, I think this is what constitutes the Divine in the world. (You're not a UU by any chance, are you, Kate?)

Anyway, thank you for this beautifully written, richly developed commentary. I'm headed out to find your books...

Kate Coombs said...


I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way! I suspect Maurice Sendak is in some ways heartily sick of WTWTA, so he doesn't mind seeing a very different incarnation. But as you can tell, I'm not and I do.

In a nice cosmic coincidence, I also write and love poetry; my first collection is coming out in Spring 2011 with Chronicle. I recently discovered your poems and ordered two of your books--Pumpkin Butterfly and Squeeze--which I liked in particular because you see things in fresh, strange ways. (Haven't reviewed them because, well, I've only reviewed a small fraction of what I'm reading.) So it's very nice to meet you, too, and I'm glad you liked the post!

I'm probably a different religion than you, but I'm with you on the Divine in the world. In general, I think people are far too astonishing to be mere animals. Like you, I am a teacher--I drive around L.A. teaching sick children in their homes for the school district. I love knowing how teachers can change the world by believing in and respecting each child, expecting them to grow and make and do and truly become their greatest selves.