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Appreciation: Maurice Sendak helped children's imaginations run wild

For all his contributions to children's literature, Maurice Sendak, who died Tuesday at 83, struck a chord with 'Where the Wild Things Are,' a dark and vivid adventure in a daunting world beyond a child's bedroom.

May 09, 2012|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Children's book author Maurice Sendak is photographed doing an interview at his home in Ridgefield, Conn.
Children's book author Maurice Sendak is photographed doing an interview… (Mary Altaffer / AP Photo )

When my son Noah was little — no more than 2 years old — his favorite book was"Where the Wild Things Are"by Maurice Sendak, who died on Tuesday at age 83. We used to read it and reread it, every night before bed.

The routine was always the same: Noah would stand up against the slats of his crib and stare at the fabulous lushness of Sendak's drawings, while I not so much recited as intoned the text. Often, Noah would mouth the words along with me; although he couldn't yet read, he'd heard the story so many times he had it memorized.

For both of us, the best part came in the middle, when Max, the hero of the story, declares, "Let the wild rumpus start!" I would shout that line, a beseeching bellow, and then Noah and I would dance and shimmy as we looked at the suite of rumpus pictures, while singing our own cacophonous, wordless tune.

What Noah loved about "Where the Wild Things Are" was its unbridled energy, the idea that here was a story that could make us jump and shout. I loved this also, but what moved me even more was its sense of the imagination, of the power our minds have to transform the world.

This is a book, after all, in which the action unfolds in Max's head, after he had been sent to his room. He's being punished: "The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind / and another," the book begins, "his mother called him 'WILD THING!' / and Max said 'I'LL EAT YOU UP!' / so he was sent to bed without eating anything."

The genius of the work, however, is that this triggers a lavish fantasy in which walls, floor and ceiling fall away, leaving Max to navigate a landscape far more exotic and dangerous than the one he's left behind.

"That very night in Max's room," Sendak writes, "a forest grew / and grew — / and grew until his ceiling hung with vines / and the walls became the world all around / and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max / and he sailed off through night and day / and in and out of weeks / and almost over a year / to where the wild things are."

This gets at the very heart of childhood, both in its creativity (oh, for the days when a bedroom could become a forest) and also in the loneliness this implies. In order for Max to create his world he must be dismissed, sent away by his mother, and he cannot share what he has found, even after he returns.

Part of the sweetness of the book — and it is a sweet book, with Max literally conquering his demons before being beckoned back "into the night of his very own room" by the smell, from "far away across the world," of "good things to eat" — comes from its toughness, its understanding that, even as kids, we are on our own.

In that regard, it is one of those rare books for young readers — "Charlotte's Web" is another — that refuses to sugarcoat, that portrays childhood as a territory not of innocence so much as of tension, in which the world is always just beyond us, and it takes all the resourcefulness we can muster simply to get along.

Over the years, Sendak expressed frustration that "Where the Wild Things Are," published in 1963, tended to overshadow his other books, which include many children's classics: "Pierre," "Chicken Soup With Rice" and the phantasmagoric "In the Night Kitchen," often challenged because it showed its boy protagonist, Mickey, in the nude.

He also disputed the description of himself as a children's writer; as he told Stephen Colbert in January, "I don't write for children. … I write. And somebody says, 'That's for children.' I didn't set out to make children happy. Or make life better for them, or easier for them."

That's a fair point, and it suggests why his work remains resonant, because he was writing not for a specific audience but to express himself. This is the essence of art, the essence of what books and stories have to offer, that sense of reaching out across the void.

And yet, as Sendak recognized — indeed, as he encoded into his very narratives — such connections go only so far.

"The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth," he ends "Where the Wild Things Are," "and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws / but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye / and sailed back over a year / and in and out of weeks / and through a day / and into the night of his very own room / where he found his supper waiting for him / and it was still hot."

Max, in other words, may find himself in the land of the Wild Things, but in the end, he has no choice but to return home for dinner, and set that wilder, darker self aside.

david.ulin@latimes.com

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