The Call of the Wild Things
Page 3 of 3“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.
All this sturm und drang, these millions of dollars pumped from the asses of Warner Bros. executives, these hard-won reputations walking a tightrope, these countless hours of writing, rewriting, storyboarding, haggling, casting, costuming, filming, animating, dailies, post-production, marketing—all this comes back to Sendak’s 10 little sentences. Lay all the spent energy (and the fallout) at the clawed feet of Max, his misdeeds, his discipline and his delusion, that hot supper, that piece of cake at the end of it all.
So we’re back now to why. What accounts for the enduring popularity of Wild Things? Exactly what spell has this book—of all the books out there—cast on generations of readers, with still more generations in the making after mom and dad pull the covers up tonight over their beautiful sleeping child, lay down the copy of Where the Wild Things Are on the nightstand, and softly slip, hand-in-hand, off toward their own bedroom, their hearts so full they can barely breathe?
It’s the illustration, stupid.
It’s Sendak’s uncanny ability to draw and color an utterly unreal place that is so utterly real.
Look at Max. Look at the lines that Sendak squiggles for his mouth—there’s genius in the strokes that show Max’s triumph, his smugness, his unflinching courage. Who knew a mouth could say so much without a single word coming from it?
Look at the monsters. They’re not only hurly-burly symbols of raging emotions—they’re family. The wild things uncannily resemble those uncles and aunts and grans that stomp through the crowded house on holidays, their nose hairs and big knobby knuckles and moles and age spots and uncut fingernails and massive feet and rheumy eyes and fleshy earlobes at the same time scary and delightful, funny and disturbing.
Look at the wild-rumpus panels, the remarkable six-page illustrated spread with no text where Max and the things go native, pagan, wild. Those big, lavish pictures transform Wild Things into something like a flip book—you could riffle through the pages and know Max’s story perfectly well without reading a word.
But wait! No! It’s not the illustrations at all—it’s the story!
The illustrations are atmospheric, sure, but this is an adventure story: a tale of pure id, as deep and famished as Philip Roth’s, id in young Max that cries like Billy Idol in the midnight hour—more, more, more. (Is there any kid on earth who doesn’t want more?)
Yes, it’s the story! Just look at Sendak’s perfect turns of phrase. When Max beholds his four-poster bed transformed to jungle trees, his ceiling to vines, Sendak gives us this mind-expanding line: “ and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max.”
Tumbled by! An ocean!
Here may be the most brilliant verb choice since Lewis Carroll slew his Jabberwock and “chortled” in joy.
Of course it’s the story! And we haven’t even reached the real money line—the immortal syllables that stick like a leech to the cortex of every young brain that hears them, syllables parroted back infinity times—“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”
The wild rumpus!
Put down your pen and uncork the champagne, Sendak—it’s time to open a Swiss bank account.
The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye
So. The illustration? Or the story?
How about neither?
There’s still something more. Pictures and words alone fail to deliver us to the wellhead of Sendak’s magic. Even as a destination, as a place you only get to by opening the door to another world—a door called a book cover—the world of Wild Things isn’t quite as whole or unique as parallel worlds under the covers of books by Dr. Seuss and Margaret Wise Brown.
But Where the Wild Things Are has something these other books don’t have. A great secret. And here’s why it endures: Wild Things is not really a children’s book.
Oh, children unquestionably love Wild Things—what child wouldn’t gobble up a tale where the hero gets it all? Max chases the dog with a fork, threatens to eat his mom. When punished, he fantasizes an anger so profound, a vengeance so monumental, that it flattens all in its path. The most fearsome adversaries bow and scrape before his wrath. He inflicts an eyeball-to-eyeball humbling on the poor woolly behemoths Hah! You’re not so big and bad after all, are you, my pussycats?
And then? Once Max’s anger is slaked, once love and loneliness begin to fill his heart again—why, he comes back home.
Don’t we all want that?
He found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.
Well done, Max. You have your cake and rumpus, too. You got it all.
Where the Wild Things Are gives mom and dad a book that fully acknowledges the catharsis of anger and the wondrous healing power of imagination. It also shows that discipline is a requirement, even as it gives parents a way to show a child that discipline is love, too.
Even better, after misbehavior and punishment, when regret and loneliness are the last embers glowing in the black ashes of anger, when a child misses mom or dad and wants to come home, he always can.
Unconditional love reels Max back.
It’s better than any wild rumpus could ever be.
And it’s not just children who crave that promise. It’s their parents, and those hipsters, too—anyone who once was a child. It’s everyone, it’s all of us.
That’s why the book lives. That’s why parents still sit down night after night, a child’s downy hair under a mother or father’s chin, to read of the wild things and the boy who comes back home.