The Home Front

Where the Wild Things Are and a Longing for Home

The author at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.

Almost everyone has read Where the Wild Things Are. By now, its images are a part of our collective consciences — icons of childhood — and its plot is easy to recite. Mischievous Max talks back to his mother (who calls him “wild thing”) by yelling, “I’ll eat you up!” He’s promptly sent to bed without dinner. In his room, he wears a wolf costume and imagines he’s king of the jungle. His room metamorphoses from a bedroom to a forest and into an ocean. On it, he braves dragons to reach the island of the wild things. After his adventure, of course, he returns home to find a dinner sitting on his bedside table — a sign of his mother’s love.

I never read my kids the book until we went to the old Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, which had a nice exhibit of several of his works. The Where the Wild Things Are play area had Max’s bed, a red boat, a jungle made of vines, and “wild rumpus” sound effects. This allowed my kids to act out his books before they read them.

When I finally bought the book and snuggled down to read it to them, however, it made them sad. It always made me sad too. Upon the death of Maurice Sendak, many people have reignited some of the discussion around the famed author’s most famous book and the different emotions it seemed to evoke. The Washington Post obituary provides a clue why the Brooklyn-born Jew might have produced books “darker” than other kids’ stories:

“The Holocaust has run like a river of blood through all my books,” Mr. Sendak once said, explaining that as the child of Jewish immigrants from Poland, the Nazi death camps were never far from his mind.

Yesterday, a southern pastor’s wife, Jill Joiner, reflects on this popular work, with an interesting take:

Many adults and children have expressed sadness after reading this book, perhaps because it is so true to the human experience. People are inclined to chase autonomy, power, and self-reliance only to find themselves lonely and stuck on self-created islands. For me, it created a different sort of emotion, more along the line of an unfulfilled longing.

At the conclusion of the story — the simple image of the loving dinner sitting on the bedside table, evidence of a gracious and loving parent — is not enough. It is an incomplete picture of reconciliation, without the complete abandoning love of the Father lifting his clothes, running to embrace the Prodigal Son. As the stubborn, autonomy-loving fool that I am — I need the story to end differently. I need more than the reminder of love and forgiveness — I want to be with my love.

Read it all here.

Though many words have been spilled about his books — evaluating them, analyzing them, and critiquing them — we know his legacy will live on as we continue to debate why that dinner on the bedside table is such a punch in the gut, every time.

Did you like Where the Wild Things Are as a kid and did your feelings change as you got older?


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