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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Many Happy Returns, Where the Wild Things Are!

This month it is 50 years since Maurice Sendak gave children of then, now and tomorrow Where the Wild Things Are: a paper mirror for children to walk through in wonder and see portrayed their inner conflict between frustration, anger and incomprehension, on the one hand, and the need to accommodate a formally illogical but emotionally necessary mutual forgiveness, on the other.

Where the Wild Things Are is an ode to fantasy as a fundamental emotional and intellectual tool and to literature as a journey of flight which, far from leading to escapism, always returns us to land, sometimes with a bit of a bump.

Here is how Harper & Row announced the publication of the book back in 1963:
PDF taken from http://www.philnel.com/2013/10/15/wildthings/

[By the way, don't you just love a publisher addressing adults and talking of "any children who happen to be your friends"].  

Almost three years ago, this blog started out precisely with a review of Where the Wild Things Are. Back then, we described it as one of our absolute favourites, and said it had "a delightfully dreamlike, gripping text, with terrific pace, rhythm and musicality, combined with stunning pen and ink and watercolour illustrations that draw you into Max's world and make you want to leap up an dance the wild rumpus every time. It is a joy to read out loud".

My son was not yet two and at the time, and reading Where the Wild Things Are was all about the incredible resonance of the text. This is what we said: "It is one of those texts that flows effortlessly out of your mouth from the very first time you read it. Even as a very young baby, our son seemed to enjoy it, perking up with each exclamation mark and listening to the soft rolling musicality of other parts. The first bits that caught his attention and made him laugh were of course the "BE STILL!" and the "NOW STOP!" accompanied by suitably exaggerated authoritarian hand gestures and facial expressions from his parents, and, obviously, the wild rumpus, for which we made interesting drumming sounds, drawing it it out for a bit longer than usual. By the time he had learnt how to ask us to read bits again, he was into the monsters roaring their terrible roars and gnashing their terrible teeth and rolling their terrible eyes and showing their terrible claws again and again and again."  

Now, at the age of four and a half, all these elements are still very much present, but it is fascinating to see how he goes adding layer upon layer of understanding, and how his relationship with the book evolves. 

It is now that those other elements, more related to Sendak's subtle and mesmerising appeals to the unconscious, begin to appear. It is now that we start seeing and marvelling at how much Where the Wild Things Are manages to contain. It is not easy to overcome adult-imposed constraints that are often incomprehensible from a child's perspective. It is not easy for a child to strike a healthy balance between the struggle for their will and identity and their need to love and feel loved. We're not saying that Where the Wild Things Are provides solutions to these difficulties, but it certainly touches on them, and in ways that speak directly to children. Of course, a bit of a wild rumpus every now and then never hurts either!

Happy birthday, Where the Wild Things Are! And many, many, many Happy Returns!

Here is our recording of Where the Wild Things Are, with music and all. Enjoy!

More about Sendak on We Read it Like This

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