At the risk of incurring the wrath of every reader on earth, I’m going on record just the same: I never understood all the hooplah about Where the Wild Things Are. Yes, the book was a watershed breakaway from treacle of the Fifities. But I didn’t swoon over Wild Things nor over In the Night Kitchen.
I was four when WTWTA came out, definitely still read-to-me age, yet I don’t recall my mother ever reading it to me. Perhaps it didn’t charm her. Or perhaps with the arrival of my two younger sisters she ran out of read aloud time. When I had kids of my own, Wild Things wasn’t one I couldn’t wait to share with them. We did read it from time to time. It was, after all, part of the kid lit canon; not reading Sendak’s send-up seemed akin to raising my kids in ignorance of the Ten Commandments.
I asked Emma and Elliot to weigh in. Was WTWTA a childhood favorite? Did it still glow in the thrill of memory? Emma wrote, “Where the Wild Things Are, not so much. But I LOVED The Night Kitchen. Hard to remember why. I think on a surface level would have to be because I wanted gingerbread cookies.”
Emma’s neutral stance on Sendak doesn’t mean I raised my kids on literary pabulum. We just had our own favorite Brooklyn-born subversive Jewish child of immigrants author. William Steig was our man, something Emma confirmed. “My favorites will always be Dr. De Soto and The Amazing Bone,” she continued. Steig’s subversion was using words we rarely came across, words like gawk and gaffers and pumpernickel. We have an autographed copy of Shrek, courtesy of my sister-in-law, she of the way cool job, who interviewed Stieg way before his gregarious green goblin made it to the silver screen and Broadway. Emma and I still say farewell with Shrek’s classic lines to his lady love, “Oh please don’t go, I love you so… You’re UGLY…”
Elliot is a reading volunteer and yesterday, he and his young student read Wild Things in honor and memory of Sendak. Here’s El’s take on Max’s journey to the island of the Wild Things and back: “It is the perfect book. Not too long, unforgettable illustrations and language, uniquely lacking a “moral.” It allows one to just exist and enjoy — a rare thing in life if we’re not careful.”
In the end, it doesn’t much matter whether you go for Sendak or Steig or both. What matters is that you read to your children, cuddle them up on your lap, open a book and transport yourselves, courtesy of our magnificent English language and the authors who revel in its limitless potential. Sendak or Steig, Berenstain or Munsch, find authors who make you swoon. Because that, my friends, is where the real rumpus begins.
PS And Mr. Steig, wherever you are, for Shrek, and for Kate and Caleb, for Pearl, and for Dr. DeSoto, frank you berry mush.