Book Club: Where the Wild Things Are

Book Club will be a semi-regular feature on the blog where I reflect on a children’s book (or series) and my personal experiences with it. The first one is obviously the namesake for this blog!

Where the Wild Things Are holds a special place in our family’s literary canon. It was my husband’s absolutely favorite book when he was a little boy. In fact, he knew its words and rhythm so well that my mother-in-law mistakenly thought he knew how to read! As for me, I mainly had a nostalgic fondness towards it until recently. I had a couple of Christmas ornaments and stuffed Wild Things, but didn’t think deeply about the themes. But then a series of events illuminated how much the book still speaks to me.

The first was seeing the Where the Wild Things Are movie, written by one of my favorite authors (Dave Eggers) and scored by one of my favorite bands (Arcade Fire). While turning a 40 page picture book into a film seems incomprehensible, I thought they did an excellent job. Instead of a series of fart jokes and action pieces – Dr. Seuss adaptations, I’m looking at you – Eggers meditated on the emotional weight of childhood and parenting. Although my previous concentration on the “wild rompus” obscured these themes, the movie brought them into focus.

The second was Maurice Sendak’s interview with Stephen Colbert just before his death. Rather than the quiet, gentle old man I had imagined, he was charmingly cantankerous and intolerant of fools. He outplayed Colbert at his own game, eviscerating his “character” while respecting his larger point. He talked honestly and openly about his struggles, including his frustration that people thought his books could harm children because he was gay. I absolutely loved him.

Of course, the last turning point was reading the book out loud to Sprout. As I devoted energy to each line, their multiple meanings emerged. This depth is especially true for the namesake line of this blog: “I’ll / We’ll eat you up.” Max first says it to his mother, angry at being punished for his unruly behavior. The Wild Things say it to Max out of adoration, adding on “We love you so!” While Max wants more freedom and the Wild Things want less, they both speak from simultaneous love and frustration. The intense love between a parent and child threatens to smother Max in his role as both the child (to his mother) and parent (to the Wild Things). In the end, he finds his balance, realizing that even when he ventures out into the world, his mother will be there at home with his meal “still hot.”

The book’s exploration of these themes made me consider my own journey of parenthood. Before I was pregnant, I was afraid of whether or not I was selfless enough to be a good mother. Like Max being overwhelmed by the Wild Things’ demands, I worried that I’d be too self-centered to find the energy to properly care for a helpless child. Now, I realize that you just do what needs to be done. You find the energy to get up over and over again at night. You summon the patience and back strength to bounce on the yoga ball a little longer to calm your child. You come home straight from work because otherwise you’ll miss bedtime. But being a good parent also means giving your child space to learn – Max would have never visited the Wild Things if his mom let him continue his mischief-making. Max’s mom gives me hope that I can find the balance between compassion and requiring responsibility.

The book also has a stark reminder of how being a parent can be isolating. Just as Max is lonely when the Wild Things have gone to sleep, so are so many new parents. Surrounding yourself with support is essential to both the parent and child. We never see Max’s mom, but I like to think she has multiple people close to her, whether that group includes a husband, mother, sister, church group, or set of close friends. These days, even though I sometimes see my friends less, I appreciate them more. I also greatly value my own parents and in-laws, finding their steady emotional presence reassuring.

Now, when I read Where the Wild Things Are to Sprout, I think about how my little Wild Thing will one day be both angry and loving, happy and lonely, desiring and fearing responsibility. And I’ll remember that I too feel that way sometimes. But as the parent, it’s my job to teach him how to process all of those emotions, whether it’s by imagining his own fanciful world or knowing he can rely on his dinner being hot when he comes home.


8 thoughts on “Book Club: Where the Wild Things Are

  1. How funny that the one Sendak book I didn’t read is this one. One of my favorites growing up was his The Big Green Book. It has a mean, evil tone to it that most people I knew found to be a turn off but it really appealed to my subversive childhood mind. Sendak was awarded an honorary degree from BU the year that I graduated. It was if I was being rewarded for sticking by The Big Green Book.

    I loved rediscovering children’s books when my kids were little. And finding new gems. We still have all of them though the kids are in college now.

    • I’ll have to check out The Big Green Book! I’ve never even heard of it and I do tend towards the subversive. We already have quite a collection of children’s books between my book-obsessed family and my mom’s library as a retiring-next-year elementary school teacher who bought most of the books for her classroom herself.

    • My mom gave all my books to our parochial school to help establish its library. I came home one day and my two book shelves were empty. I was dumbfounded. Of course, today, my house has books all over the place.

    • 1 day in early 2000s a woman drove up to my parents house. My sister was in the driveway. The woman showed my sister of a book, “Captured by the Mohawks”. It was one of my books (a favorite) given to the library in the 1960s! She asked my sister if she wanted it. And my stupid sister said, “No!”

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