Some children’s books feel like they are written for adults. In Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak speaks directly to the child.
Deemed controversial when it first came out, Where The Wild Things Are is a feral romp through the intense feelings of childhood, telling the story of Max – in his now iconic animal suit and crown – who sails off in a strop to the land of the wild things after he is punished for naughty behaviour by his mother.
Sendak was not one to sugarcoat childhood. Born in 1928 to Polish Jewish parents who had emigrated to America, he grew up with the devastating impact of The Holocaust on his extended family. As a young child he nearly succumbed to Scarlet Fever – fear and mortality were part of his formative years.
Throughout his career Sendak railed against the notion that childhood was a sun-kissed period of innocence and insouciance and should be depicted as such – in In The Night Kitchen his protagonist’s dream wanderings land him naked in cake batter and Outside Over There features child abduction and goblins. In an interview with The New York Times, a year before he died, he bemoaned the fact that children’s books had ceased being “truthful” about the authentic experience of children.
In a time of such uncertainty, with a deadly virus lurking, schools closed and an economic crash brewing that could affect generations to come, we need Wild Things and Sendak more than ever, to give children a bedtime story that reassures them, not with sweetness and light, but the message that we implicitly understand the untamed frustrations and anxieties within which they cannot explain.