Often our legacy chooses us. The parts that others choose to remember most rarely reflect the moments we want to remain etched in public opinion.
So is the case of one of the greatest children’s book author’s of all time.
Maurice Sendak probably never expected Where the Wild Things Are to be his legacy or he might have learned how to draw horses first. Nonetheless, Where the Wild Things Are is undeniably the work Maurice Sendak will be most remembered for.
Where the Wild Things are is a short book. Nine sentences overall. The pictures don’t necessarily expand the story far past the words. So what could possibly make this children’s tale resonate with generations of young children this much?
Sendak gets it. Kids are a lot of things. Kids are angry, mean, and sweet. Kids are frightened and confident simultaneously. Kids are everything we are on the inside but without the ability to keep it all (or even most of it) on the inside. Because children are just as multifaceted as adults, Sendak’s choice to keep Max’s story simple works. We can identify with Max as children, and he gives us a hope that lasts into adulthood.
But let’s talk about Max. Is Max mean or just mischievous? He is both. His horribleness is reflective of our horribleness. We can believe he is just being playful or truly angry when he tells his mother “I’ll eat you up.” We can believe that when we said wretched things to our own parents, we maybe meant them out of love. The internal monsters of our childhood mirror vividly Max’s. The hope Sendak gives us in Max’s mother, the hope of forgiveness, is reinforced with every bedtime reading.
So yeah, Max and his story are important. His story, while not universal, is common. Max is all too often us, drawn carefully on a page. We can’t forget him because we are him. We frame, construct our own stories with Max acting as the foundation beneath. We even get frustrated when someone else builds a whole different character out of the same skeleton, forgetting Max was merely a platform and that we constructed the rest. Max is important because the memories we attribute to Max are important.
Sendak gave us a scaffold. We built him a legacy in return.
Goodbye Sendak. Thank you for the memories.