If you were to ask me what piece of literature has had the most profound impact on me, I wouldn't have to think at all. It was Maurice Sendak's picture-book masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are.
Understand, books are, in a very real way, my life. I've always been a passionate reader-a story addict. Books have been a profound part of my mind, my study, and my working life. I could name hundreds of titles that infected my imagination, that moved my soul, that blew my mind.
But none crawled under my skin more deeply than Sendak's diamond of a hero journey.
I was born in 1962, the year before Where the Wild Things Are was published. When I started learning to read, I know I had dozens of books of my own, but I can't really remember any, excepting an illustrated collection of Hans Christian Anderson tales, a tiny box containing Sendak's Nutshell Library (which sparked my lifelong love of chicken soup with rice), and one well-worn copy of Where the Wild Things Are.
Max's story -- his wolf suit, his rage, the transformation of his room, his odyssey "in and out of weeks and over a year," and of course his sojourn among the Wild Things (which I was delighted years later to discover were based on Sendak's aunts and uncles) inhabited my imagination utterly. I was Max. I sailed on his boat. I ruled over the Wild Things, baying at the moon with them and swinging through the trees. And I returned to my room, transported in every sense, to find my supper, still hot.
As I grew older, I stopped reading the book. It passed on to my younger brother. But I never forgot it.
In and out of weeks and across a quarter century, I found myself a father. My eldest was two, and I was astonished to realize that among our prodigious collection of picture books we didn't have Where the Wild Things Are. So I bought it.
As soon as I got home, I hugged Sasha and invited her to read with me -- always a favorite activity for us both. I plopped her up on my lap, pulled out the book, opened to the first page...
On the night Max wore his wolf suit...
And the hair went up on my arms.
I knew every word. I remembered every line of every drawing. Twenty-five years after I had last opened the book, it was still there, etched indelibly into my mind.
A few years later, just before the publication of my own first (and, to date, only) picture book, I wrote Mr. Sendak to thank him -- to tell him how much I had loved his books, first as a child and now as a parent and neophyte author. I recounted the story of reading "Wild Things" to my daughter and told him that he had taught me the power of children's books, that they don't merely (merely!) teach and delight, but that they truly can shape young minds at the most profound level.
He sent me back a post card (decorated with Wild Things) thanking me, and wishing me well in my literary endeavors.
Whatever books I've edited or written, whatever books I go on to have the good fortune to create, I will always know that Max and his wolf suit are lurking somewhere between the lines, looking to get into mischief of one kind and another.
Farewell, Maurice Sendak. Fare well.
This post was first published on the Stillpoint Digital Press author blogs.
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