Tag Archives: Maurice Sendak

The Taste of Others, part 6: Overrated?

30 Nov

Where the Wild Things Are is, to me, a genuine classic, one of the few children’s picture books that is lean and powerful with just enough ambiguity to make it intriguing. (I’ve written multiple entries on it. Read the first part here.) Yet, even Where the Wild Things Are isn’t immune to these mean-spirited one-star reviews. Some people seem offended when a book doesn’t live up to their expectations. Here’s a particularly frustrated reader who decides to take it out on everyone else. Note the strange excursion into the Swayze vehicle Ghost, and the oddball grammar, which I didn’t fix.

Title: Where the hyped stories rule

This is a fine example of how following the crowd will get you nowhere. Especially if the leader of that crowd has no idea where he is going. Many years ago it was decided that this was an exceptional book. It received a very prestigious award. And like the Emperor’s new clothes many gather around to praise it. But was it truly deserved or could it be that the author, whom had been nominated various times before was thrown a bone. Like Whoopi Goldberg performance in “The Color Purple” but winning for “Ghost” Who’s to say. When I read this story all I thought was “nice drawings,”  Yes those drawings stand out more than a single line in this story. Can anyone quote a verse from this story. If I read it to you would you recall it. Yet flash a picture and the memories flood back of library cards and book reports. If your looking for a classic story to read your children or grandkids. Keep searching because this tale doesn’t qualify.

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Wild Things with Baby Faces, part 5: The Monster with Human Feet.

11 Oct

5. The monster with human feet.

Sendak uses his clean, simple-faced alter ego to feed his childhood desires. In feeding his inner child’s narcissism, he offers readers the chance to indulge in their own. Max is the id, the untroubled pleasure seeker who can only be induced to return home by a simpler, but no less gratifying, pleasure, the security of a mother’s love and a hot meal.

This reading of the story offers one answer to its enduring popularity; Max gets to live the childhood the rest of us missed out on.

Max is a Peter Pan figure, a child who gets to become ruler of a faraway world. He is Tarzan without the tragedy and without the civilizing presence of his Victorian breeding. He is Mowgli, loose in the forests of time. He is the untamable thing in the human mind, imagination and its discontents. This type of character has an intense allure, and it is this aspect of the book that accounts for its popularity with adults.

The story allows Max to sail across the world, conquer the monsters, and return home unscathed. It’s a straightforward twist of a timeless, ancient storyline, as ingrained into our collective consciousness as Gilgamesh or Beowulf. Sendak, with this simple little story, harkens back over 2,000 years of recorded history, following almost exactly Joseph Campbell’s classic hero’s journey. Max is the monster killer, Captain Ahab in a wolf suit.

This reading of the book—that the story’s timelessness appeals to some deep, innate sense of narrative symmetry we carry inside—offers another answer to the question of the book’s appeal.

The simplicity of Max’s face, the blank contours of his body, pulls the reader into Max’s wild fling into the far reaches of his self-indulgent imagination. The beautiful backgrounds, recognizable and concrete, add to this reader projection. This idea, that we push ourselves into Max because his face is a universal symbol of everyman’s face, offers yet another explanation to the book’s appeal.

And yet, this approach too—of seeing the book in terms of psychic reader projection—misses an essential piece of the story’s power.

There’s an undeniable melancholy about the book, a streak of loneliness and desperation. Max is alone. He sees no other people, and must spend his evening in the comfort of fictional beings. On page 9, when Max is standing angry in his room, there are no toys, no pictures, no signs of life save for a single plant. The plant has no flowers. Behind the plant, the chalky outline of the dead moon. Max looks at the closed door. And beneath the doorknob, there’s a locking mechanism that locks on the outside. It’s a subtle image, full of the lurking menace of loneliness, and Max standing in the unadorned locked room is a great record of a child growing up in isolation. It’s a hidden melancholy, a little dash of existentialism.

The cover illustration highlights this point, with a lonely, horned giant, sleeping with a slight grin (or is it a grimace?), with large human feet, sitting at the shore by an empty boat. (And why is it empty?) He is waiting for Max to return, but Max is gone, and probably gone forever. The giant is surrounded by an unearthly paradise, but all he can do is sleep. He, too, is alone, and all the beautiful wildness in the world cannot make up for this fact.

The

Combining the loneliness of a little boy with the brash adventures of an epic hero, Sendak merges his artwork, writing style, and plot into a cohesive, balanced story, reveling in the best and worst of youth. But it is the hidden melancholy that sticks with the reader. Sendak snatches the true eternal fire—the human capacity for loneliness, the endless manifestations of sadness—showing that the wildest things live not outside the world but rightly in it.

Sources:

Bangs, Molly. Picture This: How Pictures Work. Chronicle Books, San Francisco. 2000.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. MJF Books, New York. 1949.

Marcus, Leonard. Minders of Make Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature. Houghton Mifflin, Boston. 2008.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Kitchen Sink Press, New York. 1993.

Paul, Pamela. “Rules Meant To Be Broken.” New York Times Book Review, Sept. 18, 2011.

Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. Harper Collins Publishers, New York. 1991.

(All images belong to the Maurice Sendak estate; I have used them here for review purposes.)

Wild Things with Baby Faces, part 4: “We are all little beasts.”

10 Oct

4. “We are all little beasts.”

Another way of interpreting this little story is as a tale of authorial wish fulfillment. Reading the book this way—where Sendak gives his little narrator all the things the real world will not and cannot—is limited, however. Of course, part of the book’s appeal lies with the not so subtle glorification of bad behavior. Readers, for a few brief minutes, get to romp and roar and yell and scream without repercussions. Max is all of us, and Sendak himself confirms this interpretation. In a recent interview, Sendak calls Max “a normal child, a little beast, just as we all are little beasts” (Paul, 35).

The boy is Sendak, but also everyone else.

Joseph Campbell, in A Hero with a Thousand Faces, offers up an argument for narrative that is universal, wherein a hero must travel through a number of stages in the process of self-discovery. The essence of his argument is that all myths—and almost all stories, really—are the same. (If you’ve never read Campbell, despite some occasional academic-y prose, he’s a pretty wild ride.)

Sendak’s book follows Campbell’s outline. Max’s journey, in a number of interesting ways, mirrors Campbell’s classic hero’s journey.[1]

The story is simple, clean and elegant, a classic quest motif, where the main character travels around the world to destroy a monster. On pages 18-19, the story reads “ . . . and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks for almost over a year . . .” The timing here is essential, giving the story the feel of an epic, and providing the necessary time to allow our hero to make his journey. Without these crucial lines, the book would feel insubstantial. Max must travel far and wide, leaving the safety of his home to wander the earth.

“. . . the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the ‘threshold guardian,’ at the entrance to the zone of magnified power” (Campbell, 77). Campbell goes on to describe these guardians as “leviathans . . . and other powers of the deep” (Campbell, 78). On page 19, Max, on his epic journey across a vast ocean comes across a dragon, just before he lands on the land of magnified power, where the wild things live. It’s an apt creature, a guardian of the untamed lands. And here, he meets the monsters.

But, he doesn’t destroy them, and therein lies a possible clue to Sendak’s reasons for writing the book. Instead, the boy becomes the leader of a clan of monsters. He vanquishes nothing. He tricks the monsters with his wits, and then leads them through a wild days-long romp of roughhousing, a child’s version of paradise.

At a later stage in the hero’s journey, Campbell says that the hero “ . . . is covertly aided by . . . amulets . . . . that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage” (Campbell, 97). On page, 25, Sendak draws Max with two new accoutrements: a crown and a scepter. Both are classic examples of magical talismans. It’s as if Sendak had plotted Max’s story with Campbell in mind.

Max with two magical talismans.

According to Campbell, all heroes must return home and eventually, Max must, too. He misses his mom.[2] He misses being needed and loved. Thus spent, slaked, and satisfied, he leaves his acolytes to return home. He isn’t punished for his misdeeds. He is rewarded. In the parlance of the times, he gets to eat his cake and have it, too.

Max is the narcissistic little boy and the epic hero; the plot holds both of these components, the mythic and the personal. And like all great epics it ends with the hero safely returned home.

“‘Who having cast off the world,” Campbell quotes the Upanishads, “would desire to return again?’ . . . And yet, in so far as one is alive, life will call” (Campbell, 207).

The simple pleasures of basic living, food and shelter, are enough to pull little Max back from the island of uninhibited life amongst the fierce creatures.


[1] An entire masters’ thesis could be written on Wild Things and Campbell, so two examples will have to suffice.

[2] The author, Marcus, reveals that Sendak struggled with the ending, unsure of how, or why, a boy would leave paradise to return to the normal world.

Wild Things with Baby Faces, part 3: Scaled Creatures with Enormous Eyes.

10 Oct

3. Scaled creatures with enormous eyes.

Molly Bangs offers a different way of looking at Sendak’s pictures. If McCloud gives us a theory of reader projection onto blank faces, Bangs breaks down pictures into a primal, emotional geometry. Using Bangs principles as a cipher, we can see some of what makes the book so powerful, and timeless.

First, Bangs argues that smooth, horizontal lines are comforting (Bangs, 42). All of Max’s journey is framed by a smooth horizontal plain at the bottom of the page, except the rumpus pages. This gives the island not a sense of horror or fear, but calm adventure. It also answers the question, why isn’t this story scarier? A boy adrift at sea, stranded on an isle of monsters that threaten to eat him, and yet, the creatures somehow feel warm. (Also, one of the creatures wears a cardigan, adding a touch of whimsy and some fuzzy feeling of home.) The white plain, in various sizes, is almost omnipresent, giving the book a soft glow, explaining the disconnect between the book’s tone and what is actually going on in the story.

Max faces the right side of the page, in classic western pictorial tradition, in the fantasy sequences. As we read left to right, we expect action in picture books to move in the same direction. Yet, in the “real world”[1] of the story, Max faces left. He also faces left when he is thinking of home while in the fantasyland.

Sendak knows what he’s doing here; Max’s eyes, in a sense, are our own. Where he looks, the reader looks, too. Max always faces the monsters. This allows the monsters to be both less threatening and an extension of Max’s own thoughts.

Second, the center of the page is also the center of attention (Bangs, 62). Max, returning to our three-page wordless spread, is almost at the center. But for most of the rest of the pages, he is—at times uncomfortably—tucked into the edges of the frame. He is a boy at odds with the real world, and Sendak doesn’t want us to forget that his jaunt into a fantasy world isn’t a race towards perfection, but rather a retreat from the hard realities. The rumpus, Sendak is saying, is the whole point; Max has escaped the rules of his home for the wild. Anything less than pandemonium would miss the point.

Max, at the center of things, where he belongs.

Returning to the monsters, they are big bellies with eyes. They are huge. They have enormous teeth and sickly yellow eyes. They are clearly of different origins, some bullish and others birdlike. But, as the colors of the creatures are similar, they are lumped together. This, too, is covered in Bangs’s book (Bangs, 74). The result is a clan of monsters, almost a family, but covering great creative width. They have something childish about them, something sweet[2], and Bangs touches on reasons why they seem this way, too. They are round, almost mushy, and thus less threatening (Bangs, 11). They look like they should be scary, but they aren’t.

The creatures look (almost) peaceful, save for the beaked monster at the end.

The mood of the book, almost soporific with its reassuring plains of white surrounding the frames or bordering them, works because of the principles Bangs’s elucidates.

The last line is delivered against a vast, calming white space. The pictures are gone, the boy is gone, the monsters are gone, only the idea of a warm meal remains.


[1] Of course, it’s all fiction.

[2] Except for the bird creature, which has more than just a touch of the perverse. Note the expression on page 25. Extrapolating why Sendak included this thing in the book would take a much longer essay, but I believe he’s intentionally placed a discomfiting creature amongst the cute and fuzzy.

Wild Things with Baby Faces, part 2: The Blank Face of Wonder.

9 Oct

1. The blank face of wonder

Scott McCloud, in his book, Understanding Comics, offers up a way of looking at sequential art—art that tells stories—that reveals a number of reasons why Sendak’s book has remained so popular.[1]

McCloud argues that the simpler the face of a drawing, the more universal it’s appeal. Readers, he says, project their own face onto the illustration. Placing a simple face against a complicated backdrop, the reader can see the world as a real place, but identify with the main character (McCloud, 43). All cartoons utilize this technique, just some more than others.

Let’s look at Max’s face. It’s an oval shape, with vague features, little more than a mouth and eyes with two little slits for eyebrows. The face resembles a child’s drawing, albeit with a sophisticated design. There’s a little touch of hair, and a nose composed of an unbroken single line. It could be any of ten million faces, ambiguously ethnic but touched by the Nordic. He’s a thinner Charlie Brown. With curly black hair.

It could just about be any mischievous boy.

His body, in the wolf suit, is an outline of a figure, with no muscles, skin, or body parts showing. A line of four buttons bifurcate the suit, and on either side of the face there are four single whiskers. Atop Max’s face rest two pointy ears. It’s as close to a blank canvas a human figure can be, save perhaps for a stick figure, and in this way almost works as a “fiction suit.”[2] The fiction suit is a way for writers to immerse themselves into their own stories, and for illustrators to sneak readers into their alternate world.[3]

The author’s psyche dropped into his own creation in his ingenious fiction suit.

Max’s face is simple and plain. His body is half-white, almost blank. In contrast, the locales are lush, complicated tapestries comprised of complex cross-hatching. Placing an almost blank face into a lush background is a classic tactic, common in Japanese art. The idea is that readers will identify with Max, project themselves into his persona, while also placing themselves in a very real world. The best example of this is the angry Max in his room. Although spare, the room is a detailed place, with subtle gradations between the browns and grays of the rug, the walls and ceiling. The design is uncluttered but very complex. Max rests off-center, a disgruntled face, a cipher for the reader to enter a stimulating and all-too-real alternate world (McCloud, 43).

McCloud refers to a visual term called closure. Closure, in the visual world, is the mental process of completing a picture that is only half-formed. An example is a Coke can, half-turned, where only part of the letters are visible. The brain completes the letters automatically (McLoud, 67). In terms of sequential art, closure works in terms of story, too. The reader closes the story gap between the pages. The reader, in a sense, becomes the author of the unseen parts of the story.

The illustrations here don’t change the tone of the story at all, but fulfill it. The wild rumpus—giant wordless illustrations that span both the recto and verso pages—scrupulously detail Max and the creatures dancing, play-fighting and howling at the moon.  It’s the centerpiece of the story, a child’s version of a bacchanal, a pre-adolescent revelry that shrieks off the page.

The infamous wild rumpus, or is it a silent affair?

These three “silent” pages offer an example of this concept of closure. The reader’s imagination fills in the silence of the rumpus, extending the festivities. The reader can hear the howling creatures, Max’s growls, and the hooting, grunting, huffing and carousing of the scaly creatures. In each spread, Max sits close to the center, surrounded by the large, variegated creatures and the verdant forests and plush, sensual glades.

It’s clear that we’re supposed to identify with Max. We’re supposed to project our desires onto his simple features. He’s living out our pleasures for us.


[1] His explanations concerning comics apply to all picture books, and Where the Wild Things Are, it could be argued, is a comic (or almost a comic) in its form and content. See pages 9-13 to see how close the book comes to being a straight comic.

[2] Grant Morrison–one of my heroes—argues that authors do this all the time, and that the power of fiction often rests on this strange blurring between fantasy and reality. In a sense, he’s making McCloud’s argument in different terms.

[3] There’s another way of looking at it: the wolf suit is shaded on one side, sterling white on the other; perhaps Sendak is showing the dual nature of his little boy, the good and bad in all of us.

Wild Things with Baby Faces, part 1.

9 Oct

1.

Where the Wild Things Are is a slight book, slender, barely 40 pages, with a total word count of some 330 words. Upon publication, it won the top award in the field. The book was and is immensely popular, a best-selling children’s title for the last 40 years. The iconography of the book as well as its language has burrowed its way into the foundations of popular culture, culminating in a big budget film adaptation, as well as an opera.

The book is a gigantic success story, a constant in libraries, and a beloved favorite of both adults and children. In a word, it’s a classic.

They even made action figures.

The question is, why?

Max, the main character, is the only named character in the book. He is a narcissistic, violent little kid with no impulse control. He chases the dog. He yells as his mother, who remains unseen. The monsters, although differentiated from each other by beaks, wings, or strange claws, all resemble each other and act in a uniform manner. The message of the book is unclear; the book seems to be an argument for the power of imagination, but at the end of the book, Max appears to have learned something, it just isn’t clear what.

But this story of a budding sociopath and his imaginary monsters comes across as a warm, loving paean to childhood, families, and imagination.

This contradiction lies at the heart of the book.

I’m going to take three different looks at Sendak’s masterpiece—I’ve adapted this series of blog entries from a graduate school paper; I needed a break from writing about politics and have numerous essays and pieces in progress— first through the eyes of Scott McCloud, a pioneering sequential arts thinker and creator; then through Molly Bangs, a children’s book artist; and finally through the prism of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth. Taken together, the three reads of the book offer some insight into how it works, and why it’s remained so popular over the years.