At least once a day, my 16-year-old son, Danny, comes to me with an open copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and says, “Mom, can you read it?”
It is always opened to a single page, the one where Max sails home. It is night, and Max’s eyes are closed as he travels back to the place “where someone loved him best of all.” The text on the page Danny chooses reads, “and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day”. He would be happy to have me read it to him in a sing-song voice a hundred times in a row, but he usually settles for five or six.
Danny doesn’t actually need me to read it. He can read himself and even if he couldn’t, he has heard this concise masterpiece read to him literally thousands of times and knows each word by heart. There are a few books Danny, who diagnosed with autism at three, can’t live without, and this is one of them. He carries it with him to school in his backpack every day, and there is another copy stashed in his classroom just in case he forgets it. He has a Wild Things T-shirt and a Where the Wild Things Are poster on the door of his room. Sendak, who died this week at 83, created a virtually perfect work of literature that has become a classic. Its dreamlike images and minimalist poetry appeal to readers of all ages, as does its vision of an angry, mischievous boy who wears a wolf suit, chases a pet dog with a fork, and threatens to eat his own mother, then sails away to be with the wild things. While the book isn’t meant to be about autism, I think it has a special resonance for my son, as well as many other children who have difficulty communicating. Max gets into trouble because he runs wild and then, after a magical boat journey, he is confronted by a host of gorgeously grotesque creatures (Sendak said in interviews that the wild things were based on his childhood vision of his own relatives, the kind of nightmarish adults who threaten to eat cute kids). Max joins them in a “wild rumpus” (how many children learned the word “rumpus” from this book?) and they acknowledge him as the “most wild thing of all” and make him their king. But finally, lonely and hungry, he gets back into the boat, and eventually arrives “into the night of his very own room” where the supper his mother denied him as punishment is waiting for him.
I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what Danny wants and what he is talking about, and I can’t help wondering what special appeal the “and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day” passage holds for him. In my mind, this book tells the story of his daily struggle with his autism, which prompts him to act in ways that I – and most others – consider wild. But while Danny is stuck here in this world – and with me – Max manages to journey to another place full of creatures he can have fun with. When he’s had enough of the rumpus, he sends the wild things to bed without their supper, as his mother did when he threatened to eat her, and then – as the wild things protest, “Oh, please don’t go –we’ll eat you up – we love you so!” — Max steps back onto his private boat. I think the year and weeks and day that Max travels, and that so fascinate Danny, are the time Danny needs for his own private journey. On this magic sailboat in the night, Danny sees a way he can transform his wildness – whatever that unquiet, untypical neurological wiring that makes being calm and following the world’s rules so difficult for him – into love and communication.
This is my interpretation of what Max’s journey means to Danny. I have come to identify Danny with the boy in the book so much that when I wrote a novel, If I Could Tell You, about four families raising autistic children, I named the character that resembles Danny most closely Max. I hope someday, after a year and weeks and a day, he can tell me if my guess is correct. And I hope that the energy that fuels his wild rumpuses and makes him so full of life will never leave him, but will become easier for him to handle, and will leave him as content as wolf-suit clad Max is on the final page of Where the Wild Things Are.
When I’ve read him the page a few times, he often jumps into bed, pulling the five or six quilts he sleeps under on top of him, and says, “Mom, can you read it again?”
R.I.P., Maurice Sendak. Your work will certainly live on in my house!