Even more than Dr Seuss’s verbal prestidigitations and Arnold Lobel’s elegies and ironies, I love Maurice Sendak’s simple words and striking pictures. And so, the day after his death, I’d like to address what made so many of his stories so brilliant, effective, and scary: he understood and concretized every child’s worst fear. It is primal and simple.
It is being eaten.
And so the main motif of Where the Wild Things Are is food—the meal that Max would make of his mother (an idle threat), the meal the wild things would make of Max (highly plausible, given the reiteration of terrible teeth and claws), and the return to safety at the end, where the reward is supper–not the never-seen parent–waiting, still hot. And more importantly, supper is not Max. My kids and I had many conversations about what was in that bowl, and the way the final image violates the first commandment of Children’s Lit: Thou shalt end with the main character going to sleep, not eating, or the parents will suffer another round of “I’m hungry.”
Max’s reward for returning? Food. Pierre’s punishment for not caring? Being food–eaten by the lion, a far more effective surrogate parent than Pierre’s real mother or father, who helplessly, impotently rail against Pierre’s apathy, whereas the lion provides what in today’s parenting jargon is known as natural consequences. You don’t care if I eat you? Fine, I’ll eat you. And behold, suddenly, Pierre has a deathbed conversion! Even with its allusions to early Christianity’s punishment, Daniel, and Jonah, the lion’s swallowing of Pierre seems more Greco-Roman, more Goya, and more Freud than Judeo-Christian.
And who can forget Mickey, of In the Night Kitchen fame, put in the oven by triplicate cooks with matching Hitler mustaches? The book raised eyebrows for its full frontal, um, Mickey, but its Holocaustic humor still seems beneath the radar. A children’s book in the form of a comic decades before Diary of a Wimpy kid cashed in, In the Night Kitchen still strikes me as Sendak’s most dream-like and most nightmarish, the continued and sustained childhood fear that all of those seemingly loving culinary parental nicknames—Sugar, Honeycakes, Sweetie-pie, or, in the case of my daughter, Smooshy Cookie and, later, Pickles—are not metonyms at all but veiled threats. I’ll eat you up I love you so. As Mickey’s parents slumber unknowingly, Mickey is, to switch from Jewish fear to Christian theology, being transfigured into food. That he turns out to solve the mystery of why we have cake every morning, or that Pierre survives the lion’s belly, or that Max’s supper is waiting for him, still hot, are the feel-good endings that prolong the benevolent mysteries of childhood.
But the sustained conflict throughout—to eat, to be eaten, to escape, or abandon, the ovens, bellies, and faraway lands–encompasses the real, primordial wishes and fears of childhood. And while Sendak rendered the dread of being eaten by the ones you love literal, parents and adults can still understand and recognize the possibility, even likelihood, of feeling consumed by those closest to you.
Time: 35 sad minutes.