In Defense of the Wild

Given that a story about a ruthless government exterminating the unruly among its citizenry, insisting on ritual sacrifice from its outlying districts, and starving the poor to maintain a decent quality of life in the Capitol is currently one of the most popular movies and books in the “tween” market, it is hard to believe that “Where the Wild Things Are,” just the most famous piece in a mammoth portfolio of children’s literature by Maurice Sendak, was banned from many libraries for the first two years after it was published.

Apparently, the fact that young Max had a fit and was punished, but had some imaginative fun while he was in his room, agitated the sensibilities of parents and librarians in 1963. Luckily, once the uproar from children who wanted to check out the book reached their ears, librarians started adding the book to their holdings.

Max’s rumpus made it safe for many children to let themselves get mad.

It is fitting, though, on Sendak’s passing, to think of all he wrought for children’s writing. In the days before Sendak, the strongest emotions that generally made it into children’s publishing were the irritation that Tigger’s constant bouncing created in Rabbit, or the wrath of Mr. McGregor at finding that Benjamin Bunny had gotten into his lettuce yet again.

Because if “Where the Wild Things Are” is about anything other than a whimsical few minutes of daydreaming, it is about what happens when we listen to anger. Children do not know what to do with anger when it comes, as anyone who has spent much time at all around a two-year-old or a three-year-old can tell you. Without the right sort of parenting, those tantrums can reach grotesque heights in a seven-year-old, and can lead to incarceration for a thirteen-year-old. Or a thirty-year-old.

However, the books that children used to read did not teach them how to deal with anger. In the stories that they were given to read, nothing bad ever happened. People (and animals) got annoyed, or irritated, but never enraged.

But then came Max. If, as Colin Parr, one of my most talented writing students, put it, “the rage of Achilles is the rudder that steers the Iliad,” then it is also the rage of Max that directs his ship, as he leaves the confinement of his room:

And he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are.
A wild rumpus later, Max begins to yearn for home, and so he makes his return journey, to find that his parents did not truly hate him, as he might have feared, as the supper from which he had been banished was waiting for him — “and it was still hot.”
It may be that, now, we put too much of our emotional selves out for public display. If you make the mistake of turning to the wrong channel on your cable box, for example, you may see shows that are dedicated to watching people yell at (and do silly things to) the people they do not like. It seems to me that the Real Housewives shows, and all of their spinoffs, have this as their purpose. What with blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, there is nothing keeping any of us from laying our angst bare for the entire virtual universe to see.
However, if you want to see what happens when we repress our frustrations or pretend that they do not exist, look at the girl (or boy) at your local middle school who is cutting herself (or himself) in places where most people won’t see. Look at the child who is grinding his teeth in class, because of the aggregate wrath that those bullies he walks by on the way to school has built.
“Where the Wild Things Are” let kids know that it is OK to be angry. In healthy homes, their parents will still love them, will still hug them, when the “rumpus” is over. It is part of growing up to learn the best way to let the “rumpus” take place, but letting the anger out is so, so important. When we are allowed to let the “wild” in, just a little bit, the true dangers of repression stay on the far side of that wine-dark sea, far away from our children, and from us.

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