In the spare bedroom at my grandmother’s house was a large mahogany chest of drawers. The bottom drawer was heavy and rather difficult for a small child to open. You had to pull it one side at a time, inch by inch and it kept jamming. But, once prised open it contained a tangled pile of children’s books. Among these was one in particular that caught the eye of a small boy. More than anything it look a little unnerving. The pages were filled with grotesque fanged or feathered monsters, part human, part bull or bird. But more than the monsters themselves, there was a certain seriousness and melancholy to the colour and style of the drawings that communicated something – I wasn’t quite sure what - very powerfully. These weren’t the simple happy monsters of most children’s books and perhaps this is why I have no memory of being read this book at bedtime.
It took some time (I like to think it was before I was eighteen) to pluck up the courage to retrieve the book and read it for myself. What I remember is the feeling of what I now know is called an epiphany. I was immediately enthralled by the narrative, the richness and depth of the story. I was transfixed by it, but at the same time, like Max I was powerfully transported by it. I’m clearly not alone in having been moved by Maurice Sendak’s drawings and the book stands as something of a badge of a certain kind of 1970s childhood.
Where The Wild Things Are was the first book I read, and looking back, while it’s simplistic to suggest that it was a driving influence on my life (that might be a little worrying), I find myself wondering if it’s a coincidence that after university I left England to go to the wildest part of Africa I could find and live there. By pure luck, this is precisely what happened, and my wife Harriet and I spent 10 years living working in some of East Africa’s most remote and little visited national parks. We were woken at night by elephants foraging inches from our pillows and – there being no boat – explored East Africa by small plane.
When my own sons were born, I was of course itching to read them Where The Wild Things Are. I don’t know if it had the same impact on them, partly because finding something for yourself is very hard to beat and partly because I suspect I may have over-sold it to them, making their little 3-year-old eyes glaze over. But what I do remember vividly when I opened the book for the first time since reading it for myself, was a sense of profound shock. Most of the words had been removed. It took a while (and quite a bit of checking) to confirm that the book had not been abridged, but only ever had just over 300 words in 37 pages. Some of the most memorable pages had no words at all. And of course, this was part of what made the book so powerful and, in the case of a reluctant reader, a huge part of the reason I delighted in reading it. Much has been said about Maurice Sendak’s genius for communicating with children, but I think the following anecdote, told by Sendak, illustrates beautifully his understanding of the child’s mind:
A little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children's letters – sometimes very hastily – but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said: 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He didn't care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.