A deep truth needs time to simmer and grow. It’s rare that we humans ever come to know something as being true and beautiful right at the moment we first see it. And oftentimes, we may never see something for its beauty until long afterwards. But there are certain occasions when realizations come over us like gifts from somewhere beyond, and in those moments, it’s as if the world has grown before our very eyes, so that for the briefest of moments, we can see new details of our lives that we had previously overlooked.
That’s the story of the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, and ironically, it’s also the story of my own experience with that book.
Published in 1963 by the American author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are made its presence known early on. It took four years for Sendak to get the book published, but after its publication, it took less than a year for it to be awarded the Caldecott Medal for best picture book. But at the very same time, there were many schools and libraries, particularly in the South, that banned it for various reasons. If you’re not familiar with the story, it depicts a young boy who gets in trouble for acting wild and unruly to his mother, and in turn, gets sent to his room without supper (which is one of the things that the book was criticized for, particularly by child psychologists). Later that night, his room transforms into a new world, and the boy, named Max, explores this new world and eventually finds a place where a group of wild beasts live. He captures their attention and becomes their king, but soon after, he gets lonely and decides to go back home, where he finds a hot supper waiting for him.
I was familiar with the book as a child, but I never gave it a full inspection until I became a father myself and some friends gave me and my wife a copy. The first time I read it to my oldest son, I got to the end of the book and thought, “That’s it? That’s what all the fuss is about?” And when I say fuss, I’m not referring specifically to the things I’ve already mentioned. I’m primarily referring to the fact that since its publication in 1963, the book has sold upwards of twenty-million copies worldwide. Simply put, it’s a popular book.
That said, it’s also a very simple book. In many ways, it’s a minimalist book. During the section of the story where Max is with the Wild Things, there are three consecutive pages without any words at all. And even when there are words, there are often very few of them, sometimes only two or four per page. The story is told through the fantastic illustrations, which are very detailed and extremely well done. The illustrations, in fact, tell several stories, and that brings me back to my own experience with the book.
One evening, I was re-reading the book with my two sons, both of them toddlers, and when we finished the book, I closed it and looked at the back cover, which shows a picture of an empty forest, the forest where the Wild Things live. My oldest son spoke up and asked, “Where did the Wild Things go?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer (as is often the case when responding to three-year-olds), so I said, “I don’t know. I guess they went home.”
He was silent for a moment, and then he said, “Yeah, I think they went home.”
And then it hit me: Where the Wilds Things Are is a book about going home.
The next time we read the book, I went into it with this thought in mind. Before then, as I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of the book, other than the fact that it was a fairly simple story that was fun to read, but that also touched on some deeper themes, such as loneliness. But after the realization I had that night, I began to read the book differently. And then I started to notice another story being told inside the illustrations.
At the beginning of the book, the illustrations of Max running around in his home don’t fill up the entire page. They’re framed within smaller boxes.
But as the story unfolds, and as the forest grows in his room, the size of the pictures grow, until finally, they dominate the book, especially on the pages that contain no words. It’s as if Max’s own world has grown bigger, too big to contain, especially during the pages that have no words.
But then, Max gets lonely. As the book puts it, he “wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” And so, he leaves the place where the Wild Things are and sails back home. But when he gets home, there’s something different about his bedroom. It’s bigger.
There’s a line in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that goes like this: “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.”
Where the Wild Things Are is a great book for many reasons, but perhaps the greatest thing about the book is that it taps into something that is deeply human. One of the beautiful things about places is that they hold on to what we give them. Even when we leave them for a time, they never let go of what we give them. And when we return to them, they give us back what we gave to them, and in so doing, they unlock places in our hearts that even memory can’t explain. Before Max left his home, he’d never had a reason to long for it, or to remember it. But when he found himself feeling lonely in the place where the Wild Things lived, he suddenly remembered there was a place he could go back to—a place he could go home to.
The writer John Ed Pearce wrote,
“Home is a place where you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”
A home is never something we long to return to until we leave it, until it burns a place in our memory. It’s only then that we realize what we’ve been missing for so long. But some truths just need time to simmer before they can be understood.