Reflections on the Rumpus: The Wild Things within All of Us

By Suzanna Bobadilla ‘13

As Max sailed away on his appropriately named boat back to a home, a mother, and a slice of delicious chocolate cake, the audience at the Harvard Alumni Association’s screening of Where the Wild Things Are rustled not their popcorn bags, but their tissues. The movie, based on Maurice Sendak’s 1963 iconic children’s book, was released on October 16, 2009 and has not only revitalized interest in Max and his wolf suit but also has allowed the public to sail away on their own journey of nostalgia to their childhoods.

Directed by Spike Jonze, Where the Wild Things Are stars the gifted Max Records as the eternally youthful and eternally angst ridden Max. As in the book, Max still throws a temper tantrum that would make even Super Nanny quake in her loafers and he still seeks refuge in a far away island, inhabited by bizarre, giant monsters—the Wild Things. However, Jonze adds a back-story to this cinematic interpretation. The audience learns of Max’s dysfunctional family: a single mother trying to get back into the dating world, a teenage sister who just cannot be bothered by her brother’s antics, and an absent father. Jonze also give his Wild Things names, voices of acclaimed actors, and most importantly personalities.

The monsters, created by a synthesis of costume, CGI, and puppetry, are representations of Sendak’s distinctive illustrations but also of us. We emphasize with Alexander’s (Paul Dano) frustration that he is overlooked by the others; we understand KW’s (Laura Ambrose) desire to escape an increasingly suffocating environment; we knowledge that like Carol (James Gandolfini) we cannot always control our tempers; and we remember those times when like Max we overestimate our capabilities and find ourselves overwhelmed by leadership positions. But as the HAA audience consisted of mostly alumni and current students, we can no longer relate to Max’s entitlement as a young child to quickly return home and experience the comfort that only a parent can provide. Following the movie, the Harvard Alumni’s Associated held a panel on the importance of Where the Wild Things Are featuring children’s literature scholar and University of Florida professor John Cech, the author of Wicked Gregory Maguire, and Harvard’s own children’s literature expert, Maria Tatar. The Voice returned to Tatar, the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and author of Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood, for further insight within the realm of children’s literature.

When we first sat down in her office, we first asked her impressions of the film. She noted, “I am impressed by how it established the power of family bonds. Those bonds captured best in silent scenes. And we also we see how everything can quickly collapse, coming down on you with the chill of the ice in Max’s snow fort. It’s with your family that you get the chance to act out, to take things out.” She praised the movie’s young star: “The expressive intensity of Max’s face when he feels abandoned reminds us of the overwhelming, explosive sadness children can feel.” But the conversation then extended beyond Sendak’s work and into how these books shape lives.

How is writing a children’s book different from writing an adult’s?

When you as an adult try to put together the emotional stew, you risk misrepresenting how children think and react.  We never get an unmediated version of the child’s mind. Someone is always in between. There are children who do write books, prodigies, but their work often shows signs of adult intervention.

How do you think children feel about adults reading books like the Harry Potter series?

[Laughs] Children are likely to protest: “Hey, that’s my real estate.” Children use books to move forward, to mature, and to discover secrets about the adult world. When adults read children’s books, they often want to go back, to recapture their childhoods. And that explains in some ways the magic of an adults and children reading together—they meet in and through the book. I’ve always loved that. I loved reading with my children and taking them to movies because we had that shared experience. But there is also a suspect side to the adult’s desire to go back—that regressive move. Adults are perched on the outside as voyeurs.  You could say that they are poaching or trespassing on the child’s real estate.

Who do you consider to be the masters of children’s literature?

J.M. Barrie [the author of Peter Pan] and Louis Carroll [the author of Alice in Wonderland] were the real innovators. They were both unusually interested with small children. You could say that they had a suspect investment in children, with the one playing pirates with boys and the other taking photographs of girls. But they also knew exactly what kinds of stories children wanted, not the ones that pointed out morals and contained messages. Maurice Sendak’s stories give us the racing energy of childhood. He takes us inside the emotional world of childhood by probing his own memories.  He is Max. The best children’s authors have great instincts, intuiting what children want in a story. There are all of these “how to write a children’s book” blueprints out there—it all seems so easy and formulaic. But few adults reflect long and hard on what it means to be a child and how you speak to them without condescending to them. As Roald Dahl put it, you want to conspire with a child against an adult.

What do you consider to be children’s literature greatest attribute?

Having talked to thousands about books, I never cease to be amazed by the bonding power of stories and the many stories about stories.  For example, if you are at a dinner party or just in general conversation and you bring up A Winter’s Tale, sparks rarely fly. Maybe one other person is really familiar with the play. But if you bring up A Secret Garden, a book that everyone seems to know, it’s magical. The other day I was at the COOP picking up a copy. The woman who located it told me about her experience with the book. How it taught her compassion and how she then read A Little Princess and wept endlessly over it. I walked over to the check-out desk and the young man there, who was about 25, told me how much he loved the book.  But adults who caught him reading it told him that it was a girl’s book and that he shouldn’t read it. These childhood books are like talismans, mantras inside of us that have an emotional charge.

Towards the end of our interview, Tatar’s eyes light up as she remarks on the seductions of reading. “Maurice Sendak told my students once how wonderful it was to ‘go to bed with a book.’  Reading is not just an intellectual experience, it also has a sensual and sensory dimension.”

For this Thanksgiving break, Where the Wild Things Are may not be the ideal movie for the kids you once babysat as it seems to be targeted towards those who have passed through once-upon-a-time in order to make to the real world in time for that meeting or class. But Harvard students may find themselves relating more to Max than they might have expected. As Gregory Maguire says, “This sense of the college rumpus, it’s palpable all around here. I’m 55 so more than 30 years later, I can still here the jungle drums as you walk through the campus in the rain.”

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