For as long as I can remember, I’ve identified on a near spiritual level with Max, the petulant boy-hero of the late Maurice Sendak‘s Where the Wild Things Are. As a child, I often gallivanted about the haunts of my neighborhood with a paper crown atop my head and a makeshift scepter in hand, asserting myself to all who passed as ruler of some imaginary domain or another. Even now, I adhere strictly to a Max-or-nothing policy on Halloween and willingly incite arguments with detractors of filmmaker Spike Jonze’s 2009 adaptation of the book.
Like Max, I was loath to outgrow my temper tantrum stage, often terrorizing those around me to remedy my own boredom and demonstrably acting out when anyone objected to my insistence on being the center of attention in every room I entered.
I know my solidarity with Max is not a unique emotion. What endears so many of us to Max is that in him, we recognize less-than-glamorous shades of our former (and even current) selves: the glowering countenance, the obstinate posturing, the willful disdain for the authority of someone as well-intentioned as his own mother. While most children’s book writers depict little boys and girls as cherub-faced do-gooders, Sendak cast them in a more honest (if less rosy) light.
Of course, for the burden that Max proves himself to be in WTWTA’s opening pages, the book ends on a triumphant note. Max’s experience interloping upon a society of monsters such as himself ultimately teaches him a lesson in humility and he returns home, where a loving mother and a warm meal await him.
In the interim, Sendak has given young boys and girls everywhere one of their first lessons in building healthy relationships. Lessons that I think you will find just as apt today as they were the first time you read the book, Mom or Dad likely dictating it to you from the foot of your twin bed, blankets tucked under your chin as you transported yourself to the place where the Wild Things were.
To honor the life of a man whose story taught you perhaps more than you would ever attribute him, let’s review five of the more poignant lessons on relationships that Sendak’s book posits:
1. Mother (almost) always knows best.
2. While being a Wild Thing all the time seems impressive in theory, it can leave you lonely and wishing you were some place “where someone loved you best of all.”
3. Sometimes we have to sacrifice our own desires in order to achieve harmony with those around us.
4. Too often we search all over the place for something new and exciting only to realize that the thing we wanted most was right under our noses from the start.
5. No one is too old to occasionally dress up and submit themselves to a wild rumpus.