05 July 2012

In Memory of Maurice Sendak

One of the great things about parenthood is the opportunity to share magical, meaningful things from your own childhood with your kids. Be it certain books or Star Wars action figures or favorite animated movies. And witnessing that joy of discovery in their face, that’s a pretty amazing feeling. It really brings you together.

For a while now, we’ve been reading Where the Wild Things Are to the Doozer. Like pretty much every person who grew up after it was published in 1963, it was easily one of my favorite books as a kid. It’s also not one of those things you revisit as an adult and wonder why you liked it in the first place—it holds up. (And Spike Jonze’s movie is pretty amazing, too, if very, very strange.)

It’s become a favorite in our house now, a permanent part of the reading rotation. The Doozer has grown fascinated by the characters in the book, the details that define them, the kind of hair they have, whether they have horns or not, if they have sharp, scary teeth. And again, it holds up. My experience of it is different today and, if anything, it’s even more brilliant now.

But I do have a complaint. And this may not necessarily be about the book or its author, the wonderful, recently departed Mr. Sendak—because honestly, it seems a bit unfair to blame him for my son’s reaction to the book—but I have a complaint. And it’s this:

This book is impossible to properly explain to a 3 ½-year-old.

There have been countless readings of this book where the Doozer has simply sat rapt, enjoyed the story, and kept his mouth shut. But those days appear to be behind us. Now, there are questions. What seems like an endless stream of them. Questions, questions, questions.

So we’re at this phase now.

And it comes out now on a regular basis when reading certain children’s books which are a bit more conceptual, or abstract, than others. (I’m looking at you, There’s a Monster At the End of This Book.) And Where The Wild Things Are is a prime example. I mean, here’s this beautifully illustrated, very appealing, and clever little book, and yet, and yet, at its center, there is a very confusing conceit (at least when it comes to explaining it to a child).

What happens to Max’s room? Where is his mom? Where is his dinner? Where does the boat come from?

I mean, I get it. The wife gets it. We're not dumb. But how do you explain it? Again, it’s conceptual. Abstract. These are not easy ideas to put across with a child.

So thanks for that, Mr. Sendak. (And for your wonderful, wonderful book, don’t get me wrong. We don’t have one without the other and I am well aware of that.)

The question phase is new. But already kind of astounding. Reading another book, there's a picture of fire and smoke. What’s that? the kid asks. It’s smoke, I reply. And go to turn the page. But, no, no. He stops me. He flips the page back. Dada, I have one more question.

I don’t understand. Fire = smoke. How is there a follow-up question?

His question is about the color of the smoke. It looks different from smoke he’s seen in other pictures. This confuses him. Why isn’t all smoke the same color he seems to be asking?

And how does one go about answering that question exactly?

At least that's a relatively easy one. For the others, thankfully, there are the Interwebs. What did parents ever do without the Google?

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