What the Wild Things Started

Max, the king of all wild things
Max, the king of all wild things

My life-long love affair with books began with Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” As I look back now, I realize it wasn’t just the book that drew me in, but the experience that surrounded discovering it.

I was eight years old and attending a new school, a public school, and for the first time ever, I would be attending a school where I wasn’t related to anyone.

Kindergarten through second grade were spent at the heavily Catholic, heavily Italian, Sacred Heart School, which was populated in my class alone by two cousins, and outside my class by one brother, nine other cousins, three aunts who were related and at least four “aunts” who weren’t. My mom was a class mother and even Sister Catherine Michael, my first and second grade teacher, seemed like family since she came to Sunday dinner most weeks.

In that cloistered world, I thought I was related to everyone, and I never imagined that there might be a world away from those many eyes that watched everything I did.

On my own in a new school I was nervous at first, afraid of the strange surroundings. After a day or two, my nervousness settled down, and I started having the tiniest feelings of independence and the freedom that came along with it. As a compliant little Catholic girl whose every move had been monitored, I had no idea what to do with those feelings, and I wondered what Sister Catherine Michael would say.

That’s when I had the chance to explore the school library for the first time. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do there; my old school didn’t have a library, so I just followed the other kids. I walked in and out of aisles and almost over a shelf to “Where the Wild Things Are.”

I saw a classmate leafing through the pages and it looked fascinating to me. I asked God to make her put it down so I could look at it. God answered my prayer that day, even before I started a novena. I said my silent thank you and picked up the book for myself.

The art on the cover drew me in (and still does), and I couldn’t wait to turn each page to see what happened next. Maurice Sendak’s drawings amazed me, they were rich, moody and dark, and they perfectly illustrated the story of Max, the wildly, mischievous boy, who jumps off the pages and shouts, “Let the wild rumpus start.”

Max was exactly what I needed. I was a passive, obedient, timid child, but Max sailed treacherous seas, he swung from high branches and tamed wild beasts. From him, I learned that I didn’t have to be afraid of the world outside my door. I learned that sometimes I could do what I wanted, instead of what someone told me, and that I didn’t have to pray for forgiveness every time I misbehaved.

Throughout my life, I’ve had my Max moments of wild adventure and reckless abandon, but I never quite reached his level of daring. I didn’t need to. What I needed was the lesson Max taught me in the pages of that book, and the thousands of other lessons I’ve learned in the pages of thousands of other books that have pulled, pushed, tugged, roared, and forced me through my own rumpus.

Nearly forty years later, books are still my passion, and I’m still not sated. I’m a reader, a writer and a book-maker, and it all started when Max reached out from that library book and pulled me into his wild world.

Thank you for reading! I’m getting ready to submit this as part of a collection of creative non-fiction. It’s different from the other pieces, and I worry that it might be too sappy or come off as insincere. I’d love some input!


9 thoughts on “What the Wild Things Started

  1. Not sappy and certainly not insincere… I, too, was a product of a Catholic school (and Italian 😉 )and I felt your pain as well as the relationship you held with MAx and the book.

    It was a nice piece and certainly worthy of collecting with other non-fiction pieces.

    Nice one, Olivia…

  2. Also one of my favorite books as a child. I think it was the art that caught my eye as well, and then the story held me.

    Not sappy at all; very sweet. I’m glad I stopped by to read this today. You put a smile on my face.

  3. Thank you so much. Your input means a lot. Some books I’ve read on children’s literature talk about how WTWTA terrifies children, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who feels that way… even children. It’s not the fear of the monsters, darkness, and strangeness that stands out, it’s Max’s adventure and his boldness.

    I agree about Sendak’s talent as a bookmaker. A few birthdays ago, my partner (coincidentally, also named Max!) gave me a beautiful book on Sendak’s art. It’s a real treasure!

  4. Nice essay, Olivia. I also loved WTWTA — the illustrations, the story, Max. I remember wishing Max was a girl, wishing I had his courage.

    All kids imagine monsters. This book makes them less scary, imho.

    How’s the yoga/writing challenge going? I’m writing at least 500 words daily, but the head cold’s making downward facing dog kinda tough. Peace…

  5. Hi Olivia
    Growing up in the States in the 60’s this was also my favorite. I enjoy your writing, your interests and your authenticity. I am also kearning her, so thanks!

  6. My first contact with Wild Things was the Eggers New Yorker piece, shortly before the movie came out. Thanks for sharing yours. It’s a beautiful essay.

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