Wild Thing: How Maurice Sendak Helped Me Understand My Son

The first time my three-year-old opened Where The Wild Things Are, he was hesitant. There was this boy in a wolf suit, doing a bunch of things that were clearly Bad, but—let’s be honest—those things were also pretty intriguing. My kid looked from the book to me. Was it okay to enjoy this book about this boy doing these bad things? Could he get in trouble for liking it? I tried not to react and just kept reading.

I’d picked up the book for him on Take Your Child to The Library Day. As usual, I asked him what books he’d like. As usual, he barely heard me—he was playing with the train table and the barn set and having way too much fun and me asking him about books was a signal that we’d be going home soon. That’s how it is these days. We’re going through a rough patch right now, filled with battles of wills. He wants to assert himself at all times. I need him to behave. There are often tantrums, and it can be exhausting for everyone.

That day at the library, I was standing near the S shelf, and noticed a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. As I looked up at my own wild thing, I thought, “yeah, it’s probably a good time for this one” and put it in the pile.

It turned out to be the perfect book at the perfect time. We’ve been reading it every night for a week, and it’s helped me understand my child and myself as a mom in ways I didn’t think this particular book could.

I read Where the Wild Things Are when I was little, but it was just a cool-looking picture book to me. I never sympathized with Max, or even liked him. My favorite books featured quiet, nerdy kids and I was deeply uncomfortable with the rule-breaking, back-talking, hard-playing Max.

My child isn’t me, however. I saw him recognize himself in Max almost immediately, the same way I once recognized myself in Meg Murray. His mouth fell open a little bit, and once he gave himself permission to enjoy the book, he wanted to know everything about it. He had questions about what Max was doing. He wanted to know about Max’s poor dog, and the wolf suit, and the wild things, and the rumpus, and the cake on the table at the end.

My kid loves it because it’s about something that’s deeply familiar, but also something no one in this house wants: a tantrum. It’s a story that celebrates a child’s rage and it feels super subversive to read it.

At its core, Where the Wild Things Are is the story of a kid who is sent to his room without supper, is furious about it, and has an epic tantrum in there. He is wild and angry and finally the tantrum peters out, and he starts feeling bad about it. He makes a choice to stop being wild. He’s pretty sure that his mother will still love him at the end of that tantrum, but is still relieved to see it’s true when he comes back and dinner is in his room, complete with cake.

We’ve talked a lot about the book in the many times we’ve read it, and over the course of those conversations, I realized that for the first time I was seeing myself in the book, too: the never-shown-mother, who has just about freaking had it, who can’t let her kid get away with taking a hammer to the walls or chasing the dog with a fork, but who still feels awful after disciplining him and second-guesses the punishment.

It’s hard to explain what the book has done for us. Three years old can be a rough time. He wants to do things by himself, and can’t. I’m often at wit’s end with work and his antics (which, like Max’s, usually hit a high point right around dinner time). I’m not always the patient mom I’d like to be, and he’s not always the kid he wants to be. We don’t always understand each other. We dread the confrontations, but sometimes, they’re inevitable.

At the end of what is often a very long day, telling Max’s story helps me understand my son’s struggles a little better, and maybe Max’s mom has given my kid a glimpse of my own feelings.

Will any of this help us next time there’s a tantrum at our house? I don’t know. Probably not. But it’s our special book now. He’s memorized it. We read it together. I yell “Wild Thing!” and my son shouts back “I’ll eat you up!” Then we roar together through the wild rumpus.

A.J. O'Connell: A.J. O’Connell is the author of two published novellas: Beware the Hawk and The Eagle & The Arrow. All she’s ever wanted to do in life is read and write books, and so, is constantly writing at least one novel. She holds an MFA in creative fiction, but despite the best efforts of her teachers at Fairfield University's low-residency program, remains a huge dork for sci-fi, fantasy and comic books. She is a journalist and has taught journalism to college students. She blogs about feminism, the writing life, and whatever else comes into her head at www.ajoconnell.com. Blog: A.J. O'Connell Twitter: @ann_oconnell