A Lesson About Imaginary Places from Maurice Sendak

Cassandra Neace

Staff Writer

Cassandra Neace is a high school English teacher in Houston. When she's not in the classroom, she reads books and writes about them. She prides herself on her ability to recommend a book for most any occasion. She can be found on Instagram @read_write_make

I started Kindergarten in the fall of 1985. I was in Miss Clarke’s class, and one of my most vivid memories is of sitting on the carpet in the front of the room, waiting for her to open a book and read us a story. One day, early in the year, she went over to the record player. She pulled a record from a cardboard sleeve with a very interesting picture on it, placed it on the turntable, set the needle, and turned it on. She quickly sat down and picked up the book that was lying on the table. The cover of that book matched the picture on the record. A woman’s voice, unlike the voices I was used to hearing, filled the room. Miss Clarke turned the pages of the book as the woman’s voice told the story of a little boy named Max.

The way I remember it, the whole class was transfixed.  There was no fidgeting for the few minutes the story lasted. No one sat there whispering, as I was often known to do. Miss Clarke did not have to stop the story to tell someone to sit back down or keep their hands to themselves. We all listened attentively, and we laughed, a bit, when Max returned to his room to find “his supper waiting for him. And it was still hot.” He did all of that, and his supper was still hot. Wow.

After we had listened once, Miss Clarke told us that the book was called Where the Wild Things Are. It was written by the same man who drew those interesting pictures. She read it back to us, more slowly than the recording, and she let us take an extra-long time to look at all the pictures. When we were done, she asked us what it was about, and someone (if only it were me!) said that it was about Max using his imagination.

For many of the kids in my class, “imagination” was a pretty big word. They knew about playing pretend, but this idea that you used something called an “imagination” to do so was new to them. My parents liked using big words, so I had heard it before, but it was not until we read this book that I started to realize just what the imagination could do. I began to think of all the things that I could do with my own imagination, which I had been told (on numerous occasions) was quite active. Playing pretend took on a whole new meaning for me. It was almost as if, by sharing this book, Miss Clarke had handed me a set of keys and given me permission to open the door. All I had to do was step through to the other side.

My whole life has been devoted to stepping through that door, and I find myself in a new place each time I do. Sometimes, it is a place that looks a lot like the world I live in. Other times, it looks completely different, like something from a dream. All of these other worlds are contained within the books I read, and I feel privileged that I get to see what the authors have created by using their imaginations. It never ceases to amaze me when I put a book down and find that my supper is still hot.

Thank you, Mr. Sendak, for teaching me about imaginary places.

And thank you, Miss Clarke, for introducing us.