The Enthusiasm of Children: Where the Wild Things Are

"He saw it, he loved it, he ate it."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

When we are children, we are human. As we grow up, we turn from human into something called an adult.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, MAURICE SENDAK. PHOTO BY UNKNOWNNET PHOTOGRAPHY.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, MAURICE SENDAK. PHOTO BY UNKNOWNNET PHOTOGRAPHY.

Beloved children's author and artist Maurice Sendak illustrates this point:

A little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, ‘Dear Jim: I loved your card.’ Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.
— Maurice Sendak, Fresh Air with Terry Gross

It is our loss of our "wildness" or one could call it our nature that we lose touch with. We venerate the superficial rather than the meaning. A child knows. We take ourselves and everything else much too seriously. Even a child knows.

No more needs to be said.

[To the lover of innocence, read no further, as this article ends here for you. For the curious who look for Where the Wild Things Are and the crudity of reality, because you believe you can take it — as Sendak believed — then read further.]


The Enthusiasm Of Children Part II: Where The Wild Truths Hide

I don't think Maurice Sendak said this. I may be wrong but after reading transcripts on NPR where this quote was attributed and listening to his interviews, there was no mention of this incident. You can find the whole interview here.

[If you happen to find the point of the Fresh Air interview where this is said, please let me know. I will mention you in the update.]

It first struck me odd, because the anecdote is also the theme and plot of the book Where the Wild Things Are, where the characters ate what they loved. It seemed a bit too poetically convenient.

NPR UPLOADS AND TRANSCRIBES ALL THEIR INTERVIEWS, BUT THIS ANECDOTE IS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND

NPR UPLOADS AND TRANSCRIBES ALL THEIR INTERVIEWS, BUT THIS ANECDOTE IS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND

You may have already come across this quote. Many publications have shared it and rather than citing the source, they cite the last publication to publish it. (It's an amusing anecdote and everyone wants their share of the clicks.) When the anniversary of Sendak's birthday rolls around, it is shared again — establishing its validity through time. (The most famous publication to run this quote was The Washington Post. However, the quote is now conspicuously missing from the article.)

May 8, 2012, Maurice Sendak died. On the same day, NPR's Fresh Air did the remembrance episode. Later that day, the meme appeared. It appears to be a screenshot taken from the NPR transcript, yet the style and tone of the interview is not the same. Here is an actual excerpt from the transcript:

A SCREENSHOT FROM THE TERRY GROSS INTERVIEW. SENDAK'S CHILDHOOD TRAUMA WAS A RECURRING THEME IN THEIR INTERVIEWS.

A SCREENSHOT FROM THE TERRY GROSS INTERVIEW. SENDAK'S CHILDHOOD TRAUMA WAS A RECURRING THEME IN THEIR INTERVIEWS.

The anecdote of the boy eating the letter is nowhere to be found in the transcript. Also the way he ended the anecdote, though strong in impact, seems unnatural to Sendak's way of speaking (or anyone's natural way of speaking). It sounds very close to: he came, he saw, he conquered. A punchline. Like the last line in a speech or meme, not something that you say in the middle of an interview unless Sendak dropped the mic right then and there and walked out of the room. #micdrop

As I mentioned, it may have happened, perhaps the version that went live is different than the version they have online for download. But if we are talking about imagination and storytelling, I am using my imagination to investigate one possible scenario.

As children play telephone, it gets passed from place to place, the source forgotten, spawning several variations. Slightly altered but always ending the same way: he loved it, he ate it. Was this the work of a troll or a very devoted fan? A troll would be happy they used a lie to create a legend — yet a fan would call this poetic license. Would a fan even know they were a troll? Can't a troll also be a fan? In Maurice Sendak's books, trolls are loveable and dangerous at the same time.

Lately, no attribution is even bothered with. It's been heard so often, it's unnecessary — in the same way, we don't cite the sources of Martin Luther King or Albert Einstein quotes. I guess my point is, even if something is true, we wouldn't know because we mostly take people's words for it. If it comes from another "adult" and it matches our bias, we take their word. Not any different from children.

Sendak's books were controversial because he believed children would believe lies, but they could also handle harsh truths — if given the chance. His books were initially banned for this reason. I hesitated to share my theory, but then in sparing it, I would be ruining the legacy of Sendak. Here's what Maurice Sendak did say, and he repeated this sentiment often:

Do parents sit down and tell their kids everything? I don’t know. I don’t know. ... I’ve convinced myself — I hope I’m right — that children despair of you if you don’t tell them the truth.

[...]

I have been with them in their bedroom, for a good part of their childhood. They have written to me. They trust me in a way, I daresay, possibly more than they trust their parents. I’m not going to bullshit them. I’m just not. And if they don’t like what they hear, that’s tough bananas.

Sendak reflected that often children were disappointed when they did meet him, expecting him to be different. Ruining the picture some had of him, causing some to break out in tears. Maybe it is tempting then to change him to the image we have of him. Rather than hearing him tell of his traumatic upbringing, we would much prefer him to speak of anecdotes of charming little fans.

Many misquotes, like movies, are "inspired by actual events." You can paraphrase all the volumes of Gandhi's writings to: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." However, that exact line, Gandhi never said. Here is something Maurice Sendak actually said that may have inspired the anecdote:

I mean, if Max were not in control of them, they could indeed be in control of him, and when they say ‘oh, please don’t go, we’ll eat you up, we love you so,’ they mean just that, and he knows that, and I think children know that too, that the fun of that book is a perilous tightrope between him being a little boy and very vulnerable to these huge creatures and the absurdity of his having control over them by staring into their yellow eyes. It’s what every child would like, to have control over such things.

Kids are not afraid of them because Max is not afraid of them, and see, the kids glue in onto Max right away, and they follow him, and if he’s okay, they’re okay.

The monsters saw Max, loved Max, wanted to eat Max. Just as Jim saw the picture of the monster Sendak drew for him, loved the drawing, then ate the drawing. Perhaps that is how the person who created the meme remembered this response from Sendak. As children remember. Or he was "Jim" and he imagined what it would be like to share a moment with his favorite author. (Perhaps they just wanted clicks.)

For Sendak to say he responds to every letter he receives, seems like an image we'd like to have of him. Like Santa Claus. He admitted in real life, he's much more gruff and grumpy.

So perhaps we haven't lost that enthusiasm after all. We think we are any different from children, and that is our mistake, or as Sendak would say, that is the "absurdity." Because it's of little importance whether this anecdote is true or not, it is that his adult fans believe it to be true. Just as Where the Wild Things Are is not a recounting of actual events. Facts are not truths and truths are whatever we believe. To his fans: they saw it, they loved it, they ate it up.

No more needs to be said.

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