Where the wild things still are: Bedtime rituals

Associated Press file photo

In October 1988, author Maurice Sendak, creator of the best-selling children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, checks proofs of art for a major advertising campaign in his Ridgefield, Conn., home.

By LEANNE ITALIE
Associated Press

NEW YORK – The claws and teeth of wild things are a near-nightly affair at bedtime for Gregg Svingen’s 2-year-old, Tessa. She raises a tiny index finger and issues a clear and forceful “Be still!” to knock Maurice Sendak’s monsters into shape.

“This evolved into telling anything scary or threatening a confident ‘No!’, again with an empowered toddler digit,” said Svingen, an American living in Brussels who keeps two copies of Where the Wild Things Are on hand.

Count Svingen and other grateful parents – and their kids – among those around the world to bid Sendak a fond farewell Tuesday, when he died in Danbury, Conn., at age 83. Many devoured his books as children themselves.

“Sendak reminds adults about the best parts of childhood: the freedom, the boundless energy, the possibilities, the security, the fantasies, a time where the rules can bend any way your imagination desires,” said Nicole Forsyth, whose 4-year-old, Audrey, likes “In the Night Kitchen” the best.

“But he also reminds us of the pain of childhood: the frustrations, fear, loneliness and confusion, the unfinished mind in its extremes of pure joy and raw, untempered ego,” said Forsyth, in Sacramento, Calif.

From the naughty Max of Wild Things to the foul-tempered Pierre from Sendak’s bite-size Nutshell Library, parents said Sendak understood the inner world of childhood like few other writers for kids. It’s a world, Forsyth said, that “I created, that I had control over, that somehow made more sense than the world seems today.”

Anna Patterson’s journey of mischief-making began 15 years ago in Tupelo, Miss., when she first fell in love with the wild boy Max, who returns home in the end, his supper still warm.

“He wasn’t your typical knight in shining armor or dragon-slaying prince,” said Patterson, now a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

“It was a different kind of main character, someone with real fears and a real imagination I could relate to. That one book was enough to start a love of reading that’s lasted a lifetime,” she said.

Kate Shamon Rushford’s 11-year-old Matthew is an avid reader in Wellesley, Mass., and has loved Wild Things since he was 3. Now, he’s old enough to reflect himself on the passing of one of his favorite book creators.

“He let kids know that it’s OK to sometimes be a wild thing,” the boy said. “A lot of kids want to escape when they’re in trouble. My favorite part was how Max grows up after his adventure and returns home to find his dinner waiting for him.”

Joshua Steen in Corinth, Miss., has a fan in 2-year-old daughter, Lucy. “She especially loves the Wild Things, and she’ll growl and howl at the moon. Sendak’s illustrations really have a life of their own. He makes learning to use your imagination so much easier.”

One of the great pleasures of having children, said dad William Webb in Memphis, Tenn., is happily losing yourself in the books you loved while also discovering new nuggets, like Sendak’s Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue.

That’s a long title for a tiny book included in Sendak’s Nutshell box set and also published as a standalone. No matter what his parents say, sour-faced Pierre just “doesn’t care,” not even when a lion gobbles him up, then falls ill for his trouble only to spit him out in one piece at the end.

“It makes us laugh,” said Webb, who has two boys ages 4 and 2. “That’s my older son’s favorite part, when he comes out of the lion and learns that he really does care after all.”

Chris McLeod is all grown up at 28 and living in Quincy, Mass., away from his mom, Joan Gaylord in Bedford, N.Y. His memories of “Wild Things,” a childhood favorite, are muted now, though his mother hasn’t forgotten her years of reading it aloud.

“At this point, I remember only one line: ‘We’ll eat you up – we love you so!’ The funny thing is that, in my mind, the wild things aren’t saying it. My mom is,” McLeod said. “I vividly recall my mom reading that line aloud, adopting her best husky monster howl.”

David Caughran, 45, has a 7-year-old son who has sadly already moved on from Sendak, a writer dad has never forgotten.

“My favorite growing up was In the Night Kitchen,” said Caughran, in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I can still recite lines.”

He fears that Sendak, a lush illustrator, might already be lost like other picture book creators to children reading e-books exclusively. “I truly hope that real books don’t get supplanted,” for when it comes to writers like Sendak, “There’s something about the experience of holding and reading a true paper book.”

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