My first reading of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was as a parent. Growing up, I somehow managed to miss this childhood classic, which I now recognize as surprising given its widespread popularity. I was given the book as a gift when I was pregnant with my son, and even then I didn’t read it until after he was born. I kept it safe, waiting on a bookshelf along with the other picture books we received.
After my son was born, we were advised that it was never too early to start reading to him. We filled those tiny periods when he was awake with reading. I reacquainted myself with books I hadn’t picked up in years: Mercer Mayer, Robert Munsch, Margaret Wise Brown, Eric Carle. My husband, who took the advice to heart, started with Beezus and Ramona, Charlotte’s Web, and The Hobbit. (It took weeks but we eventually completed them in small increments.) Included in our stack was, of course, Where the Wild Things Are.
I was struck by the sparsity of the opening pages of text, words just hanging on their own like Sapphic fragments, sentences spilling across pages. With each page turn, the white frames of the illustrations shrink, the images fill up each page until we follow Max into his dream. When Max announces the commencement of the wild rumpus, what follows is three illustrated spreads of the boy reigning over the beasts. Time passes on those pages, without a single word in sight.
When I entered motherhood, I simultaneously found myself entering a period of wild wordlessness. Bleary eyed, I was keenly aware of time and sleep. I saw time racing along as my son filled out his onesies. I saw time cherished as much as it was squandered as I lay beneath my sleeping son, not daring to move lest he wake up again for the thousandth time. I saw time slipping away as more (if not all) of it became devoted to caring for him. I oscillated between too little time (his naps were either short or nonexistent) and too much (nursing in the dark, exhausted and impatient as each passing minute stole from what was left of my own slumber). Moreover, I struggled with how to use my time as both a writer and a mother—the former of which I had identified with for much, much longer. I didn’t know how to fill—or not fill—that time with words as I once had.
Sendak’s illustrative spreads in the middle of Where the Wild Things Are remind me of what Anne Carson says about the middle section of To the Lighthouse. Carson describes Woolf’s book as “a novel that falls asleep for twenty-five pages in the middle” (22). Set at night, Part II of To the Lighthouse is entitled “Time Passes,” and describes the changes that affect the characters, their lives, and the house. As the characters in both Sendak’s and Woolf’s works go through their necessary transformations, I realized how possible it was to hold these books and sense Time passing both in words, as Woolf had written, and wordlessness, as Sendak had drawn.
In truth, I didn’t know how to “read” those illustrations when I flipped to them with my son. At first I felt compelled to fill the silence with my own commentary, and so I did. “Howling at the moon! (page flip) Swinging! (page flip) Marching!” Eventually, I learned just to observe my son take in the pages, looking at the images without my input.
However which way Time moved (Mr. Ramsey stumbling in grief along a passage, or little Max riding triumphantly on a wild thing, or my son letting go of the table edge for his first steps), it just did. My anxiety about never writing again lived along with me through those day naps and night feedings. I accepted that becoming a mother meant having to lose myself as a writer. This primal and sleepy period of adjusting to a new person was tinged with mourning. My husband, supportive if exasperated, would remark on my melodrama. But at the time it felt true. It’s only now as my son is approaching six and his toddler-sister is starting to sleep through the night, that I recognize this tumultuous era as something transformative for me as a writer. I think of Carson’s wise assertion of the chapter “Time Passes”: “Virginia Woolf offers us, through sleep, a glimpse of a kind of emptiness that interests her. It is the emptiness of things before we make use of them, a glimpse of reality prior to its efficacy” (23).
Words, much like Max voyaging towards wakefulness, eventually “sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day.” It may have taken a little longer, but we arrived together… changed, relieved, and a little sleepier.
Carson, Anne. Decreation. Vintage Canada, 2005.
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. Fiftieth Anniversary ed., Harper Collins, 2013.
Gillian Sze is the author of multiple poetry books, including Peeling Rambutan, Redrafting Winter, and Panicle, which were finalists for the QWF’s A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. Her forthcoming prosimetrical collection, Quiet Night Think, explores the early shaping of a writer, the creative process, and motherhood, and will be published next spring with ECW Press. Since becoming a mother, Gillian has started writing picture books and has two books forthcoming with Philomel Books (Penguin Random House USA). Her first picture book, The Night Is Deep and Wide, was recently released in March. www.gilliansze.com
Photo credit: “Where the Wild Things Are” by Skinned Mink is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (header banner); Nadia Zheng (headshot)