Maurice Sendak died this week. I heard an interview that described him as a huge Emily Dickinson fan. I love to discover that people I admire feel the same about one another. “I dwell in Possibility” is one of my favorites and the poet’s ode to her craft, which she understands as limitless. What’s more, to write a poem is to engage in meaning far beyond oneself: “The spreading wide my narrow hands / to gather Paradise.”
Though writing children’s books, Sendak invites his readers into rich possibilities. His classic, Where the Wild Things Are, is a tour de force of imagination. Max sails away to a strange and distant land, full of hairy, big-eyed creatures. Max, however, conquers his fear by staring into their yellow eyes without blinking. So the wild things crown him king. Since I was a little boy, my favorite moment is Max’s cry, “Let the wild rumpus start!” The rumpus is a rollicking dance party. It is a victory celebration like Miriam’s song: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea!” (Exodus 15:21).
I am aware that Sendak was criticized for the explicit nature of his material. It is true that Where the Wild Things Are is scary. As evidence, the other line I remember was uttered by the monsters, “Oh, please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!” Like Max, Sendak stared unblinkingly at both the thrilling and frightening aspects of imagination. Rather than assuring children that there were no monsters on their beds, he painted a fantasy land full of them.
Sendak’s death has prompted my musings about the children’s Bibles in our church’s nursery. They, too, are illustrated with characters who seem larger than life. There are “wild things” in these stories that we tell to our children. Noah’s ark is about the terrifying prospect of God wiping out humankind; David defeats Goliath as part of a war between feuding tribes over land rights; even the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew has the dark undercurrent of King Herod’s order for infanticide. What’s even more scary are parallels in our culture, whether the threat of nuclear war, fighting in the Middle East, or the conscription of child soldiers in Africa. And we read these stories to our children at bedtime?
I do not know what he thought about the Bible, but I do believe that Sendak had great respect for children. He believed they were just as capable as adults of comprehending the complexity of life. Even the scary parts. And so, he wrote and illustrated to inspire us to engage our fears. He wanted our children to look at life without blinking. Perhaps if we thought of the Bible less as a book of morals and more as a place full of wild things, we would encourage our children to dwell in possibility. If we resisted the urge to spoon feed our little ones what we thought they should know, they might reach beyond themselves with narrow hands and grasp a deeper meaning. “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “And do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Luke 18:16).
Now, that is wild.