“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. 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 Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
I was driving to campus tonight for the first of many pre-graduation goodbye dinners, and listening to an NPR tribute to Maurice Sendak, who died today. I was sad to hear about Sendak’s death, because like almost every kid I had and loved “Where the Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen.” But I had a pretty brutal moment of Real Life at the end of the radio piece–they were playing a clip from the audio recording of “Where the Wild Things Are”, from the very end of the book, when Max returns to his bedroom to find his dinner waiting for him. The very last line of the book is “And it was still hot,” and all of the sudden I was flooded by something I hadn’t thought about in years–how when my mom or dad used to read us that book, that last line was so satisfying: sometimes we’d say it together, or my mom would leave it for me to say, but we’d always say it the same way. And it was still hot.
In the same radio piece, they played a clip of Sendak talking about childhood, and how surviving the terrifying experience of childhood was the theme of almost all of his work. He said, “I was scared of death constantly as a child, but of course you can’t tell your parents that.” That’s a little macabre for me, but it hits home, too. Childhood is scary. Even if it’s not actually traumatizing in the long run, it’s traumatic, no matter who you are. I had pretty much the most idyllic sort of childhood you can have in a world where Bratz dolls and cable television exist, but I remember feeling scared a lot of the time, about the most irrational things, and most of these fears also came from books. After I read Riki Tiki Tavi, I was obsessively paranoid about getting bitten by a poisonous snake. I mean, I actually checked the floor before I stepped out of bed in the morning. Once I stepped on a thumbtack, and I remember thinking “Well, this is it.” I sat down on the kitchen floor and waited for death. My mom came along and put some Neosporin on it. Considering myself fairly traumatized, I asked if I could watch TV. She told me to go read a book.
This is pretty much how I became a writer.
That’s what great books–or even crappy books, as long as they mean something to you at a certain point in time–can do. That one line–“And it was still hot“–was such a sudden and violent trigger that I was instantly weeping in the car (just a little…I swear). I’ve been so busy working and getting through finals that I haven’t even had a second to wrap my head around the fact that I’m graduating from college in ten days. Life is happening faster than I’m realizing it. I’m probably closer to reading “Where the Wild Things Are” to my own kids than I am to the days when I was having it read to me. This sounds so incredibly cheesy, but I think in a weird way I was crying about my own growing up–growing up I wasn’t even really paying attention to until that damn radio show. And all because of a freakin’ kids book.