“That very night in Max’s room a forest grew
and grew until his ceiling hung with vines
and the walls became the world all around
and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max
and he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are.”
-Where the Wild Things Are
When I was a kid, one of my favorite authors was Maurice Sendak. I loved Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and the Little Bear books. At a recent exhibition of his work at the Figge Art Museum in Iowa, I got to see sketches up close and personal, exploring the amazing black ink lines on thick white cartography paper. While I was there, I saw on the wall a quote from the ultimate children’s writer, Theodor Geisel, “Dr. Seuss”. When asked who was the best children's writer and artist, Dr. Seuss replied, "Sendak, Sendak, and Sendak." In the exhibit was a boat, with a sail, and an ocean. I of course needed to get a photo, so I climbed into the boat and set sail. As I did, a group of kids was being read the book by a teacher in the gallery, and they had just arrived at Max's sailing. Looking over at me the teacher said, "Just Like that young man over there." I of course had to bend my way backwards and wave at the group of five year olds vigorously, and with a great big old grin on my face. To this I got a huge bunch of kids laughing, possibly at me. It was great though, and it made my trip. Once I arrived back in Kentucky, I decided to reread Where the Wild Things Are, and I found myself enjoying it not just as much, but ten times more than when I was a kid. Not only was it just as wonderful in my memory as on the page now, but it had grown into something else along with me.
As I flipped through the pages, I lovingly scanned the monsters that Max encounters in his travels far from his bedroom: Roaring terrible roars, gnashing terrible teeth, and rolling their terrible eyeballs. Fur, fangs, manes, claws, scales, tails. All together on one creature roaring and rampaging, and yet all fitting naturally together. I’ve enjoyed putting together monsters and creatures in my head, and that fascination latched on to the illustrations of that book. Every creature that we encounter, including Max in his white wolf suit, is a Platypus-esque, amalgamation of several different creatures.
As I set the book down, I noticed the other books on my table: Spirited Away, The Art of Studio Ghibli, Gonzo, a book of political cartoons by Ralph Steadman, Calvin and Hobbes Anthologies, Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons. Many artists I admire don't create exclusively for children, but do extend their talents into the realm of entertaining children. There's something about them that draws you in, welcomes you in. When you look at the pictures, you know the words, and the words on the page, create the image in your mind. That's what a truly terrific piece of literature can do. While my favorite pieces of literature in some ways are the epic, lengthy masterworks like Tolstoy's War and Peace or Tolkien's Silmarillion, I find myself drawn back on a more fundamental level to the combination narratives of creative works like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Flight of Dragons. There is something that sparks the imagination in the presentation of images to accompany writing.
Sometimes what the author can imagine needs the help of illustrations, not as an authoritative conception of a character or piece of the story, but as another layer that builds on the depth of the narrative. Not to tell us exactly what something is, but to give us guidance in our imaginations and to bring those worlds we fall into to life. One of the reasons we so often say, “The movie isn’t as good as the book,” is that our consumption of a book incorporates our biases, preferences, and delights in a way that a movie removes. It turns an active exploration into a passive ride. Illustrations bridge that gap to some degree, still allowing the reader freedom to explore, and even help to build, the world that you’ve stepped into. A set of illustrations on their own should be able to tell a story. A good piece of media doesn’t speak to the reader, but actually creates a give and take between the creator and the audience. It invests the audience in the story, and lends import to the events that unfold. As we get older, we can lose this to some strange idea that certain forms cannot hold the same sort of depth because of their length, format, or appearance. Picture books are exclusively for children, animation must always be caricatured, vapid, and shallow, and cartoons are almost always goofy. As we leave our childhoods, oft times we leave behind some of the greatest pieces of literature and art, simply because we viewed them as a child and therefore must be inferior to the media we prize as adults. It’s almost an idea that if we embrace our childhood loves, we’re betraying the growth of our latter years.
We tend to think of children's books in terms of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. A delightful children's picture book to be sure, but not one of the books that truly has the impact of the more complex creations of Where the Wild Things Are, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Oh, The Places You'll Go! Books, movies, even stage shows, that hold amazing artistic ability, are constructed so enticingly, and have some strange X factor that cannot be described, are written off on the basis of their title. We like to think of kids’ stories and tales as often overly simplified, and glaringly one-dimensional, and this is true much of the time.
Yet to extend that descriptor to any work just because it is seen as for children is ridiculous. Have you ever read The Hobbit? Or watched Spirited Away? Or sat down in front of Sesame Street? Some of the greatest artistic works of the modern age are ones that one can understand at all stages of life. How many children have bedroom walls painted with variations of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, while across the way a 70-year-old professor sits in an office looking at a print of the same painting? The things that draw our eyes, ears, and love, from the dawn of our self-awareness to the twilight years that we fade into, don’t leave us over time because they are themselves timeless. Hayao Miyazaki remarked upon the purpose of what children's animation should be: "A woman once told me that it should be totally incomprehensible to them as children, and make complete sense when they get older." To look with wonder and with love on something, purely and without reservation, is something that we may only be able to do as kids, with the wonders of childhood. That love should be cherished as adults, and kept burning rather than extinguished.
Children really are like growing a garden, though I might put it like this: A child is like a crystal in which resides a seed. As a child grows, that crystal is broken apart and scattered to the soil below to make the way for the seed that will grow into the adult. There is an essence of what you will be, buried inside of you. What emerges from that seed however, is decided by the influences that surround us, while the seed that grows must be tended, pruned, and raised up by ourselves as we grow to maturity. How well, how carefully, and how fertile the soil is prepared, the better the opportunity that the seed will have to take root. Sometimes the seed won't take root anyways, and sometimes the elements will reclaim that seed, but a poor preparation rarely produces a quality yield.