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Book Nostalgia: Where the Wild Things Are

nos·tal·gia

noun

1. a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time: a nostalgia for his childhood.

“But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go—

We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

-Where the Wild Things Are

Do you remember Where the Wild Things Are? Maybe a teacher or librarian shared it with your class back in first grade, or maybe you had a copy at your house and read it all the time. Remember Max, the wild little guy who dresses up in a wolf costume & causes mayhem around the house? He gets sent to bed without supper and sails away to a magical place where the wild things are. The wild things are scary, but they love Max and they make him their king, until he decides to return home. Generations of children have grown up loving this story since it first appeared in the 1960’s. Last week, Maurice Sendak, who wrote and illustrated the book, died at the age of 83.

Books from childhood can be powerful things. Nothing influences us as deeply as the stories we hear when we are small. Maybe you remember dozens of picture books that you loved as a child, and thinking about them now can transport you back to childhood. Maybe you have a perfectly clear memory of a certain illustration from a certain page of a certain book. Where the Wild Things Are is a particularly powerful story, and it stirs strong feelings of nostalgia for countless people around the world who were once little wild things themselves.

At the time Maurice Sendak began creating books, most entertainment for children was sunny and happy and simple. People thought children needed books that were safe and comforting.  Maurice Sendak never agreed. His books were often criticized for being too scary or too dark. But Sendak believed that children deserved stories that reflected the real emotions and realities they lived with, which were sometimes very dark and scary. This is what he said in his acceptance speech when the book won the Caldecott medal in 1964:

“Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences.

That is obvious. But what is just as obvious – and what is too often overlooked – is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”

When was the last time you picked up a book from your childhood? One of the awesomely magical things about the library is that it’s kind of like a time machine—you can wander into the Children’s Section and explore the past by revisiting old favorites. If you grew up with books, many of them will fill you with nostalgia and take you back to a long-ago time in your life. Sometimes books help us measure ourselves. When we reread them, they show us how much we have grown and changed. And sometimes books just remind us who we are and who we have been.

In honor of Maurice Sendak, grab a copy of Where the Wild Things Are and see if you remember it. You might also want to check out the 2009 movie version of the story, or one of Maurice Sendak’s other awesome books. Or maybe you’d like to walk into the library time machine and track down some other story that you loved when you were little so you can remember what it felt like to be so small and wild.

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