Children’s books hold a very special resonance – associated with the intense joy of bedtime reading and trips to the local library. They are little, secluded worlds. The smudging of time means that memories of beloved texts are often partial, but the impact remains. I think we have an attachment to these books that differs from the more mature passion for the printed page. The brevity of picture books, combined with the illustrations (or the extensive descriptions in texts for slightly older readers), means that they are often imagined and remembered visually.
My favourite childhood authors included Margaret Mahy, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Eva Ibbotson and the late Maurice Sendak. All these writers, alongside others, created characters I wanted to talk to and places I wished to visit. It was a privilege to experience their ideas and stories. Of course, I didn’t realise this at the time – I just took it as a given that such tales existed, with no thought of the exciting (but grueling) process of actually creating a children’s book. Some might think that short sentences and basic language are signs of an easy, quickly finished job. On the contrary, the restrictions imposed by writing for a younger audience make it a long and tricky task. It also appears to have become harder in recent years as the confines of children’s publishing grow narrower. I delighted in the cheeky wit of books such as ‘Reckless Ruby’, in which the protagonist refused to grow up and marry a prince – instead rebelling by performing daredevil stunts and smoking cheroots until she was sick – and loved the surreal and strange plot of Sendak’s ‘In the Night Kitchen’. I wonder if either would be published now? These were stories that didn’t shy away from or ‘sanitize’ life, but instead reveled in it – both the good parts and the bad. Many fairytales may have removed the real endings in which Cinderella’s stepsisters have their eyes pecked by birds and mermaid Ariel dissolves into sea-foam (the latter dubbed excessively cruel by Sendak), but Max lives among monsters in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and Ida’s baby sister is stolen away in ‘Outside Over There’. They are fantasies, but ones that explore very real feelings and anxieties.
When I was little, I went through phases of concentrating on a single book for several weeks, before switching allegiance to another. I spent at least a month on ‘Outside Over There’ – whose title has similar connotations to ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, with both examining the danger and monsters that exist beyond the safe boundaries of home. I asked for it to be read to me every evening, and then lingered over the pictures during the day. The faceless goblins terrified me, but I was bewitched – perhaps fascinated by my own fear. There is a particular image of Ida in her “mama’s yellow rain cloak” that is extraordinary. I’m not sure if it is the detailed folds of fabric, the expression on her face or the view beyond the window, but the illustration is haunting. ‘Outside Over There’ was Sendak’s favourite work, despite its neglect in comparison with its better-known counterparts. It is the most extraordinary, and the most disturbing, of his picture books.
(Image from 'Outside Over There')
It's easy to start analyzing these stories from an adult perspective, and they certainly do yield all kinds of suggestions and interpretations. They are also just as rich on subsequent readings – losing none of the magic that sometimes rubs off with age. But Sendak’s books were primarily written and drawn for children, and that's the part of the self that they should call to. When I was younger they excited my imagination, entertained my senses and gave a snatch of the large, scary, exhilarating world. Now, I see them as very powerful and fragile, but also beautiful. Sendak took complex themes and simplified them. He understood the mindset of a child, as demonstrated in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, tapping into the desire to escape and run around a strange land.
I felt that my outfit fitted well as some kind of fashion hybrid of the two books mentioned here – full of the colours and layers that a style-conscious ‘wild thing’ might wear, with a cape from my grandma thrown on top like Ida’s in ‘Outside Over There’ (although mine is a little less impressive). The shirt is Aquascutum (a present), and the dress, sleeveless cardigan and belt were all from various charity shops.
Emma Hill of Mulberry cited ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ as the key stimulus behind her AW12 show, and that title seems to have become the byword for anything vaguely furry, shaggy or feathery. I’m not sure how Sendak would have felt about his work being used as inspiration for a collection, but there is still something rather wonderful about seeing such a beloved book re-interpreted in fashion form. However, I think that the belted scarves, woody shades of honey and brown, soft leather, shearling and messy patterns of the Mulberry show could appear in only the most elegant of rumpuses – and, although I thought the floral dresses were delectable, I doubt that they would survive a mad dash through woods and brambles (especially not in those heels!) I’d suggest a pair of sturdy Chelsea boots, like mine from a charity shop, for exploring and adventuring.
Maurice Sendak was a fantastic artist, writer and man – as well known for his irascible nature and outspoken views as for his work. The many tributes, anecdotes and articles describing favourite books are a testament to his lasting impact on so many lives. His contribution to children’s literature was incredible.