Friday, 22 May 2015
A few notes on my comments on Where the Wild Things Are
1. One of the problems with that kind of criticism is that it sounds spoilsport, overly condemnatory and dismissive. It may also sound as if a little book is the same or as equivalent as say the CEO of a major corporation or a general invading another country. Needless to say, I think that this gives a wrong impression and undermines the purpose of writing such a piece. It is written in the spirit of enquiry, trying to figure out how such a book - and I help make books that are similar! - fits into the total set-up we live in and/or inherit from the past.
2. One thing I wouldn't want is for people to read such an article and think, Right, I'm not going to read that book again, either for myself or for my children. I think that 'Where the Wild Things Are' is a fascinating, clever and brilliant book. It 'contains' some of our emotions and 'represents' behaviours in ways that enable us to reflect on and debate how we behave. It does this by avoiding explicit, verbalised moralism (laying down rules about how we should behave) thereby leaving 'gaps' within which we have room to talk and interpret.
3. I suggested in the last paragraph but didn't put sufficient emphasis on the role of the classroom and the library. For a start, those places and those 'reading situations' undermine 'commodity fetishism'. The books belong to that community. They have been paid for by the public purse and are shared equally by its members including and prioritising those being nurtured and educated. And, as I have said, but I would like to emphasise, it is in these situations that important meanings are made. People talk and share their thoughts and concerns in relation to the book, or inspired by the book. Though 'talking about our feelings' can be a bit of a cliche, I wouldn't want to sneer at it or undermine it, particularly at a time when education is crowding out the time and space for children to reflect on who they are and what they feel. WTWTA can and often does provide a cue or a trigger for such discussions to take place, where adults can be seen as non-punitive, non-restrictive, non-constraining - sympathetic, interested and taking children's lives seriously. As I've suggested but not emphasised, some children have their lives taken seriously by the adults (or some of the adults) in their lives. Others do not. What schools and libraries can do is give those children who find that their lives are not taken seriously, moments that reverse this. Some books do this better than others. This book does it very well.
4. Mistakenly (and typically for this kind of criticism, sadly) I left myself out of much of what I wrote. WTWTA has played a part in my life and several of my children's lives. It has fascinated and intrigued them and me. I have often wondered, for example, much more than I have suggested, about the swiftly changing 'position' of the wild things. One moment they want to eat Max up. Then they are very easily tamed. Then they can all be friends and have a wild rumpus - a key, co-operative, joyful, expressive and egalitarian sequence in the book - and the next, Max can reject them and leave in a scene which partially revives the danger: would they eat him if they could, in order to prevent him from leaving? The ambivalence and insecurity of the wild things is a very positive thing about the book. It is what is known in the jargon 'an unstable signifier'. We don't know exactly what they signify because they change. Hurrah for that. Education in the hands of examiners and governments tries to enforce stable signifiers through the regime of right and wrong answers. WTWTA defies this.
One of my children demonstrated the power of the book to invite interpretation when, as a very young child (3, I think) he felt free to make comments about what he thought the text meant when the text itself is mysterious and unspecific e.g. when Max wants to be where he was loved 'best of all'. In that moment he felt entitled (empowered?) to say 'Mummy'…an interpretation that is not inevitable or stated by the text itself. In fact, it's a fine example of the kinds of 'transactions' that take place between the reader and text: 'Mummy' was his word for his own mother, yet the mother in the text is 'Max's mother'. So 'Mummy' and 'Max's mother' met at the moment of his being read to. Again, some books enhance and enable this kind of creative reading more than others. WTWTA is an enhancing text for several reasons - it is as I said at the outset, 'mythic', which entails mystery, with quite a few mysterious and/or unresolved elements, whilst giving pride of place (literally as 'king') to the child, especially the lone, male child. This, it could be argued, plays to the wish of the child who is able to 'identify' with Max, to be 'omnipotent', to be all-powerful. That of course is part of how masculinity is constructed and so takes me back to some of the ways in which the book fits the dominant order of things rather than undermines them! I didn't want to end on that note though - so I'll say again, it's a book that I find fascinating and powerful.