This week, I have felt the urge to wear my wolf suit and “make mischief” around my house like Max in “Where the Wild Things Are.” The stagnation that has settled, the unrest that has collected like dust, and my frustration in things I cannot affect have me in an agitated stupor.
Maurice Sendak tells us a few things in his forceful book. One, food is love. The main character, Max, is called a “WILD THING” by his mother for running around terrorizing the house, and he replies, “I’LL EAT YOU UP.” Two, the imagination is like a forest that can leaf out when you least expect it. Three, eye contact tames the most terrible beasts. Four, “wild rumpus” is a much better term than “party.”
It so happens that Sendak wrote “An Appreciation” in 1996 for the 35th anniversary of “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster. Much like Max, the main character, Milo, is visited by his imagination and is curious, or brave enough, to follow it.
The plot is simple. Milo finds a tollbooth in his room and hops in his little automobile headed for the Kingdom of Wisdom, where he befriends a dog named Tock with a clock on his side. He discovers that the world is punny and somewhat ridiculous but also unfathomably loud.
Like many children’s books, this story is meant for the child in all of us who is staring up as if from the bottom of a well.
Milo meets Tock in the Doldrums, a place you end up in once you stop using your head. The watchdog grows frustrated with Milo: “since you got here by not thinking, it seems reasonable to expect that, in order to get out, you must start thinking.”
A seemingly simple statement, but for those unable to find their wolf suit yet still wearing the crown, thinking seems a chore.
Eventually, Milo and Tok make their way to Dictionopolis. After contributing to a disturbance in the city, they find themselves in the dungeon where they meet “Faintly Macabre the not-so-wicked Which.” She was a speechwriter of sorts for the king but became too greedy and sparse with her words. She tells Milo and Tock: “but they never appointed a new Which, and that explains why today people use as many words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so.”
As somebody in the word trade, I find the Which to be quite right. Words are not scarce but they should be treated as if they are.
After Milo visits with King Azaz the Unabridged of Dictionopolis, he realizes that the world is out of whack because King Azaz and his brother, the Mathmagacian of Digitopolis, banished princesses Rhyme and Reason to the Castle in the Air because they couldn’t agree on anything.
As Milo is on his way to convince the Mathemagacian to let him rescue the princesses, he runs into a peculiar boy named Alec. Alec grows from the air down instead of from the ground up; he has looked at the world from the same angle his entire life. He gives Milo a telescope before they depart: “you can see things as they really are, not just as they seem to be.”
Sendak is keen to Juster’s genius in distilling the world’s problems into the fantastical and the metaphorical: “The Demons of Ignorance, the Gross Exaggeration (whose wicked teeth were made ‘only to mangle the truth’), and the shabby Threadbare Excuse are inside the walls of the Kingdom of Wisdom, while the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, the Overbearing Know-it-all, and most especially the Triple Demons of Compromise are already established in high office all over the world.”
When Milo recovers Rhyme and Reason after hurtling down the Mountains of Ignorance and being chased by unseemly demons like the Threadbare Excuse, the kings turn to Milo and tell him the entire mission was impossible: “as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”
Juster found in his imagination or perhaps in the mirror, this relatable Milo. So did Sendak. These authors want us to look at our capability, where it is lacking. We can talk, yet we communicate poorly. We can see, yet we miss the true shape of things. We can hear, but we only listen for the rush. We are in a broken kingdom, yet though we seem to see Rhyme and Reason, we don’t see what they really are.
Though we are marred by indecision, by debilitating boredom, by our lack of willpower to fuel the imagination, by the opaqueness of the “impossible,” the wolf suit is not far, neither are the monsters.
Sendak wrote his introduction at a time when he was preoccupied with the state of the world. In Juster and Sendak, I find something shining. Do not succumb to the Doldrums, take up the path and drive through the tollbooth. If there is anything I can glean, it is the idea that I can grow a forest in this very room in which I sit. I can open a cardboard box and clamber into my automobile to find Rhyme and Reason in the sky castle. Education, imagination and maybe a wolf suit are all I need to begin the mend.