TOBIAS HILL: A BOOK THAT CHANGED ME

Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak

WHERE the Wild Things Are is the book I remember knowing before I learned to read - so it marks a change in my life, rather than changing things itself. I started to read late, and with some effort. Until I was almost seven, writing and mathematics went together in my head as two kinds of trial by paper.

The only thing that made words better than numerals was that they had better endings, and there were pictures to help get you there. But all marks in books were hard, senseless, and disturbing. I couldn't unknot them, and a part of me didn't want to. I already had stories, I knew them off by heart, and I could list the names of dinosaurs and butterflies, gemstones and cheeses. I had more stories in my head than I knew what to do with. The rest of reading was a step forward or a step in the wrong direction, and I was in no hurry to find out which.

When I think of my life between three and seven it is a time so buried in stories, beliefs and rituals that the reality of what happened to me is hard to keep hold of. For a while my best friend and I believed - really believed - that we could fly. I became disillusioned with this only after launching myself off a climbing frame and spraining both ankles.

Fictions were everywhere, from my father's bedtime stories of Odysseus to the lyrics of the Bay City Rollers (which we couldn't decipher and so made up) to the insides of our heads. There were even stories in books - Mervyn Peake's Captain Slaughterboard, Heath Robinson's Uncle Lubin, Tomi Ungerer's The Beast of Monsieur Racine. These books were read to me, and I memorised them almost instantly. Unable to read, memory was the child's only way of keeping stories - so I remembered.

Where the Wild Things Are follows a boy sent to bed without supper. Max sees his bedposts blossom into trees, the bedroom walls unfurl into forests, the forests leading to oceans, the oceans encompassing a world of monsters. Sendak created the kind of dream I would have chosen to dream. When the book was performed as a school play, I was the narrator. Years later, I found out that I had recited the story while holding the book upside- down, not looking at the text at all. By then I was a reader, and remembering whole texts was no longer easy or natural. Where the Wild Things Are reminds me of what I miss - that muscular, eyes-wide, child's assimilation.

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