Klein’s depressive position? Winnicott’s benign circle? The House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Question Time? Hold on! It’s …
Where the Wild Things Are
1963 (USA), 1967 (UK)
Picture book fantasy
What’s the story?
The book opens with a young boy, Max, (a ‘little monster’) ready for bed in his pyjama wolf-suit, making ‘mischief’. When his mother calls him ‘Wild Thing’ he answers her back, ‘I’ll eat you up!’ Mother then sends him to his bedroom, without supper. Max is very angry with her and, closing his eyes firmly, he imagines his room into a forest – the bedposts turn into tall trees, the rug into rough grass, the table into a thick bush. A small boat is waiting to take him to the place where the Wild Things are. Max is quite undaunted by the monsters who roar at him, bare their teeth, and roll their eyes. He charms them into submission by staring unblinkingly into their yellow eyes. The Wild Things tamed, Max is crowned King and he leads them in a ‘wild rumpus’ which he then calls to a halt by sending them off to bed (as he was himself) without their supper. Feeling homesick and wanting to be where he is loved ‘best of all’, Max sails back the way he came, despite the Wild Things’ protests that they will eat him up (the words he used to his mother when she was angry with him). In his bedroom he finds his supper waiting for him, still hot – which is just what a little boy needs who is no longer cross, and wanting his mum.
The text is very short (338 words), and it instantly engages young children who readily identify with Max’s feelings of rage and injustice. They are then carried along by the flowing, almost poetical words: ‘… through night and day/ in and out of weeks/ and almost over a year/ to where the wild things are.’
There are not many picture books which have earned classic status but Where the Wild Things Areis surely the best known picture book in the world, and the first to address openly the developmental conflicts of the early years and the phantasy that aggression will cause irrevocable damage. (Traditional tales have long been recognised vehicles for such powerful images.) Max’s wildness, projected on to the Wild Things in a waking phantasy, is relived and relieved in his dream. Max tames the Wild Things and punishes them (as he wished to punish his mother) but then feels empty and unloved. He returns to the reality of his supper and a loving relationship (the one and only of the oral stage) with a mother who, no longer angry, has not, after all, been destroyed by his aggression.
Sendak’s enchanting and beautiful illustrations expand the simple yet powerful text into a story which is suspenseful and has a most satisfying denouement. The artwork, stunningly beautiful in its colours and rich in detail, is also technically superb. The pictures begin as small single page spreads, and grow in size as the drama unfolds, reaching full double page spreads at the climax of the story, when Max and the Wild Things really let themselves go in a three-page revelry of moon-dance and song. For Max’s return journey, the artistic process is reversed. By the time Max is home, the page design is as it was at the beginning, and everything is the same in his room – except for supper (and cake!) on the table. Therefore, the shape and pace of the book, together with its succinct text and encapsulating illustrations which include the use of direct gaze to the reader from Max at key moments, combine to produce an exciting and stimulating picture book, with a timeless quality, which appeals to children as strongly today, as it did when it first appeared over thirty years ago.
About the author:
Maurice Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928, the youngest of three children. His parents came to America before the First World War, from Jewish villages outside Warsaw in Poland. His love of fantasy tales stems from the improvised stories his father told him as a child, which he would embellish night after night. His passion for books and bookmaking began when his sister gave him his first book – a copy of The Prince and the Pauper.
After graduating from high school Sendak worked full time at Timely Service, a window display company in Manhattan, and for two years took up art classes in the evening at the Art Students League. This was his only formal art training. He was ‘discovered’ when working for Schwarz Toy Store by the children’s book buyer who arranged for the US publisher, Harper & Row, to see his portfolio. He was immediately commissioned to illustrate his first picture book, The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Aymé. This was shortly followed by the highly innovative picture book, A Hole is to Dig (1952) by poet Ruth Krauss, establishing him a secure place in the world of children’s books.
Sendak went on to develop his own distinctive style influenced by various European artists, such as Randolph Caldecott and Heinrich Hoffman. His exquisite crosshatching technique emulating nineteenth-century woodcuts can be found in his illustrations for Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear books, which first appeared in the 1950s. Since then, as a writer and as an illustrator, Sendak has published over 80 books.
In 1964 Where the Wild Things Are (published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1967) was awarded the Caldecott Medal given annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished picture book for children. In 1970 Sendak received the Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator’s Medal.
Who are the Wild Things?
Sendak’s relations! Sendak once said, ‘They are my uncles and aunts, who poked us, pinched us, said absurd, patronizing things to us, took up all the room, ate up all the food … And they were dangerous because they looked at you as though they could devour you.’
When it first appeared, Where the Wild Things Are caused much controversy amongst protective teachers, librarians and parents. The Wild Things were considered too frightening for children, would give them nightmares; Max’s bad behaviour might be emulated by readers; the book might be psychologically damaging in that Max is deserted by his mother and sent to bed alone. But child psychologists reacted more positively, saying that the book helped express and release many childhood fears, not usually voiced out loud. And children, for whom the book was written, simply devoured (ha!) the story and pictures with sheer delight. So despite the controversial nature of the book (though Sendak never dreamt it would be so), it became an overwhelming success for him and his publishers. It has been translated into many languages and has sold millions throughout the world.
Published some years later, In the Night Kitchen (1970) and Outside Over There (1981) complete the trilogy which began with Wild Things and are, as Sendak once explained, all variations of the same theme, although completely different in style.
Where the Wild Things Are opera (1984) written by Maurice Sendak, music by Oliver Knussen. Sets designed and produced by Maurice Sendak.
Where the Wild Things Are is published in hardback by The Bodley Head (0 370 00772 7, £9.99) and in paperback by HarperCollins (0 00 664086 9, £5.99).
Helen Levene works in publishing.