A landmark picture book about how children tame their demons
Where the Wild Things Are. Story and Pictures by Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, 48 pp., $7.95, paperback, and other editions. Ages 2–8.
By Janice Harayda
Where the Wild Things is so popular today that few people may remember how revolutionary it once was. In a sense it was the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of picture books, and not just because it, too, is about the night. Maurice Sendak broke the rules of composition and content in 1963 as Picasso had done 1907, and his act of defiance has had an enduring effect on other artists.
Great picture books existed before Sendak wrote and illustrated the story of a boy named Max, who finds an outlet in fantasy for the anger he feels after his mother puts him to bed without supper. And his work shares traits with that of artists such as Beatrix Potter and Randolph Caldecott – meticulous craftsmanship, a seamless interplay of works and pictures, and a refusal to patronize children.
But Where the Wild Things Are put its own stamp on picture books. Sendak tells its story in words and pictures until Max travels to an imaginary realm and orders a “wild rumpus” to start among the “wild things” who have made him their king. Then pictures alone move the narrative forward for three double-page spreads until the text resumes when Max orders the creatures to bed. Sendak’s editor said – and there is no reason to doubt – that no artist had ever structured a picture book this way.
The content was no less unusual than this compositional device. Where the Wild Things Are was the first great picture took to take as its subject — and to dramatize — the interior life of a child. Some adults may wonder why the cover shows a picture of a sleeping “wild thing” instead of Max. The story holds the answer. This is a book about how children use fantasy to tame their troubling feelings. The cover befits that theme: The “wild thing” has gone to sleep at Max’s command.
Canadian scholar Perry Nodelman has described other remarkable aspects of the book, including its use of color and white space, in Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. But no one has described the book better than Sendak in accepting 1964 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association for Where the Wild Things Are.
“Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences,” he said. “That is obvious. But what is just as obvious – and what is too often overlooked – is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”
The idea that fantasy is the “best means” for “taming Wild Things” – if radical when the book first appeared – may be more so today. Adults may acknowledge the value of daydreaming, unstructured play and other ways for children to indulge their fantasies. But it is probably safe to say that experts have convinced most parents that the “best means” for children to tame their “wild things” is through talk, or perhaps venting their anger by kicking a soccer ball. Given that shift, it might seem a miracle that Where the Wild Things Are has remained popular. And yet it isn’t a miracle at all, because that kind of ability to survive changes in fashion is exactly what makes a book a classic.
Best line: The last five words. Max returns to his room and finds his supper waiting for him “and it was still hot.” When a new edition of Where the Wild Things Are was being prepared ten years after it won the Caldecott Medal, Sendak’s editor wrote to ask him if he wanted to change “hot” to “warm” because Harper Collins had heard from “a couple of children (or their rotten parents)” that “children don’t like hot” food. Authors, editors will never stop trying to change your work, even after you are rich, famous and have won the highest honor in your field.
Worst line: None.
Editor: Ursula Nordstrom
Published: 1963 (first edition)
Furthermore: Nordstrom said that the three consecutive wordless spreads were unique in a letter to Nat Hentoff, collected in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (Harper Collins, 1998), edited by Leonard S. Marcus, pp. 184–185. She asked about the change from “hot” to “warm” in a letter to Sendak in the same book, p. 355.
You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a response to the medals gap between male and female Caldecott winners.
Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.