Lit Crit: Where the Wild Things Are
So it has been a while since I indulged a bit and scripted one of my investigations/criticisms of a beloved children’s book. Considering the upcoming release of the film version of Where the Wild Things Are later this month, I thought why not tackle one of the greatest works of children’s pictorial literature of all time.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak was published in 1963 to mixed reviews. While it was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal for best picture book of 1963, it was widely dismissed by librarians, and prudish critics as “too frightening” including Publishers Weekly, who declared the book “pointless and confusing” back in 1963. Since this early celebration and condemnation the book has gone on to be a bookshelf staple for children and nostalgic adults alike, and with over nineteen million copies in print (this number is likely to significantly increase due to the release of the feature film) it shows little sign of loosing its significance, or its appeal.
So what, some 46 years later, do we make of this tale of the angry and lonely boy venturing into the wild and imagined terrain of monsters and revolt? As most of us are familiar with the tale, I will only provide a brief recap. Max, a seemingly dour young boy wearing a wolf suit, gets sent to bed by his mother (with no dinner) for being unruly. He then dreams himself into a rowdy and feral jungle world populated by woolly beasts that crown him “king of all wild things” and, with Max, proceed to engage in the sort of wild behavior that got Max in trouble in the first place. Max then grows tired of his kingdom and flees, sailing his way back to the comforts of home.
The book, with its spare prose and its exceedingly rich and peculiar illustrations, almost functions as a subtle poem illuminating the vicissitudes of childhood anger and loneliness. Max exists in the familiar realm of childhood where freedom is limited, emotions are confusing, untethered anger drives frequent outbursts and tantrums, and alienation is all too common. With the same force that Max enlists to push away his family, he also expresses the need for safety, belonging, and community, with both his newfound “wild” friends and his ultimate desire to return home to the comfort of his room and waiting supper (which is still hot–a fitting grace note to this fantastic adventure).
One thematic aspect of the narrative, not to be overlooked, is the childhood (and some would say adult) need for monsters. While most adults would assume monsters are a source of fear for all children, they are only half correct. As the character of Max proves in Where the Wild Things Are, monsters fulfill the need of emotional surrogate as much as they embody the childhood desire for unmitigated and unadulterated power in a world where they often feel powerless. Max conquers the “wild things” and makes them into subjects, or pets, and then allows himself to engage in some truly joyful monstrous behavior. Max controls his “wild things” as he controls his emotions, as well as his elaborate imagination.
Does Where the Wild Things Are have a place in your home, and if so, how does it resonate with you and your children? Has anyone had to put it away because it is too frightening for the little ones? Any other interpretations or alternate reads of this classic piece of children’s literature?
Please share with your fellow readers.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.