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Where the Wild Things Are

Play and useful anarchy in a children’s classic.

Key points

  • Maurice Sendak created an idyllic fantasy land where kids can rule over the very fears and forces that beset growing up.
  • Kids are in some ways more resilient and less easily frightened than adults.

The occasion of its 125th year in operation prompted the Brooklyn Public Library to tabulate its 125 most-borrowed books.

More than a few of J.K. Rowling’s spellbinding novels in the Harry Potter series appeared. So did the dystopian masterpieces Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984. Unsurprisingly, the winners included one of the Game of Thrones installments, along with classics such as Candide, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, The Lord of the Rings, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Naturally the catalog included the local favorite, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Run your finger down the titles, though, and you’ll find that children’s picture books dominate borrowers’ choices. It’s not hard to see why. The well-loved copies are portable, charmingly illustrated, engaging for adults, mesmerizing for the preliterate, and gently civilizing.

Coming in at number one, surpassing in popularity all the adult literature and such children’s standards as The Cat in the Hat, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Charlotte’s Web, and Goodnight Moon, is a story arc of naughtiness, monstrous encounters, wild phantasmagoric play, consolation, and self-mastery: Maurice Sendak’s 1963 Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak, who lurched between black depression and creative fury, allowed that his books were always a battleground, as emotionally true for the artist’s character as for his characters. From the first, this enduring picture book promised not to be The Poky Little Puppy.

The Backdrop: Mischief and Consequence

As the story opens, the main character, Max, looking grim and swinging a hammer, has donned his wolf suit, big buttons fastened up front and the bushy tail trailing. Max, the first wild thing the reader meets, is up to no good. He has tied the laundry together to make a clothesline, nailed the ends to the walls, and draped a bed sheet over it. Near the improvised tent, bad Max has strung up a stuffed dog by a paw. Turn the page and you see him chasing the family’s real pet terrier with a carving fork. When warned to stop, he threatens to eat his mother up.

For his raging wolf-monster mischief, Max is sent to bed without dinner.

The Dream at Play: Let the Wild Rumpus Begin!

Pouting, furious, confined to quarters, and exhausted post-tantrum, Max drifts off as a dream sailboat carries him away for a year and a day to a faraway jungle-land inhabited by monsters gnashing terrible monster teeth. It is a journey into the id. Unimpressed by these figments, however, mean little Max stares down the Wild Things and, to make a short story shorter, they proclaim the little boy king to indulge them and rule them.

In his first royal act, Max, scepter in hand, decrees the start of a wild rumpus. Anarchy reins as the Wild Things give in to their impulses. They stomp about, howl at the full moon, hang from tree branches, and parade their monarch triumphantly.

It is the wild rumpus that grants the framing dream its power and gives the storybook its six-decade-long staying-power. For it is in wild play that the main character subdues the monsters outside while vanquishing his own demons within.

Like other great mythic heroes, (Odysseus, Dorothy Gehl, Luke Skywalker) Max in his wolf suit must atone for his rebellious transgressions before returning transformed and ready to be forgiven.

The dream blows off Max’ steam. The story ends as Max is restored as he awakes, forgiven, and comforted by the aroma of his mother’s home cooking.

Wild Things Banned but Kids Know Better

After 50 million copies sold, and a Caldecott Medal received, it may come as a surprise that the enduring Where the Wild Things Are ever needed to buck headwinds of adult concern.

The publishers themselves worried that the illustrated narrative was “too dark” and its themes too psychologically challenging. (Thus, Sendak waited four years before the book appeared in print.) Over the last six decades, schools and libraries have also now and then suppressed the book, sometimes on religious grounds, fearful of themes termed “supernatural” and therefore anathema. Then, too, overprotective guardians objected to the defiant main character and fretted over his bad example.

Writing in the popular Ladies Home Journal six years after its publication, no less a figure than the celebrity psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim worried that the picture book (which he later admitted he hadn’t read) would prove too frightening, as it was the character’s own mother who withheld food as punishment.

Background: The Didactic vs. the Idyllic

Children’s literature scholar John Morgenstern traces two conflicting strains in the books adults read to their children. He terms the traditions the “didactic” and the “idyllic.”

Tendentious, message-laden stories, all those traditional cautionary tales, gathered steam in the post-World War II era. After all, Morgenstern points out, the world had recently offered up horrors and threats of an unprecedented scale and variety.

The upshot? In an interview in the American Journal of Play, Morgenstern notes that in that anxious era adults felt acutely that children needed to be warned and reined in and turned to good purpose. Unregulated play itself posed a threat to good order. Our hero, Max, is a case in point that creative play trends toward the disorderly. Observing that the didactic is “fundamentally hostile to play,” Morgenstern concluded that “earlier forms of children’s literature tended to overemphasize the didactic to encourage the end of play.”

The “idyllic,” by contrast he argued, “is the assertion of the value of play.”

Luckily, kids are in some ways more resilient and less easily frightened than adults. They buzz past such adult worries and see in the sympathetic main character, Max, a flawed figure of fun, much like themselves.

In the process of finding their way, children must conquer their fears and learn to regulate their emotions: two big tasks that adults can encourage but not mandate. And so, the vivid example of escape to an idyllic fantasy land, a battleground where one might come to rule over the very fears and forces that beset growing up? For budding kids needing to exchange pleasurable impulse for civilization, this is a routine but marvelous triumph.

References

Bruno Bettelheim, “Dialog with Mothers: The Care and Feeding of Monsters,” Ladies Home Journal, (March, 1969).

Goodale, “The Wild One,” The Christian Science Monitor, (October 4, 2002).

Roiphe, “Maurice Sendak,” in The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, (2016).

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