The Wild Things Are Everywhere
Although just 10 sentences long, Where the Wild Things Are, the story of tantrum-throwing Max and his fantastic journey to a land of strange creatures, has mesmerized generations of readers. Its dark colors, apparent amorality and angry protagonist initially drew suspicion but are now celebrated as keys to its compelling beauty. What inspired Maurice Sendak’s vision, and where has it led? This map traces some of the book’s influences and its lasting legacy.
As a boy, Maurice Sendak loved reading comics and telling his own stories with drawings, and his favorite character was Walt Disney’s cartoon hero Mickey Mouse. Sendak was first inspired to become a children’s book illustrator after seeing Disney’s animated feature Fantasia at the age of 12. Fantasia was a hugely ambitious undertaking—at the time, the most artistic, detailed American animation yet created, produced at tremendous expense—but it met with critical ambivalence and low box office returns. Conceived as an experiment to popularize classical music, Fantasia contains almost no dialogue, only animated musical sequences in different styles and moods, featuring everything from abstract shapes to tutu-clad dancing hippos. The grim themes of violence and death that overshadow some parts—particularly the famed “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section, in which Mickey attempts to harness his master’s dark powers, and “Night on Bald Mountain,” featuring the powerful demon Chernabog—resonated with the darker side of the young Sendak’s imagination. Sendak was also a classical music lover, and although the work of Mozart, his favorite composer, is absent from Fantasia, the film offers compositions by some classical music titans—Bach, Beethoven, Dukas, Mussorgsky, Schubert, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky.
By 1963 Maurice Sendak had already achieved success as an illustrator (notably his drawings for Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear), but Where the Wild Things Are was his first attempt at both writing and illustrating. Its story is simple: A boy misbehaves and is sent to his room. In one of the most mysterious moments in children’s literature, the room transforms into a jungle and then a sea, upon which he sails for a time, ending up in a wild, scary place inhabited by strange giant creatures. He tames the creatures by being the wildest of all, banishes them to bed and then discovers he misses the comforts of home.
The story was originally called “Where the Wild Horses Are,” but after finding he could not draw horses, Sendak changed these familiar animals into more fanciful “wild things.” This name recalled the Yiddish vildechaya, slang for a wild, rambunctious child, a common expression in his parents’ household. It also allowed Sendak to draw these “things” any way he wanted. The book’s muted palette and grotesque creatures resonate more with 19th-century European illustrations than the cutesy children’s characters popular in Sendak’s day.
In a 1969 installment of his Ladies’ Home Journal parenting column, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim speculated that Where the Wild Things Are might disturb children. Although he hadn’t read it, the autism specialist claimed youngsters could be frightened by the mother’s withholding of food (even though dinner—still hot—is eventually served). Maurice Sendak later remembered the censure Bettelheim (whom he called “Beno Brutalheim”) and others brought against his book: “I was severely condemned by librarians and psychologists. [After Wild Things] all of a sudden I got demented…. The wild things were seen as nightmare provoking. One critic wrote, ‘Do not leave this book in a child’s room!’”
Children’s literature historian Leonard Marcus has called Wild Things revolutionary in its approach to parent-child relationships, as it draws more from psychoanalysis than from fairy-tale moralizing. He says, “Having a story about a small child throwing a tantrum for the benefit of his mother was not a story you were going to find in children’s literature before the 1960s, because children weren’t supposed to yell at their mothers. The idea that children experience rage and that it’s a natural part of their psyche was a new idea to children’s picture books.”
The dustup over the age appropriateness of Where the Wild Things Are was not Maurice Sendak’s last brush with censorship. After its publication in 1970, Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen offended some readers with the illustrations of its main character, a young boy named Mickey, who cavorts in detailed nudity throughout the book’s pages. Sendak later explained,
After Where the Wild Things Are, I published In the Night Kitchen, which was a scandal. It was banned from libraries, and people were shocked because the little boy had a penis—and gee whiz, I thought everyone knew that. Imagine that being a surprise. Apparently, there had never been frontal male nudity ever in a children’s book, and I didn’t know that. I didn’t think anything that stupid would be a big deal. But it was a big deal, and it worried me a lot because kids are just learning about their bodies and adjusting to their bodies. Banning the book or covering [Mickey] with a little jock-strappy thing only tells the kids that there is something wrong with the most natural thing in the world, your own human body.
Where the Wild Things Are initially met with considerable suspicion from parents and librarians, who were concerned that its surreal, grotesque characters might frighten children, but in 1964 the book was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal. Within two years it was flying off bookstore shelves. Demonstrating how far it has come, President Barack Obama read it aloud for a group of children celebrating his first Easter in office. He called it “one of my favorite books.”
In the Night Kitchen has courted controversy for depictions of nudity since its release, but despite ranking 25th on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000, it has received several awards, including a 1971 Caldecott Honor. In the three years before its publication, Maurice Sendak suffered a heart attack and the death of his parents and dog. He called the book, about a boy who is nearly baked alive in a cake, his “victory over death.”
Sendak likened Wild Things and Night Kitchen to his Outside Over There (1981), calling them “variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings—anger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy—and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.”
The works of Maurice Sendak and celebrated comics artist Art Spiegelman—best known for Maus (1991), his Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel about the Holocaust—share a profound acknowledgment of the darker elements of human existence. Exhibition text for the 2005 retrospective of Sendak’s illustrations at New York’s Jewish Museum explained, “[Sendak’s] work reverberates on multiple levels, informed by memories ‘lived and not lived’ from Brooklyn and the Old Country, and by Germanic culture embodied by the Grimm Brothers and Mozart, which the artist has embraced in an attempt to work through the trauma of the Holocaust, during which many members of Sendak’s family were lost.” Spiegelman’s books are similarly driven by personal history and the traumas passed down from his parents’ experience in the Holocaust. Spiegelman has offered a metaphor about his creative process: “At best, it’s the way a pearl gets made in an oyster—you deal with this piece of grit that’s an irritant and try to make something of it.” The two men use their art to delve into and consequently lift themselves out of the horrors their ancestors and many others could not escape.
A German collection of cautionary tales about “naughty” children, Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter (translated as Slovenly Peter and Shockheaded Peter) was the Where the Wild Things Are of its day. Both Hoffmann and Maurice Sendak capture a chaotic, violent aspect of childhood that readers find shocking and alluring. Sendak said of Struwwelpeter, “Graphically, it is one of the most beautiful books in the world.”
In Struwwelpeter, children are cruelly punished for minor misbehaviors—sucking their thumbs, playing with matches or not clipping their nails—by being burned to dust, bitten by dogs and other such horrors. “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb” describes a child’s thumbs being snipped off by the “great, long, red-legg’d scissor-man” with terrifying swiftness and finality. His mother cold-bloodedly comments, “I knew he’d come / To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.” Sendak, however, teaches his misbehaving protagonist, Max, a personal lesson, using noncorporeal punishment. Max plays out his bad behavior and learns to control his anger (represented by the wild things). After his mother banishes him to the “jungle” of his room, this boy returns safely home to eat supper. With this reward for taming his inner beasts, Max learns love is unconditional—and so do we.
Children being punished are great fodder for musical theater. Punk-cabaret trio the Tiger Lillies composed and performed music and narration for a macabre Struwwelpeter adaptation using actors and puppets. The show, called Shockheaded Peter, won the 2002 Olivier Award for best entertainment and enjoyed a lengthy run in New York. Songwriter Martyn Jacques commented, “Obviously Shockheaded Peter is really dark and disturbing, but kids like to be frightened…. They see this rather mischievous or misbehaving naughty monster or whatever on the stage and it’s got a sort of childlike feel to it. Adults behaving badly—children are quite attracted to that.”
An operatic Where the Wild Things Are premiered in 1980 in Brussels but was, as Opera Quarterly judged, “something of a failure.” The Glyndebourne Touring Opera debuted a revised version by Oliver Knussen in 1984 that met with immediate success. Maurice Sendak wrote the libretto and later designed sets for several other operas. Brian Dickie, a former collaborator of Sendak’s and general director of the Chicago Opera Theater, recalled that Sendak’s passion for music was “absolutely total,” noting, “It was inevitable that he would be drawn at a certain point to opera.”