The Genius Of Maurice Sendak

Critics panned it. Psychologists said it was “too dark.” So why are we wild about “Where the Wild Things Are”?

Janice Harayda

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A Wild Thing Sleeps on the cover of “Where the Wild Things Are”

This is the first in a series of posts about classic books and stories for adults or children that will appear here along with those on other literary topics.

Where the Wild Things Are is so popular today that few people may realize how revolutionary it was when it first appeared in 1963. 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 as Picasso had done 1907, and his defiance of them still reverberates.

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. 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 with its 338 words and pen-and-ink and watercolor art, Where the Wild Things Are put its own stamp on picture books. Sendak tells its story in both words and pictures until Max travels to an imaginary realm and orders a “wild rumpus” to begin 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.

Other aspects of the book were as unusual as the narrative technique. Where the Wild Things Are was the first great picture book to take as its subject — and to dramatize — the interior life of a child. The cover shows a sleeping “wild thing,” not Max, for a reason: The book is 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.

The last five words of the story — among the most famous in picture books — come when, back in his room, Max finds his supper waiting for him “and it was still hot.” Had Sendak had less…

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Janice Harayda

Critic, novelist, award-winning journalist. Former book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Words in NYT, WSJ, and other major media.