I’m just going to say it: I’m in my thirties and I love children’s books. Whenever one of those book memes pops up about your favorite books or books that made a lasting impression or whatever, one book that is always on my list is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It was my favorite book from the instant wee little me discovered it in the library, and I will never stop loving it, or marveling at it. I think it’s perfect.
Children’s books, from picture books up to middle grade, have plenty to teach us as grown-up readers and writers. The storytelling tools and emotions evoked by the great ones are often stronger than those in “serious, adult novels.” (I am pro serious, adult novels, for the record.) Where the Wild Things Are is a master class in doing more with less. The whole of the text is ten sentences. Ten! Sure, in picture books the illustrations do a lot of the heavy lifting, but if you really think about it, the whole story is right there in those ten sentences. I know you have a copy, go read it. I’ll wait.
See what I mean? Max is a little jerk, gets sent to his room without supper, wanders off into imagination land where he is king of the the wild things, realizes it’s lonely there and he wants to be loved, returns to his real life and discovers he is quite loved, as evidenced by the hot supper he finds waiting for him. The illustrations and the pacing of the story turn it into an epic journey, of course, but it’s all there in the words. Sendak chooses his words with a beautiful economy and spaces them out to allow the story to breathe and the reader’s imagination to dance. A page might contain three words, no words, or two full sentences, depending on what he wants you to be thinking and feeling. The beginning, with Max in his wolf suit making mischief “of one kind / and another” has just two illustrations of Max acting up, but by putting “and another” alone on a page, Sendak invites you (or perhaps tricks you) to fill in his blanks with more havoc being wreaked.
Another thing I adore is the way he handles the repetition oft-used in books for very young readers. He uses lines about Max sailing and about the wild things gnashing their teeth to build up to this high fantasy world, then reverses it to descend back into reality. Max sails “through a night and a day / and in and out of weeks / and almost over a year” to get to the wild things, then when he leaves, he goes “back over a year / and in and out of weeks / and through a day / and into the night” to find himself back in his bedroom. When he first arrives where the wild things are, they gnash their “terrible teeth” and “terrible claws” to appear frightening to him. When he leaves, the same words are repeated, this time because they are sad to lose their beloved king.
The phrase “I’ll eat you up!” also appears twice. When Max shouts it at his mother, it’s the final straw that results in him sent to his room. When he decides to leave the wild things, he becomes the one who is threatened by his unruly children. The reversal there is a nice touch, a flourish on the whole idea of Max realizing that being in charge of wild things like himself is lonely, hard work. In fact, the only words Sendak shows Max saying to them are “BE STILL”; “Let the wild rumpus start!”; “Now stop!”; and “No!” He sends them to bed without supper and we see him sad and lonely, perhaps overwhelmed with responsibility. Realizing he had it pretty good at home with mom, he sails off across his ocean, back to his room, which is no longer a forest.
It is impossible to discuss this book without mentioning the illustrations and the subtle brilliance therein. Not even within the iconic pictures themselves, but in the way they, too, build and descend with the story arc. The first picture of Max in his wolf suit is only about a third of a page. The one of the next page is a little larger, the next larger, and so on. Just as the forest in Max’s room grew and grew, so do the illustrations. When his bedroom morphs into to full forest, the illustration bleeds off the page. Then, they begin creeping over the center onto the right-hand pages, too. The middle, “wild rumpus” pages are full-bleed double page spreads — no white space, no words. After that, the illustrations begin a slow recession until the very last one, which is only one page. The final page of the book contains only the words “and it was still hot,” granting space for the reader to absorb the full impact of Max’s mother’s forgiveness and the quiet comfort of being loved.
On the surface, Where the Wild Things Are is a relatable kids’ story about being too wild and getting in trouble, but knowing your mom still loves you. When you examine it as an adult, with all the baggage that brings, the meaning gets deeper. It’s still basically the same message though: be nice to your loved ones, because you’re no picnic either, you monster.