1 It is timeless
Where the Wild Things Are was written in 1963 but barely seems to have dated. Wolf outfits will always be in demand. Parents will always have moments where they are at the end of their tether. And some children will always behave appallingly, even to cute little dogs.
2 The text
The text is very simple, enabling it to be followed and understood by very young readers. Rumpus is a word children may not have encountered before, but phonetically it is very easy to decode and as to the meaning – just look at the pictures! Yet simple does not mean simplistic and it delves into weighty themes such as anger, the power of imagination and redemption.
3 The illustrations
Like all good picture books, the illustrations tell so much of the story, both the events and the mood. For example, why use the word ‘imperious’ when you can draw a picture like this?
4 The optical trickery
Have you ever noticed that the pictures literally grow in size throughout the book?At first the illustration of Max hammering into the wall is quite small (13.8 X 10.4 cm) with plenty of white space around it. Then throughout the next five pages they gradually expand until finally the forest has taken over and there is no white space left. It is as if his emotions are physically taking over the book.
5 The characterisation (monsters)
Look at the double spread above the words “And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!” showing five of the monsters in all their glory. I’m sure, just as everyone has a Hogwarts house and a Winnie the Pooh character they best associate with, everyone will be drawn most powerfully to one of these more than the others. For me, it’s the bird-like one second from the right. Sendak based them on the relatives who used to visit weekly. Far from looking forward to their visits, he was terrified by the way the pinched his cheeks and told him they would “eat him up”. Sound familiar?
6 The characterisation (humans)
Do you have a mental image of Max’s Mum? If you do, it is entirely your own, as she is not portrayed visually in the book. And yet she is a powerful presence.
7 The resolution
The ending is wholly satisfying as he returns from his dream/ flight of fancy to find a hot supper waiting for him. Some readers don’t like this resolution, viewing it as a cop-out, that Max is being rewarded rather than punished for his misdeeds, but it is a sign that children can handle emotional complexity. They know that he is loved and cared for, despite his temper and energy. Speaking of which…
8 The emotional intensity
The book is a wonderful depiction of child anger and the need they feel to gain some control when so many others are controlling what they can do, wear, eat and say. In the Land of the Monsters, Max is King, despite the creatures’ superior size and sharp teeth. The physicality of the ‘wild rumpus’ is what Max needs to do in order to regain his emotional balance.
9 It’s pretty short
The entire book is just 10 sentences long. I’ll just leave that with you. TEN SENTENCES! It is a model of economy.
10 The actual creation of the book is a testament to problem-solving
The original title of the book was “Where the Wild Horses Are”. There was just one problem. Sendak discovered that he was no good at drawing horses. So he played to his strengths and drew what he was good at. Would it have had the same power with horses instead of ‘things’? Somehow I doubt it – I think the creatures need to be on two legs to give them humanoid characteristics. But I love that the idea wasn’t ditched but adjusted, and probably made better in the long run.
11 It inspires people
It has had an enduring appeal and not only been made into a film, but also an opera. Many people choose it as their favourite picture book, including Barack Obama (if you want to see him reading it, click here). It frequently features on ‘Best of’ lists for children’s books (not just picture books).The visuals are very distinctive, the name Max is very popular (including with authors – see the list here) and if you have read Matilda’s cat by Emily Gravett, some of the pictures may seem strangely familiar…
A modern masterpiece (does 1963 still count as modern? OK, 20th century masterpiece), a wonder of vocabulary, mood and the triumph over not being able to draw horses. Do you have any memories of Where the Wild Things Are from your childhood, or sharing it with your own children? I would love to hear about them!
All pictures taken by Barbara Thomas