Kids' Book Club: Where The Wild Things Are

14/05/2012 16:14 | Updated 22 May 2015

Kids' book club: Where The Wild Things Are

This week, author Maurice Sendak died at 83, and around the world, people felt genuine grief.

What exactly was it that made grown men and women feel so strongly? Well, Where The Wild Things Are, the 1963 picture-book he wrote and illustrated which made him so famous, lies deep in our collective memories of childhood. It is one of those anarchic books that enters into the reality of being a child.

It's actually quite shocking from the perspective of an adult, and in comparison to the average children's picture book. Max, the hero, is not a cutesy, 'nice' little boy. In fact, he's angry. The book starts with Max dressing up in a 'wolf suit', hammering a hole in his house's wall, then chasing his pet dog down the stairs brandishing a fork. Having threatened to eat his mother, he is sent to his room.


There, an imaginary forest grows and furious Max enters a long voyage of the mind until he finds the 'wild things' he has been seeking. Many children, understandably, find the pictures of the wild things frightening - they are grotesque monsters with sharp teeth and 'terrible eyes'.


Max becomes their king and a 'wild rumpus' starts. Like any child, his imagination is so much bigger than the safe conventional world of normality in which he is brought up. It can hold fearful things, darkness, mischief. It took a bold adult author in 1960s to accept that a child has this human capacity; this yearning for rebellion and wilderness.

The wonderful thing is that having played with the wild things, Max starts to miss some sort of order, food, and in particular, 'he wanted to be where someone loved him best of all'. So he sails back to his bedroom where, looking dazed by his adventure, he finds his supper miraculously still hot and waiting for him.


The innate order and wildness in us can coexist - and if you allow yourself to be as wild as you want, a craving for order tends to return. It's a deep allegory for the human psyche and that's why children have always connected to it and recognised it as honest


Sendak, apparently, was driven as an artist by his difficult childhood as the son of poor Jewish immigrants to Brooklyn, and the fact that his extended his family in Poland were murdered by the Nazis.

The wild things were inspired by his childhood memories of his 'crazy' cheek-pinching relatives. He told an interviewer last year: "I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bull*** of innocence."

Paving the way for children's authors who followed him like Roald Dahl, Sendak dispensed with the idea that children are angelic little cutie-pies - yet because of all the madness and disgustingness, his emphasis on love carries a far deeper moral message.

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