Happy Birthday Maurice Sendak! It was a sad day when the world lost him last year, yet we know his stories will live on. So, in honour of his birthday, I am reviewing my favourite book of his, Where the Wild Things Are.
Maurice Sendak was born in 1928, the same year as Mickey Mouse, and he had an interesting life. His extended family were killed in the Holocaust which naturally exposed him to concepts of mortality and death, and he had health problems as a child. It was these health problems which confined him to his bed that developed his love of reading, and it was watching Disney’s Fantasia that made him want to be an illustrator (who wouldn’t that film was phenomenal).
His first illustrations were published in a textbook called Atomics for the Millions and he spent a lot of time illustrating other people’s works before beginning to write his own. He is quoted as saying “My gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart”; but there were many other sources of inspiration from painters, musicians, authors, and a key influence was his own father and the stories he told him.
The impact of Sendak is clear when you look at what people said about him when he died last year. The New York Times called Sendak “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century.”
Darling Neil Gaiman said “He was unique, grumpy, brilliant, gay, wise, magical and made the world better by creating art in it.” And even the delightful Stephen Colbert said that “We are all honoured to have been briefly invited into his world.” I wholeheartedly agree with them all. He did have other books, his final book, Bumble-Ardy, was published eight months before he died, and there was a posthumous picture book, titled My Brother’s Book, published in February 2013, 50 years after Where the Wild Things Are. It is hard sometimes to remember there are more books out there when Where the Wild Things Are is so loved and cherished.
Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are in 1963 and from a rocky and critically negative start it has grown to be one of the most beloved stories of all time. Author Francis Spufford said that the book is “one of the very few picture books to make an entirely deliberate and beautiful use of the psychoanalytic story of anger”, and I think this is entirely true, part of what makes it wonderful.
I am not sure how many of you have read Where the Wild Things Are, and it is a fairly short book so I probably will be giving a variation of a spoiler so here it is, the spoilers warning just in case because there is not a lot to cover. But even so, you should read the book regardless of me spoiling it a smidge.
One night Max puts on his wolf suit and makes mischief of one kind and another, so his mother calls him ‘Wild Thing’ and sends him to bed without his supper. That night a forest begins to grow in Max’s room and an ocean rushes by with a boat to take Max to the place where the wild things are.
As a kid, I adored Where the Wild Things Are and I still do. I think everyone needs to read it at some point in their life (I am not telling you not to watch the 2009 film but…I am not 100% convinced about that yet, it made me slightly ill at ease and a bit grumpy when I watched it but I can see what they were doing. It looked nice, that’s something). The book had been adapted several times before the movie, including an animated short in 1974 (with an updated version in 1988) and a 1980 opera.
Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of Max, a boy who puts on his wolf suit and gets into mischief. He was a Wild Thing and so he goes and joins the other Wild Things, sailing away in a private boat until he reaches the land of the Wild Things where his many adventures can begin.
The absolute best bit I think is the ending, and all of it, and really what this whole story is. Sendak shows us the story of Max, but while it looks like we are looking from the outside, it is actually Max who is telling us this story, it is all from Max’s point of view. We see him take control of these Wild Things, he rules them, sends them to bed without supper, he becomes the one in charge. I certainly do not want to be psychologically breaking down this story because that is the first step to ruining something wonderful, but as clear as it is, it shows you the power of Max’s mind, and what is entirely possible if given half the chance.
We need to take a moment to mention the pictures, Sendak did the pictures himself and they are stunning. They are displayed filled with colour, but have a dark mystical element as well. There are pictures that sit on white pages, there are pictures that sit above text strips, and there are wonderful full page and two page illustrations that require no words at all; truly beautiful.
These images, as a lot of children’s illustrated books do, support the story, and tell the story so limited words are needed. There is an argument in the scholarly world that illustrations lead children’s minds and makes them unable to create images on their own but I think there are exceptions, this is one. You can still use the images Sendak gives you to create a fuller story, you can imagine the dancing and the sailing and everything, the illustrations are your starting point.
This is a beautiful book and a great story that lets you enter the world of the Wild Things; and if Max’ mischief isn’t enough fun, than the majesty that Sendak puts into the Wild Things through image alone is pretty darn amazing, I always wanted one based on those illustrations alone. A truly amazing story, by a truly wonderful person, author, and illustrator who wrote and illustrated many more books you should check out, and I think you should all experience Where the Wild Things Are if you haven’t.
Maurice Sendak Goodies
1983 Disney CG Animation of Where the Wild Things Are – it ends abruptly and seemingly in the middle but it is still rather cool