“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him ‘WILD THING!’ and Max said, ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything.”
(From “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak.)
I like chaotic, noisy children’s books. When I read Sendak’s book to my children, I would roar terrible roars, gnash my terrible teeth, roll my terrible eyes and show my terrible claws, just like the monsters in the book. But when Max said, “Be still!” I was. The book makes great theater, the message straightforward. The monsters symbolize Max’s temper tantrums and anger at his mother. Controlling the monsters enabled Max to return home to his mother’s love and a supper which “was still hot.”
The book is considered a classic. But it wasn’t always so.
Some editors wouldn’t publish the book because it was too dark and frightening. Once published, it was banned in some places. Critics cited the nightmarishly grotesque monsters. Others, including Bruno Bettelheim, a famous psychologist, thought the idea of sending a child to bed without supper was psychologically damaging to young children. Bettelheim later admitted he hadn’t read the book, only relied on descriptions of the book from objecting parents.
Sendak’s childhood was fearful. He was the unwanted third child in a poor family. He suffered from frequent illnesses. He was aware that many of his relatives died in the Holocaust. He had numerous other terrors: the Depression, World War II and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby which deeply affected him as a three-year-old. He got in trouble in school because he retold his father’s racy, embellished versions of Torah stories. And Maurice was also gay, a fact he hid.
Sendak based his books on his experiences. Influenced by books, art, Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney’s film Fantasia, Sendak decided to become an illustrator. He modeled his monsters after relatives who hovered over his sickbed, convinced he was dying. The babies he drew looked like him as a baby. His stories are filled with longing, rage and primal fears, the things he knew well.
It took almost two years before teachers, librarians and parents realized that most children loved Sendak’s book. Today it is a world-wide best seller, a classic, no longer banned.