A Book Summary of “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak

A Book Summary of “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak

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  1. Maurice Sendak’s 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are, relates the story of Max, an angry, wild child, who is sent to his room without supper for his wild antics.  The book is intended for kids ages 3-6, and was one of the first childrens’ books to attempt to deal upfront with the strong emotions children experience.  While the book was initially panned by critics and held out of many public libraries when first published, it became a popular book with children, who strongly identified with the protagonist, Max, and his angry tantrum.  Within a year, childrens’ response to the book thawed adults’ initial reactions, and the book was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1964.  It has remained a classic in the genre of childrens’ books ever since, and remained one of Sendak’s most popular titles.  It was turned into an animated cartoon in 1973, an opera (composed by Oliver Knussen) in 1980, and a feature film (directed by Spike Jonze) in 2009.  

    The book opens with Max, in his wolf costume, building a fort in his room with a blanket and chasing the family dog down the stairs.  His mother calls him “WILD THING,” to which Max replies, “I’ll eat you up!”  Max’s mother doesn’t take kindly to this, and sends him to his room without supper.  Max, angry, begins his journey to full tantrum while watching his room transform into a dark forest.  Finally, the walls of Max’s room disappear, and he travels by private boat across the ocean to “where the wild things are.”  The wild things, which represent Max’s anger, roar and gnash their teeth.  Max sits in his boat, unimpressed.  He tells the wild things to “BE STILL!” and stares into their eyes, taking control and frightening the creatures.  The wild things proclaim Max the “most wild thing of all,” making him the king of all wild things.  Max takes his tantrum to its fullest, leading the creatures through 6 full pages of a wild rumpus, for which the art leaves no room on the page for additional words.  “Now stop!” orders Max, and he sends the wild things to bed without THEIR supper.  Max is lonely, and smells his own dinner.  He gives up being king, and jumps into his private boat.  The wild things threaten to eat HIM up, just as he had done to his mother, but Max refuses to let his anger consume him, and sails across the ocean, back to his room.  Upon returning, Max finds his dinner, still hot.  

    The story is written not one page at a time, but two, so that the left and right page together make a single scene in the story.  At first, the text appears on the left page, while the art is drawn on the right page, in an increasingly larger box.  As Max’s room transforms into the forest, the art nearly takes up the entire first page, until the transformation is complete, and the art leaves no margins.  When Max jumps into his private boat, the art creeps on to the left page, and continues to do so until he arrives in the land of the wild things, with art now occupying the entire width of both the left and right pages.  The text runs in white space on the bottom of each page, until the wild rumpus, for which the art occupys the entire left and right pages over the next 3 scenes (6 pages).  Finally, when Max has had enough and tells the wild things to stop, the art begins to recede the way it had grown – first by adding the white space across the bottoms of the pages, then by shrinking the art across to the right, starting with Max’s journey home by boat (where the art only occupys part of the left page).  When Max arrives back in his room, the art is drawn only on the right page, and finally, as the book wraps up with the line, “and it was still hot,” there is NO artwork on either the left or right page.  The presence and size of art seems to represent the presence and magnitude of Max’s anger, which builds to its peak at the wild rumpus, then completely disappears by the end of the book.  

    The art is drawn in pen and watercolor, using mostly a very dark color palette (dark browns, greens, purples, and blues), representative of Max’s dark mood (the story also takes place at night).  Profoundly influenced by early illustrators George Cruikshank and Wilhelm Busch, Sendak’s cross-hatch technique for shading, a device he often employed in his early work, appears throughout the book.  The wild things themselves were modeled after Sendak’s own aunts and uncles, who invaded his home every week when he was a boy and ate all the food (they also became part of the inspiration for Jim Henson’s hairy monster Muppets, as first employed on Sesame Street).  

    Supper, or specifically, the giving or withholding of supper, represents a bond between characters and control of a relationship.  Of course, when Max misbehaves, his mother takes control by sending him to his room without his supper (after Max tried to take control by threatening to eat her up).  Max similarly takes control over his anger by sending the wild things to bed without supper after the wild rumpus (the wild things also try to retake control by threatening to eat Max, as Max is leaving).  Finally, when Max has calmed down and returns to his room, he finds his supper, “still hot.”  Max’s mother still loves him, despite his outburst.  

    Where the Wild Things Are is now nearly 50 years old, enjoyed by multiple generations of children.  It stands out now as much as it did when first published, a testament to its unique style and the staying power of its universal message.  This was one of my favorite books when I was a child, and today, my own children love this book just as much as I did. 


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