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Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things AreHere’s our very first post for the books my students will be reading this semester. Our first class is Thursday night, Feb. 27, and they’re all supposed to discuss one of the readings for the week in the comments  I am hoping the rest of you will comment and discuss, too, since that would make our discussions much richer.

It’s rare to find any students who have never read Where the Wild Things Are, but a fresh look after many years tends to reveal more. And reading this book as teachers brings up the question about protagonists who do not model good behavior. What do you do with that?

Note: there will be two other posts for this week’s readings. One on Mirror by Jeannie Baker and one on three articles from our March 1998 special issue on picture books. You can find the others by clicking on the tag link below: “Feb 27 2014 readings.”

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Stacey-Ann M. says:

    I will confess that this was my first time reading this book. After noticing that I was carrying it around for a few days, one of my friends pointed out that it was her favorite book as a child. At that time, I didn’t bother asking her why. I figured by the cover page illustration, and Caldecott Medallist award, it would be self explanatory. As a first time reader, I found it quite captivating – especially the illustrations. However, I will admit that my initial read was filled with questions. Max telling his mother, “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” to him being disciplined with no dinner, it seemed at first, an unusual storyline. Initially, it seemed that Max wasn’t an exemplary protagonist. He was chasing after a dog with a fork, while dressed up in a wolf suit and causing mischief around the house. At first glance, I wondered about the comment above. Was he modeling good behavior?

    However, after the 2nd read I was realizing Max’s limitless and wild imagination when he transforms his room into a forest and wild beasts. Though he starts off the book with a “wild” side, in his room he learns to calm and tame other “wild beasts”, and realizes that he is lonely, and returns “home” to find his mother’s unconditional love (“…and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.”) I think a young reader can identify with the protagonist, especially after Max is sent to his room and feels like his mother does not care for him. Every child has been disciplined. Through the power of his imagination, he realizes that there is no place like home, which I think is the big takeaway from this book. At first glance it may seem that Max is not modeling good behavior. However, Maurice Sendak beautifully depicts the power of imagination for children to escape problems. I love the way that Max was able to channel his emotions into a positive way and calm down, and realizes that all the power in the world cannot separate himself from his mother’s love.

  2. Sara Ralph says:

    We all make mistakes, even adults. I think Where the Wild Things Are shows an example of how to process overwhelming feelings, anger in Max’s case. Creating an imaginary world where he was in control helped him work through his anger. The story also shows students that there is redemption. At the end of the story, Max returns to his world, with his hot dinner waiting for him. One of my kindergarten child’s favorite books (she reads it to me every single day without fail) is No, David by David Shannon. It also shows a child displaying poor behavior choices. His mother calls him down on every page of the book, but at the end, she hugs him and tells him she loves him. Who wants to read about perfect children who never make mistakes? How boring. These books not only entertain children, but present a message that is not overly didactic and true to the childhood experience.

  3. This is of course of of the great classics of children’s literature by one of the most creative and original talents who has ever taken up the form. He is also the most awarded and celebrated illustrator, and this book is arguably the most famous and beloved Caldecott Medal winner of all time. In response to your query Lolly, I’d say that kids (and the literature that has been written fro them) has changed drastically since this book was published in 1964. Heck, even Sendak left the box with even more controversy with both IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN and OUTSIDE OVER THERE, which came later. When WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE first released it was understandably ground-breaking. Now when you read this book -and I do every year- it is relatively tame, though as ever its an unforgettable adventure kids always love taking. When you think of something like Eve Bunting and David Diaz’s SMOKY NIGHT, you can look at Sendak’s work as a fantasy light-weight, though it did change the course of children’s literature, opening the gates to far more subversive fare.

  4. Carli Spina says:

    As someone who hadn’t read Where the Wild Things Are before, I think what struck me is the way that Sendak shows Max not only working through his anger in his imagination as Sara points out, but also coming to understand his mother’s point of view in his imaginary world. As a child, he naturally resists control, at least at times, but when he is the king of the wild things, you can see him employing the same techniques that his mother does, exerting control over the wild things to tame them and then sending them to bed without dinner as well. I liked how his time in his imaginary world changed his perspective and made him realize a bit more about his mother’s viewpoint and made him want to return to her love.

  5. AnneMarie M. says:

    I’ve read Where The Wild Things Are many times as a child and teacher, and looking through it with the lens of a graduate student, I still find it rather dark. While I greatly admire Sendak’s writing and illustration skills, I have always been unsettled with the mother’s sending Max to bed without supper, Max’s decision to leave his home (even if just in his imagination), his abandonment of the wild things, and the mother’s seemingly random decision to give Max dinner at the end of the book (not that he should not eat, of course!). My concerns do not come from Max modeling bad behavior – but rather from Max not appearing to learn any lessons. I also find his mother’s actions cold, but maybe this is an echo from my childhood experiences reading the book. However, I really appreciate the unique viewpoints posted earlier: that Max can be thought of as using his imagination to regulate his emotions, that children might relate to feeling lonely or temporarily unappreciated by their families, and that Max realizes how much he misses home and his mother. These are fresh interpretations of the story to me, and it can help settle some of the discomfort I feel concerning this book. I still would recommend this book to teachers and read it to my own future children, but I am biased in that I would try to frame the interpretation of the book in way that felt appropriate and, frankly, more pleasant to me.

  6. Zohra Manjee says:

    I remember reading this book as a young child but was not very captivated by it. However, after reading it again, with a different perspective, there are several things that I appreciate about the book. First, the illustrations do an excellent job of capturing feeling and emotion, particularly through Max’s facial expressions. This alone can be a topic of conversation with young children to explore how we experience and express our emotions. Second, the power of Max’s imagination to transform his reality is central. I hadn’t thought about this in context as his way of calming down as Stacey-Ann mentioned, but agree with this analysis. Specifically, I like the concept of him going to the place “where the wild things are” and then becoming the “king of wild things”. I think this can be interpreted in at least two ways, where he becomes the “king” of his emotions and behavior or where he realizes that those things that may be wild are not as wild in comparison to himself. Third, I appreciated the idea of family and unconditional love as a constant safe haven that will be there even when you choose to be on the wild side for a while. Overall, I think this book does a great job of exploring how a young child begins to navigate the challenges of growing up by balancing autonomy (imagination, travelling alone) with responsibility (being the king, coming back home).

  7. Ashley Szofer says:

    I have to agree with Sara’s interpretation of the book. As a child, I loved the illustrations and I think related to Max in the way he creates a fictional world for himself when things do not go his way in the real one (although I was never much of a mischief maker, I had a very intense world where I was a foreign princess battling pirates (and never waiting for prince charming to do so for me) and saving the world from evil). I think it represents a healthy way for a child to deal with behavior, anger, and discipline.

    To Anna Marie’s point, I think the notion of going to bed without dinner speaks to the fact that this book was written in 1963, when I believe this was a common discipline mechanism. While it is probably much less common now, i feel like it’s something that comes up a lot in literature/movies/tv shows from this time period. Therefore, I would not say that the mother was neglectful or cruel (especially considering she did not ACTUALLY let him go to bed hungry), but she was just using a form of discipline she understood.

    What Max really realizes is that while his imaginary world may be comfortable and fun for a while, it’s not the same as being in a truly loving environment, and thus comes to terms with the fact that the real world is better, that he is loved, and maybe DOES therefore learn his lesson. At least for the night. I think there are a lot of lessons that could be taught here about maintaining anger, and realizing where one is really most comfortable and loved.

  8. “Where The Wild Things Are” remains a beautifully illustrated book with iconic characters. I remembering reading this book growing up, but after reviewing the comments, I re-read the book with a more critical eye…maybe a little too critical? 🙂

    Max is disciplined for being mean–nailing things into the wall and chasing after the pets–and is sent to his room without dinner. Instead of reflecting on his actions, he imagines going to a magical place, and proceeds to boss the monsters around and be mean to them. After some time, he gets homesick and decides to go home, without recognizing or learning that being mean is wrong. When he gets home, a dinner is waiting for him…and it’s still warm.

    What is the lesson here: That being mean is rewarded? As an adult, I was hoping that Max and his mother would have had a conversation and apologized to one another–Max for being mean, and his mom for what seemed like a cruel punishment. Instead, no words are exchanged and Max is seemingly rewarded for his actions.

  9. Norah Rivera says:

    This was actually my first time reading “Where the Wild Things Are,” and I truly loved the book. I actually looked up the book and found out that it was banned when it was first published. However, children really identified with the book, and the ban was eventually lifted. As some people have pointed out, some of the initial controversy surrounding this book may have to do with its portrayal of mischief and disobedience. However, I think that this timeless book continues to speak to children because it really appeals to their love of fantasy, of engaging in “make believe” situations, as well as their vulnerability and their need to feel protected and loved. Like Max, I think that most (if not all) children go through stages of rebellion against their parents. Childhood is very much a stage of discovery, and children are often drawn to discover worlds beyond their home. However, they also need their home and their parents. I think that the way in which the book reflects this contradiction is what largely appeals to children.

  10. Kathleen Zheng says:

    Reading this story again helped me realized three new aspects that I had not noticed before.

    There is a lesson learned for Max, who was so mean that he outperformed the wild things and was made “king of all wild things.” But he soon grew lonely in his meanness in this no-rules place with his mean companions, and the desire to return to a place of familiar comfort came from within him. So, in this way, Max does show signs of learning a lesson and wanting to change.

    Next, there is also a lesson on parental love and forgiveness. Even though his mother was upset that Max “made mischief,” she still made sure that he didn’t go hungry for the night.

    Lastly, there is the power of imagination, which fuels his entire adventure with the wild things and his return back home. It shows readers that imagination can take you very far, but it also cautions that sometimes allowing yourself too much freedom in imagination (as when Max put on his wolf suit and started misbehaving like a wild creature) can lead to undesirable consequences if you act out of line. The conclusion, where Max finds a hot meal from his mother waiting for him, is comforting for readers because it is a return to the familiar and good where there are rules in place.

  11. Luisa Sparrow says:

    This book was very familiar to me, as I read it many times as a child. Although I remember my friends loving it, it was not one of my favorites. Probably because I was such a stickler for the rules, Max’s actions really bugged me (in other news, my rules-following bugged everyone else). More than a few years later, I’m still not crazy about it. The fantasy aspect of the book is fun and interesting, but I’m having a hard time finding the book’s message. While I would definitely include it in my classroom library, I’m not sure I would use it as a large group read-aloud. I’m not opposed to using texts with main characters who “misbehave,” I like them to learn some sort of lesson if it’s going to be a text I’ll read aloud to my entire class. I wish I felt differently about the book since it’s such a classic, and I naturally gravitate towards banned books, so I would love to be convinced otherwise!

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