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Where the Wild Things Are | Context

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Fantasy Genre

Fantasy is a literary genre in which a narrative's plot, setting, or theme contains elements of magic or the supernatural. A fantasy may feature animals that speak and behave like humans or beings with magical or supernatural powers. Some fantasies are set wholly within imaginary worlds, while others combine the real world and a mythical location. Many fantasies involve a hero's journey or quest. In both fantasy and the closely linked genre of science fiction, these journeys often start in a mundane realm. The hero then leaves his or her familiar home to face the unknown, which can be magical or scientific. In facing the unknown in the world, heroes face the unrecognized depths of their selves. When they return home from these quests, they are therefore transformed by what they have experienced. Some well-known fantasies are British playwright William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1600), English author Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726).

Sendak employs several fantasy elements in Where the Wild Things Are:

  • The narrative moves from the real world to the imaginary land of the wild things.
  • The wild things are fanciful creatures who speak, walk upright, and have some human features, such as feet.
  • Max performs a magic trick to tame the wild things.
  • Max's journey lasts more than two years—or just a few moments: his supper brought into him by his unseen mother is "still hot" when he returns.
  • Max is on a quest during which he wrestles with his feelings of frustration and rage. He eventually understands and conquers his emotions so that he may return a happier and calmer person.

The Story's Inspiration

There are clear connections between Sendak's family and his work. Sendak's father told him many stories rich in fantasy based on his own childhood in Poland. Sendak and his brother wrote and illustrated books from a very young age drawing on these motifs and inventing new ones of their own from their childhood in the poor streets of Brooklyn.

There are also more specific connections between the Sendak family and Max and his mother from Where the Wild Things Are. When Maurice Sendak was being a difficult child his mother sometimes called him vilde chaya, which in Yiddish means "wild animal." This is very close to "wild thing," a name Max's mother calls him early in the book.

Once Sendak began drawing the story's wild things, he realized he was incorporating memories of his relatives, many of whom were Polish refugees who had fled the Holocaust. He has even said the wild things reminded him of his scary aunts and uncles, physically and in their interactions with his younger self. These family members frequently appeared in his family's apartment and "loom[ed] over" him. Sendak said, "They had great big teeth, immense nostrils and very sweaty foreheads." Affectionately they would hug the young Sendak, announcing, "Aaagh, we could eat you up"—a phrase that would later be adapted for the book. Borrowing from his aunts and uncles, Sendak used an exaggerated hairstyle here, some whiskers and moles there, an odd turn of phrase as a child would, all adding to the unique character of his fantastic wild things, both super-real and fancifully distorted.

Critical Reception and Adaptations

Responses to Where the Wild Things Are were immediate and intense, but varied widely. Publishers Weekly praised the book while also issuing a caution, "The illustrations are superb. ... they may ... prove frightening, accompanied ... by a ... confusing story." Library Journal called it, "the kind of story ... many adults will question ... but [children] will accept ... without inhibition." The Cleveland Press was more positive: "Boys and girls may have to shield ... parents from this book. Parents are ... easily scared."

Many parents and child psychologists objected to the book, and it was sometimes removed from school libraries. In 1990–2009 it was one of the 25 most commonly banned books in America.

Despite speculation the book might be too harsh for young children, Where the Wild Things Are received the 1964 Caldecott Medal for the Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year. That was just the first of many awards it won, such as the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1964).

Where the Wild Things Are appears on many lists of the best or most influential picture books, and it is regularly ranked first (for example, on the School Library Journal's 2012 list of 100 greatest picture books). President Barack Obama was so fond of the book he read it to children at multiple White House Easter celebrations.

The book has been wildly successful. More than 20 million copies have been sold across the world in many languages. The book has few words and is easily translated.

Where the Wild Things Are has been adapted for the stage—as a play (2014) and as an opera. Sendak wrote the libretto, or script, for the opera, which was first performed in Brussels, Belgium, in 1980. A British production of the opera was released by the BBC in 1985. The book has also been turned into a ballet, first staged in Savannah, Georgia (1996).

In 1975 a short animated film of Where the Wild Things Are with music was produced. Many years later, American director Spike Jonze created an ambitious movie version in 2009, which blended live action with animatronics and CGI animation in a full-length film. In addition to writing the script for the Wild Things feature film, American writer Dave Eggers published a story based on the book in the New Yorker (2009).

Beyond the original picture book or stage and screen productions, Sendak's wild things can be found in many forms. For example, Sendak featured the wild things in posters he designed for a New York reading festival, the Art Institute of Chicago, and a 1979 poster proclaiming "Reading is Fun" for the International Year of the Child. Fans can buy wild thing toys, puzzles, tote bags, or clothing, including Max's wolf suit pajamas and the instantly recognizable "wild thing" faces. Whenever Sendak published a book in the last decades of his career, it was a media occasion for interviews and magazine covers. He often spoke to the press in interviews given at his country home in Connecticut filled with books, toys, and old objects, such as a collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia.

Sendak's Role in Children's Picture Books

Children's picture books date from the 19th century from the work of Randolph Caldecott (1846–86). The Caldecott Medal, given annually by the Association for Library Service to Children to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children, is named for this British artist and illustrator. Caldecott's work marked the start of the story concept in picture books, in which illustrations and text complement each other.

The genre really began to blossom in the late 19th century because of a combination of technological and social factors. Advanced printing innovations made it cheaper to publish books with colored illustrations, and at the same time, many people adopted an idealized concept of childhood as something more than a miniaturized adult state. Both factors drew talented writers and illustrators to produce specific children's books beyond the familiar fables and fairy tales from the past. In the early 20th century, new picture book series like Curious George appeared. The genre's development only temporarily stalled during World War II, as the wartime economy put paper in short supply. In the 1950s, despite new sophistication in design and artwork as many new books were written and illustrated, most children's works were fairly conservative in terms of the stories they told.

In 1963—the year Where the Wild Things Are was published—librarian Mae Durham wrote an article for The Horn Book Magazine in which she complained about the poor design and artwork in picture books. Durham, an expert in children's literature who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, looked back to Caldecott's era as the last time creators blended words and pictures in a unified and artistic fashion. She complained most illustrators weren't willing to take artistic risks and did not seem to understand the need for words and images to work together in picture books. Many picture books published in the early 1960s projected an idealized, sentimentalized and artificial innocence, where no one really takes risks or gets hurt. This is the context into which Where the Wild Things Are emerged. Sendak's editors were reluctant to publish the book as it was, because it might be "too much" for young readers who, it was thought, needed to be shielded from the world, not thrust into it.

Despite this opposition, Where the Wild Things Are fundamentally reshaped children's picture books. Sendak's editor, Ursula Nordstrom, said Wild Things was "the first American picture book for children to recognize that children have powerful emotions—anger and fear." Sendak redefined what society considered appropriate subject matter for children's picture books, introducing a new level of honesty. Before Sendak, children's books were sweet and simple, and their stories took place in ordered worlds. Sendak shattered those assumptions about children and their parents, and made it possible for later writers and artists to tackle emotionally complex themes. Critics and commentators came to use Sendak's work as a new standard by which to judge other picture books.

Sendak also revolutionized the picture book as a work of art. He did this both through his own work and through the principles he made public in essays and in speeches, like the one he delivered when he won the Caldecott Medal. Sendak called for unity of text and drawing and for a quality of vivid life in the works, so they seem to dance off the page.

Influences on Sendak's Visual Style

Influences on Sendak's distinctive style are varied and include both art and music.

American Art

When he was growing up, Sendak enjoyed comic books, and all aspects of popular culture. Disney's Fantasia and Mickey Mouse cartoons both appealed to him. Sendak employed techniques from these animated films in his own work, like using a costumed character to introduce a fantasy story—which he does with Max in Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak had studied at New York's Art Student League, an independent school run by artists. His studies and his job designing window displays both gave him direct exposure to working artists around him in the world of urban New York.

European Art

Some critics have observed Sendak's style seems more European than American and suggest the children in his stories have European faces rather than the expected idealized look of a typical American child. Sendak has described the children in his illustrations in fact as caricatures of himself, looking like him and the multitudes of different looking children around him in the city.

His artistic lineage draws on older European works rather than contemporary art. The 19th-century French painter Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel, who illustrated the French masterpiece The Fables of La Fontaine (1668), influenced Sendak. So did British illustrator and cartoonist George Cruikshank, a pioneer in creating humorous illustrations for children's books. Randolph Caldecott also influenced Sendak, who said that he "devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word" and his work signaled "the invention of the picture book."

Sendak admired 18th-century German artist Philipp Otto Runge and said Runge captured childhood's "volatility" and "vitality" in ways Sendak tried to do.

Brian O'Doherty, an Irish artist who served as an art critic for the New York Times in the 1960s, saw similarities between Sendak's work and the work of great English illustrators of the fantastic, specifically Sir John Tenniel—best known today for his illustrations of Alice in Wonderland (1865)—and Edward Lear, who is known for his nonsense poems and limericks.

Another lasting influences on Sendak was British poet and visionary artist William Blake. As a young artist, Sendak wrote about how much Blake meant to him. He later illustrated a volume of Blake's poetry, and critics see parallels between Sendak's final work and Blake's otherworldly and fantastic dreamlike watercolor paintings.

Music

Sendak normally listened to classical music while illustrating, believing it inspired his drawings. When illustrating others' works, Sendak said he tried to let their stories speak for themselves, and shaped his illustrations so they would work as "background music—music ... always in tune with the words" for those stories.

Music was so central to Sendak's view of his work that he wrote an essay on it, "The Shape of Music" (1964). In that piece he asserted children respond most readily to illustrations that "have a sense of music and dance." Sendak said some of his favorite illustrators, such as Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel and Randolph Caldecott, displayed these qualities of musicality and animation in their work. Sendak's love of music is visible in Where the Wild Things Are, especially in the wordless pages of the wild rumpus, where Max and the wild things perform a joyous, chaotic dance. In the filmed versions of the story, music—both original and classical—is played loudly and raucously.

Sendak also used music to create improvisational art. He did not start with a goal but while listening to classical music let himself draw whatever the melodies brought to mind. He called these drawings different things at different times: "fantasy sketches," "dream pictures," and "stream-of-consciousness doodles."

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