Where the Wild Things Are | Study Guide

Maurice Sendak

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Where the Wild Things Are | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is acknowledged to be the first picture book to depict children with strong, even negative emotions. Published in 1963, it won the prestigious Caldecott Award the following year. Reviewers at first responded with alarm, however. One review stated, "We should not like to have it left about where a sensitive child might find it to pore over in the twilight." Another noted, "Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book. Parents are very easily scared." But in fact children have loved the book ever since it was published.

Where the Wild Things Are has sold millions of copies and was made into a motion picture in 2009. The New York City Opera premiered an opera version in 1987, and the book has consistently been on many lists of the best picture books. President Barack Obama read it aloud to children during the annual White House Easter Egg Roll for several years during his presidency.

1. Sendak considered Where the Wild Things Are to be an exorcism of the fears and horrors of his childhood.

Sendak described Where the Wild Things Are as an "exorcism." Sendak's mother had emotional problems and didn't appear to love Sendak and his siblings. By presenting Max as defiant but still deserving of his mother's love (she leaves him supper in his room at the end of the story), Sendak created a mother-child relationship that he had longed to have with his own mother. Sendak was also haunted by the stories of relatives who had died in the Holocaust. By allowing Max to control the Wild Things, he creates a child who, unlike himself, has authority over the "monsters" in his life.

2. The original title of the book was Where the Wild Horses Are.

Sendak sold his first picture book idea to editor Ursula Nordstrom with the title Where the Wild Horses Are. However, as he started to work, it quickly became evident that he simply could not draw horses. Nordstrom, annoyed, asked him, "Maurice, what can you draw?" His response was that he could draw things, and those things became the Wild Things of the book.

3. The title Where the Wild Things Are refers in part to a Yiddish term that Sendak's mother used.

Sendak's mother had what he referred to as "problems emotionally and mentally." She was volatile and often chased him around their small apartment shouting that he was a "vilde chaya," which is Yiddish for "wild thing." In the book Max's mother calls Max a "wild thing," and when Max responds, "I'll eat you up!" his adventures begin.

4. Sendak based many of the Wild Things on his own frightening relatives.

In an interview, Sendak was asked where the idea for the monstrous Wild Things originated. He recalled a funeral he and his brother and sister attended as children where they saw relatives who had recently come to the United States from Europe. They found these relatives bizarre and humorous. As Sendak described them,

They were unkempt. Their teeth were horrifying ... And they'd pick you up and hug you and kiss you, "Aggghh. Oh, we could eat you up."

And we know they would eat anything, anything. And so, they're the wild things. And when I remember them, the discussion with my brother and sister, how we laughed about these people who we of course grew up to love very much, I decided to render them as the wild things, my aunts and my uncles and my cousins.

5. Sendak worked as a window dresser at the famous toy store FAO Schwarz.

When Sendak graduated from high school in 1948, he got a job working as a window dresser for FAO Schwarz in New York City. There he was introduced by the store's children's book buyer to editor Ursula Nordstrom. She hired him to illustrate French writer Marcel Aymé's picture book The Wonderful Farm (1951) and American writer Ruth Krauss's A Hole Is to Dig (1952). After that he quit the toy store job and went to work illustrating full time.

6. Famous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim denounced the book, and Sendak called him "a creep."

Sendak played up the criticism levied against Where the Wild Things Are by child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim wrote in The Ladies' Home Journal, "What [Sendak] failed to understand is the incredible fear it evokes in the child to be sent to bed without supper, and this by the first and foremost giver of food and security—his mother." However, this critique appeared in 1969, six years after the book was published. By then it had already won the Caldecott Medal, the foremost award for a picture book. Nevertheless, Sendak was infuriated by this comment and claimed that Bettelheim "did me a lot of damage at the beginning." In fact, Bettelheim admitted he had never even read the book. Thirty-six years later, in 2005, Sendak still held his grudge, referring to Bettelheim as a "creep" in an interview on NPR.

7. Sendak's parents never learned that he was gay.

Sendak became aware of his own homosexuality when he was an adult. He noted:

Finding out that I was gay when I was older was a shock and a disappointment. ... I did not want to be gay. It meant a whole different thing to me—which is really hard to recover now because that's many years ago. I always objected to it because there is a part of me that is solid Brooklyn and solid conventional, and I know that.

He never told his parents about his sexual orientation, stating, "All I wanted was to be straight, so my parents could be happy." However, he lived with his partner, psychoanalyst and writer Eugene Glynn, for 50 years.

8. Sendak was obsessed with the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's infant son.

In 1932 when Sendak was about three years old, the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped from Lindbergh's mansion in New Jersey. He remembered very clearly hearing about the kidnapping on the radio. Sendak had been very sick just before the kidnapping, and he conflated the two events in his mind, deciding that the Lindbergh baby had to live or else he himself would die. He stated:

Now, I could not bear the thought that that baby was dead. My life hung on that baby being recovered. Because if that baby died, I had no chance. I was only a poor kid, okay? I mean, it doesn't make much sense to say it. But, that's the equation.

And when the baby was found dead, I think something really fundamental died in me.

His identification with the Lindbergh baby stayed with him until 2008, when someone gave him a miniature souvenir replica of the ladder the kidnappers used. "That ended my obsession with the case," he said.

9. Sendak's first published artwork wasn't in a children's book—it was in a science textbook.

In 1947 Sendak took a high school science class from a science teacher named Hyman Ruchlis. Ruchlis was coauthor of a textbook called Atomics for the Millions. He'd seen some of Sendak's artwork, and he asked the student to illustrate the volume. For a fee of $100 and a passing grade in the course, Sendak agreed. He was 19 when it was published. Copies are now collector's items and fetch a hefty price because of the illustrator's fame.

10. Sendak chose the director for the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.

Director Spike Jonze knew Sendak for a decade before they began collaborating on the film version of Where the Wild Things Are. Jonze had originally wanted to film Harold and the Purple Crayon, another classic picture book, and Sendak was the executor of the estate of the author, Crockett Johnson. That movie was never made, but Jonze, who had idolized Sendak since his own childhood, was Sendak's choice for director on the film of his book. After their initial discussion of the film, Jonze noted:

It was like a relief, a weight off our shoulders. Driving home, I just felt like we had a wind at our backs. We went into the unknown, and it was Maurice behind us, pushing us with force in that direction.

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