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Where the Wild Things Are

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature

Daniel Hahn

Where the Wild Things Are (1963) 

A picture book by Maurice Sendak, a world bestseller and winner of the Caldecott Medal. Max, banished to his bedroom without supper for causing havoc while wearing his wolf suit, imagines himself away to the country of the Wild Things, who make him their king; but he tires of their company, wants to be ‘where someone loved him best of all’, and goes home to his bedroom, where supper is (after all) waiting for him, ‘and it was still hot’.

The book was greeted warily on its first appearance; reviewers spoke of the story as ‘pointless and confusing’, and feared that the grotesque Wild Things, with their claws and beaks and staring eyes, would frighten children (as Sendak admitted they indeed did). In fact, however, Max is firmly in control of events throughout, and the Wild Things are docile and obedient to him, so that the book gratifies the wish for power over the unknown and horrific. Its supremacy among modern picture books was soon established, and it has been translated into many languages and sold close to twenty million copies. The British composer Oliver Knussen has made it into an opera, with a libretto by Sendak. It has also been adapted as an animated short (1974), and inspired a live-action feature film (2009); this film in turn became the novel, The Wild Things, by Dave Eggers (2009).

Sendak has remarked that, among the story’s other origins, the Wild Things owe something to the Jewish adult relatives who used to visit the Sendak home in Brooklyn when he was a child: ‘They’d lean way over with their bad teeth and hairy noses, and say something threatening like “You’re so cute I could eat you up.”’ The story took many years to reach its final form. An early version, entitled ‘Where the Wild Horses Are’, drawn in 1955, has little resemblance to the published book.