ANALYSIS OF A PICTURE BOOK WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE Written and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak Picture books can have a very important role in a classroom, from elementary school through middle and even high school. They offer a valuable literary experience by combining the visual and the text. Maurice Sendak’s Caldecott Award winning book, Where the Wild Things Are, is a wonderful blend of detailed illustrations and text in which a young boy, Max, lets his angry emotions create a fantasy world.
Many fantasy books open with “Once upon a time…” Sendak, instead opens this book with the declarative statement, “The night Max wore his wolf suit…” In starting the story this way, he makes the reader believe what is going to happen. The book opens with Max, in his wolf suit, creating havoc in his home. There is both pictorial and textual foreshadowing of the wild adventure ahead—the drawing of a “wild thing” on the wall that looks exactly like a monster we meet later in the book, the stool and tent that Max later sits in when he realizes he is lonely and wants to return home, and Max’s words, “I’ll eat you up! This would be a great discussion starter with older students relative to the literary device of foreshadowing. After reading the story, one activity could be to make up other examples of foreshadowing that the author could have used. In the opening scenes, Max’s mother gets angry and yells at him. He then yells back and is sent to his room without supper. At this time, Max’s world is small and the illustrations occupy a small space on the page. His room is then transformed into a magical forest. As the forest grows, so do the illustrations.
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As Max sets off in his very own boat, the illustrations grow bigger yet. The sizes of the illustrations grow until the picture occupies the full page and then even spreads onto the next page. The pictures advance down the page until they have taken over the entire two-page spread, forcing off all text, when the “wild rumpus” begins. One suggestion I came across during my research was to take apart a paperback version of the book and arrange the illustrations storyboard style so that the growth and shrinking of the illustrations is much more obvious.
When Max arrives in the land of wild things, the features of the monsters at first glance might seem scary and overpowering. The creatures are large and have sharp horns, claws, and teeth. However, upon closer examination, other details are noticed that make the wild things seem much more agreeable. The wild things are all smiling and one of the wild things actually has “human” feet and another has female human hair. The text also emphasizes the creatures’ agreeable nature when Max stares into their yellow eyes without blinking and tells them to “BE STILL! They become frightened and make Max the king of all wild things. Their deference to Max is apparent in the illustrations—bowing, eyes gazing downward or closed, submissive posture. Max now has complete control and declares “let the wild rumpus start! ” The wild things are obeying the commands of a child, just as Max had obeyed the commands of his mother when he was sent to bed without any supper. The book’s climax on the next few pages is exemplified by the use of full-page illustrations, without text, of Max and the wild things celebrating their “wildness” together.
An activity for younger children could be to create their own “wild thing” mask or paper bag puppets using paper, scissors, yarn, eyes, etc. After the wild rumpus, Max sends the creatures off to bed and the monsters are shown sleeping with peaceful smiles on their faces. Both the pictures and the text suggest that Max has complete control over the wild things. Max, however, is sitting on a stool in a tent. It is evident from the text that he realizes that his adventure with the wild things is over and it is time for him to go back home to where someone loves him most of all.
He “smelled the good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the wild things are. ” At this point, the illustrations, and Max’s world, begin to grow smaller. He returns to his room, however, it is not as small as it was at the beginning of the book. When he returns to the comfort of his own room, his supper is waiting for him, still hot. This indicates to the reader that the adventure may have taken place in only a moment or two, contrary to Max’s words that he “sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year…” This is one illustration where time and distance are mixed up.
Another example of this is the moon in the illustrations as it goes through different phases throughout the book, starting out as a waning crescent and growing to a full moon. It is unclear what the moon represents…it could be an indication of the time the journey took. Or, it could represent the fact that Max has grown and become “enlightened” on his journey; he sees his world as a better place at the end of the book. When the book was published in 1963, Sendak’s illustrations were unlike many others of the time.
He used tiny ink lines to show the hairs on the wild things and cross-hatching to show whether things were close up or far back. His use of pen and ink illustrations in muted colors create a balance between the humorous and scary, which reflects Max’s imagination and his anger. Discussion of the illustrations could lead to an activity in which Sendak’s illustrations are compared with those in other picture books. Much of the illustration is focused on the wild things, but the text emphasizes Max’s role as the focus of the story.
Max is very much in control of and enjoying his fantasy throughout the book. Children can relate to Max as they are reading when they see that Max is not afraid of the wild things, so they do not have to be scared. Max was also able to choose to go home when he wanted, which should also be of comfort to children. One thing that makes this book so forceful is the theme that children can master various feelings, such as danger, boredom, fear, frustration, and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.
Max was able to realize that the anger he was feeling was separating him from the people who love him. These real-life connections can lead to a group discussion or can be the basis for a writing assignment that asks whether students have ever had similar feelings and what they did to confront those feelings. When this book was first published, the monsters were considered to be much too frightening for children. In addition, some people were upset because Max does some bad things and then ends up having a great time. There are no consequences for his misbehavior.
Some librarians refused to buy the book for their collections. Protest groups were organized by some associations. Learning about this book’s history could lead to discussions about censorship, especially with older children. Where the Wild Things Are is an extraordinary book. The story is appealing because of the conflict that exists between Max and his mother as well as his own angry feelings. The balance between Sendak’s illustrations and the text move the story along effortlessly. The theme, conflict, and characters are ones with which children of all ages can identify.