‘Where the Wild Things Are’ turns 50

November 22, 2013
(Courtesy of HarperCollins Children's Books)
(Courtesy of HarperCollins Children’s Books)

Millions of children have roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth to hear Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book one more time.

And now, after sailing through night and day, and in and out of weeks, “Where the Wild Things Are” is turning 50 on Saturday.

Sendak died last year at the age of 83, but he attained literary immortality with the colorful story of rambunctious Max, who was sent to his room without his supper. Since it was published in 1963, the book has sold 20 million copies and been translated into 32 languages.

Walter Dean Myers, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, was an adult when the book first appeared, but he notes that everybody responds to Sendak’s story. “I love ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ because the author taps into the imagination — not just a child’s imagination,” he says, “but the universal imagination that unites all writers and readers — in a way that is rarely done.  I think this book will stand up just as well in a hundred years.”

Sendak Maurice (Photo by John Dugdale. Courtesy of HarperCollins Children's Books.)
Sendak Maurice (Photo by John Dugdale. Courtesy of HarperCollins Children’s Books)

Not bad, for a story of fewer than 350 words.

As impossible as it is to imagine a world without those terrible beasts, they were born by artistic default. HarperCollins senior executive editor Toni Markiet said via e-mail that Sendak was originally working on a story called “Where the Wild Horses Are.” “But he maintained that it became very evident early on that he couldn’t draw horses,” she said. “His editor, Ursula Nordstrom, finally asked him, rather drily: ‘Well, Maurice, what can you draw?’ His answer was ‘Things — I can draw things.’ Those things then became the Wild Things which he modeled after the relatives who came to his home (all too often in his opinion) to eat and who loved to lean down and pinch his cheeks saying they could just eat him up!”

We can all relate to that, apparently.

Mary Alice Garber, the children’s books buyer at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., says, “‘Where the Wild Things Are’ continues to be a ‘must have’ classic for children. It is a book that every generation turns to. In fact, it is such an important book, that every month we sell more copies in hard cover than in paperback.”

Deborah Johnson, the book buyer for Barstons Child’s Play in D.C., sees similarly permanent demand for the book. “I think the lasting attraction for the under-5 set is the pure emotion,” she says. “Anger, humiliation, power, jubilation, love — it’s all there, in rapid succession. Then there are the fascinating Wild Things and their visual surroundings, and language that’s poetic in its economy.”

"The Good Night Moon" room at the New York Public Library exhibit called "The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter," curated by Leonard S. Marcus. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)
“The Good Night Moon” room at the New York Public Library exhibit called “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” curated by Leonard S. Marcus. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)

This summer, the New York Public Library opened a fantastic exhibit called “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.” Spanning more than 300 years, it included everything from a 17th-century New England Primer up to Harry Potter. But, of course, Sendak got special treatment. Leonard S. Marcus, the show’s curator, said “Where the Wild Things Are” has remained so popular “in part because it is dead-on accurate about the emotional roller coaster ride that children as young as Max routinely experience in the course of a day — from rage and rebellion to recovery and a longing to be loved. Sendak gives a firm and beautiful shape to feelings that the very young cannot even begin to name for themselves.”

And nobody who’s ever made mischief of one kind or another can forget the way Max’s bedroom transforms into a forest. Marcus calls that “one of children’s book illustration’s most magical moments.” And he notes the important role that the book plays for children who have graduated from another iconic classic. “For preschoolers who a year or two earlier wished for nothing more than to find a way into the Great Green Room of ‘Goodnight Moon,’ Sendak’s message is that there is still more to life for them to discover and explore, even if the way there may not be all smooth sailing,” he said.

Markiet, at HarperCollins, remembers that Sendak was often asked, “What happened to Max?”

“His answer was usually: ‘He’s in therapy and still living with his mother.’”

So, even after 50 years, Max’s dinner is still waiting for him. And it is still hot.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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