The book won the Caldecott Medal for the best children’s picture book in 1964. But it wasn’t immediately popular. Many librarians, teachers and parents thought that a book with a hero who had tantrums and talked back to his parents wasn’t such a good idea.
But Sendak understood that kids and their moms get angry at one another — and make up — all the time. The story, he said in a 2004 TV interview, was about “this little scene that happens in every house every Tuesday and Thursday.”
Among the things that kids remember most about the book are the beautifully drawn, and somewhat scary, creatures known as the Wild Things. But Sendak didn’t set out to write a story about monsters. He went to his publisher with an idea for a book that he wanted to call “Where the Wild Horses Are.” The publisher loved the idea, but Sendak quickly discovered there was a problem. “I couldn’t draw horses,” Sendak revealed. His publisher was furious with him (kind of like Max’s mom?) and wanted to know what he could draw. “I told her I could draw things,” he said with a laugh.
Those things have become part of the childhood memories for millions of kids. When Alex Cirino, 9, a fourth-grader at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in the District, was in kindergarten, students received awards that pointed out which storybook character each of them most resembled. Alex’s teacher said he most reminded her of Max. “I don’t know if it was really a compliment or if it was because I was a little mischievous,” he said with a laugh on Wednesday. He added that he hasn’t “ever really” behaved as badly as Max.
“My parents got me the book when I was very little and used to read it all the time,” remembers Isabella Rhein, 11, a fifth-grader at Oyster-Adams. “I remember having dreams about it and pretending I was Max and going on the adventures.”
Kids do tend to see a little bit of themselves in Max, says Heidi Powell, children’s book manager at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington. The message of “Where the Wild Things Are” is that everyone gets angry but that “when you regain your composure and you’re back feeling like yourself, you know that your hot dinner will be waiting for you. You’ll still be accepted, and you’ll still be loved,” Powell said.
That’s a pretty great message. Thank you, Maurice Sendak.
— Tracy Grant