Wild Things, From Dreams to Page and Back Again

The night Max made mischief of one kindand another.

Picture: A little boy, dressed in a white wolf costume, chasing a small dog down the stairs with a fork in his hand, to stab.

He is Max. He is no ordinary little boy. He is wild. He can?t be tamed. He is energetic and creative and mean.

But, in a reversal of the normal arc of children’s books, in which things get crazier and crazier, Max’s mom steps in, quickly, to put the kabosh on Max’s misbehavior. He is just another little boy who gets in trouble.

This is Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.

Laying on my stomach in bed, feet up in the air, wobbling back and forth. I?m eight. It?s late, it?s dark. One wide double-page spread at a time, slowly turning the pages. Sendak?s illustrations are intriguing in their detail and absorbing in their texture. Drawn in richly colored cross-hatched sketches, the characters and backgrounds invent a world that I can only imagine, that even Max could only imagine.

The story is simple. Max is sent to his room without eating his supper. He enters his room, dejected, pulling the hood of his wolf costume off his head. But soon, his room turns into a deep forest of vines and trees. Then there appears a private boat for Max, which takes him to a land of monsters. The monsters roar and show off their ferocity; their claws, their teeth, their horrible eyes. But the monsters make Max king of all wild things, and they have a “wild rumpus,” swinging from tree branches, howling at the moon, and carrying Max on their shoulders through the forest. Max suddenly stops the fun and commands all the monsters to go to bed without their supper. They all drift off to sleep and Max feels lonely and wants to be “where someone loves him best of all.” So he gives up being king, gets back in his boat and, much to the dismay of the roaring monsters, travels back to his room, where he finds his dinner waiting for him.

… his mother called him “Wild Thing!”
and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
so he was sent to bed without eating anything

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew

Punished, Max dreams up a faraway world where the monsters rival even his own wild character. There is fun and recklessness, but it only lasts a short time before Max wants to come back home.

Sendak’s imagery is what I focus on as I read. But his subtle and simple storytelling is what drives the emotion of the book. The style is deceptively simple but striking. In a word, poetic.

As I read the story today I realize just how poetic the words are. In a world full of Dr. Seuss, it?s no wonder that as kids we grow up to think that all poems rhyme. Even the subversive Shel Silverstein rhymed his poems, making us dance to the weird rhythms of strange children and crazy relatives.

But Where The Wild Things Are is free verse, moved along with a subtle, internal rhythm based on repetition, simple shifts of emotion, and a slightly stilted but pleasingly childlike syntax.

And it is the childlike simplicity of the language that allows me, eight years old on my bed in a dim light, to pore over the pictures, feeling the story as it glides across the bottom of the page, almost out of sight, nearly by memory and, then, by something else altogether, something transcendent, for I know the story already. I knew the story before I picked up the book, before it was ever read to me as I fell asleep as a toddler; for the story is all of ours, the story of imagination, freedom fantasies and the loving, singular dependency of childhood.

And because the story is mine as rendered so accessibly by the author, I can take the time to absorb the pictures on the pages. There is something about the complex texturing and the gentle colors that allows me to further invent depths into the images. And there is no scene so accessible to me, eight years old and lying in bed, hearing the hushed adult conversations in the living room six stairs and a hallway away, as Max?s bedroom as it emerges from reality to expose the wonderful world beneath.

Sendak’s illustrations have a consistency that makes this transition from bedroom as jail cell to bedroom as endless fantasy world easy and believable. Several pages later, you can see Max sitting outside a tent in the land of the wild things that looks exactly like it fits in his bedroom. There is no specific visual repetition in the images that causes this effect; it is simply the manner in which Sendak draws the fantasy world: it is part of the real world. It is the real world. You just need to let yourself look at it.

And to advance the dream, the artwork in each successive page grows larger until, at the climax, as Max orders the wild things to dance through the forest in a “wild rumpus,” the illustrations fill each page, and there are no words, thus materializing the dream of my progress through the story.

I spent hours and days and in and out of weeks, and through a year and more, watching what would become the moving sequence of Max’s room shifting from bedroom to forest. To dwell on its perfect subtlety and effectiveness would be to accent my own inability to accurately describe how this looks to a eight-year-old boy, who stares at the pages as he imagines the walls behind him at that very moment doing precisely the same thing.

But the appeal goes well beyond the pages themselves.

When Max first arrives in this wild world, confronted with the Wild Things, he tames them with “the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.” This caters to the myth of magic powers, with a stress on “powers.” Max is in search of control. As a child I imagined many things, from going back in time, which was proven possible by Christopher Reeves’s Superman, to keeping my mother from harm by avoiding sidewalk cracks, to hypnosis of teachers or parents or animals, which is exactly what Max does first thing, before even getting off the boat.

These wild things are creatures of his imagination. But they are not so malleable in identity as to be harmless. What fun would they be if they were simply an island full of toy poodles? They are mean, vicious creatures, with terrible eyes and terrible teeth and terrible claws and terrible roars. They serve a dual purpose to Max?s imagination; they must be sufficiently dangerous to raise the excitement and the escape levels of his dream, yet they must also provide Max with the magic power of control, which he assumes immediately, so they will do his bidding in this strange and dangerous land, surely a place that would invite new punishment should his mother discover him there.

In the end, however, even the most outrageous and powerful scenes in a child’s imagination can not compare with that child’s desire to be somewhere where he is loved and fed and taken care of. This is a comfortable way of remembering childhood, but it is still relevant to us as adults, and perhaps this is why I find such enjoyment reading the book to my son. As a writer, I invent worlds on the page, exercise my control over the characters and situations, and, when it’s all said and done, desire the simple comforts of home.

My oldest son is on the cusp of articulated imagination. A few weeks ago we were driving home and he told me that he knew of an animal but he didn’t know its name. I asked him questions about the animal, “What does it look like? Is it big or small? Does it look like a lion or a bug?” After a few minutes, we came to the conclusion that the animal had a single horn on its head, but it wasn?t a rhinoceros. In fact, it had six legs. And this animal used its horn to poke all the bad guys away. I looked in my rearview mirror at my little boy sitting in his car seat. He had a steady, playful look in his eyes and the edge of his mouth was upturned in a knowing smirk. We went home, excited, and we drew his first imagined animal.

It l
ooked very much like a wild thing.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind

and another

his mother called him “Wild Thing!”
and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
so he was sent to bed without eating anything

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew

and grew-

and grew until his ceiling hung with vines
and the walls became the world all around

and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max
and he sailed off through night and day

and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are.

And when he came to the place where the wild things are
they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

till Max said “BE STILL!”
and tamed them with the magic trick

of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once
and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all

and made him king of all wild things.

“And now”, cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

“Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed
without their supper. And Max the king of all wild things was lonely
and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.

Then all around from far away across the world
he smelled good things to eat
so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.

But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go-
we’ll eat you up-we love you so!”
And Max said, “No!”

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws
but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye

and sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and through a day

and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him

and it was still hot.


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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!