Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is about an unruly child, Max, that is sent to his room without supper; there he journeys to an island in which he is king of all the monsters that inhabit it. However, after much play, he grows lonely and wishes to return home. The wild things protest, but Max leaves behind the island the island and finds that his supper is waiting for him at home. The essence of this story seems to be the importance of creativity and play, but there are also enlightened ideals present, such as discipline and children wishing to be like their parents.
Quite obviously, Where the Wild Things Are discusses the everyday occurrence of playing and imagination, something that generally comes more naturally to children than to adults. Adults are weighed down by responsibilities, such as taxes, mortgages, and child care; children, however, are unaffected by all of this. Thomas Gray celebrates this in his poem, Ode Upon a Distant Prospect of Eton College, saying, “Alas, regardless of their doom,/ The little victims play!/ No sense have they of ills to come,/ Nor care beyond to-day…where ignorance is bliss,/ ‘Tis folly to be wise” (51-54, 99-100). Unlike his mother, Max’s only concerns are of his kingdom and his hunger.
Max’s mother seems to be raising him to enlightenment ideals. She does not forbid his play, or make him take off his wolf suit; she only punishes him when he threatens to eat her, which in unacceptable in terms of social convention. John Locke argues that this is the correct way to parent in his essay, Some Thoughts Concerning Education: “They must not be hinder’d from being children, or from playing, or doing as children, but from doing ill; all other liberty is to be allow’d them.” It is also clear that Max loves his mother despite being punished. After their wild rumpus, Max sends the wild things to bed without supper, just as his mother did with him. This suggests that Max looks up to her and idolizes her. After the wild things go to sleep, Max realizes that he misses her, and he “wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” Max will turn out to be a well-mannered young man, if Locke’s ideas are correct, because of his love and respect for his mother. Locke argues, “if his tender mind be fill’d with a veneration for his parents and teachers, which consists of love and esteem, and a fear to offend them: and with respect and good will to all people; that respect will of itself teach those ways of expressing it, which he observes most acceptable.”
This story appeals to children because children are creative and playful by nature. It is not uncommon for a child’s bedroom to transform into a palace, desert, or in Max’s case, a jungle. The simple words and short sentences make for an easy read, and I think that it is good that it is easy enough for children to understand while still being relatable. However, I remember not particularly enjoying this book when I was younger. I honestly couldn’t place why until I read Victor Strasburger’s Children, Adolescents, and the Media. At one point, he states, “Preschoolers generally rated the ugly character as mean and the attractive character as nice, independent of the character’s actual behavior. Older children’s judgments, in contrast, were influenced more by the character’s behavior than her looks” (20). It then occurred to me that the pictures of the wild things probably scared me. They aren’t supposed to be antagonistic, but they are frightening looking.
So why is this book so popular? Strasburger also says, comparing the sexes of small children, “boys typically are more physically aggressive” (14). I think this book might be somewhat sexist, without necessarily intending to be. Max has a grand adventure to get to the island, and the wild things roar, gnash their teeth, and engage in a wild rumpus; all of these activities are physically aggressive, and so I think that it appeals more to boys in that respect.