Banned Books Awareness: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak


Where the Wild Things Are is a children’s book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak in 1963. Sendak spent 4 years in a tug of war with editors over the content of the storyline, but eventually won out, and the book saw print in 1967. Despite objections over the content, and being banned around the country immediately after its release, it went on to win dozens of awards, including the coveted Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book, and the affection of generations of fans.

Children didn’t have summer camps in the Brooklyn he knew, so they were left to their own imagination. Sendak said that honesty meant portraying the childhood he knew- one filled with loss, fear, and boredom.

Initial objections to the story were over its psychoanalytical interpretations, which takes issue with Max’s process of learning to master his emotions.

Max is a mischievous child. His behavioral issues consisted of nailing a sheet into the wall to make a tent, chasing his dog with a fork, and screaming at his mother that he will “eat her up.” This realistic vision of childhood behavior was difficult for adults to contend with. The portrayal of real issues in a children’s book, instead of the rose-colored angelic image, was more than adults were willing to admit to.

These were not the sugarcoated, good boy images of childhood that existed in children’s stories of previous generations- these were argumentative, disobedient beings that many remember from true life.

When Max is sent to his room with no supper due to his behavior, he decides to sail away to the fantasy world of the Wild Things. It is interesting to note how the page layout echoes this process. When the story begins, there is a large amount of white space surrounding the text. The illustrations slowly become larger and larger, until they engulf the entire page; the text is gone upon reaching the centerfold spread of Max and the Wild Things dancing and celebrating together. Then, as Max “tames” the animals and returns home, the illustrations go back to their original size.

A boy throwing a tantrum was considered dangerous behavior and Sendak was accused of glorifying Max’s anger, prompting psychologists to condemn it as “too dark and frightening.” In a March, 1969 column for Ladies’ Home Journal, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim called the book psychologically damaging for 3- and 4-year-olds. He thought the idea that a mother would deprive a child of food was an inappropriate form of punishment, and that it would traumatize young readers.

Thus, it was banned heavily in the American South, and by libraries nationwide in the first years of its release.

Where the Wild Things Are has also been challenged over the years for images considered to promote witchcraft and supernatural elements.

But children continued to embrace it, and the story about the boy who went to world of the Wild Things changed not only their lives, but literature, forever.

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Yahoo, University of Virginia, Associated Content

© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

12 thoughts on “Banned Books Awareness: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

  1. I remember the book from my childhood. I distinctly remember the melancholy feeling I had while reading it, and detested it for that. I found the illustrations oddly compelling and that is why I checked it out from the library. After reading it, I decided I would MUCH rather read Dr. Seuss, because I wanted books (at that age) to be fun and uplifting and to finish the book feeling good about the story. I did not fee that way about Where the Wild Things Are. I don't advocate banning books just because I don't agree with the premise as long as it is appropriate for the age group. I wouldn't necessarily guide my children to it, but I wouldn't have a problem with them reading it if they wanted to, of course. I do think that for precocious children (like I was) it is kind of a downer though. I seem to remember that some of my same aged friends back then that were a bit less emotionally developed, i.e. "deep", enjoyed it much more than I.

    • This book is known for its accurate and serious portrayal of children’s emotions. It seems to me that the ability to handle the content of the book was reserved for those who were more emotionally developed, not less.

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