By our calculation, while he was in office Barack Obama read Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 children’s book Where the Wild Things Are on six different occasions to kids gathered at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll (all except 2010 when he opted for Green Eggs and Ham and 2013 when he chose Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.)
In Sendak’s book – which has now sold more than 19 million copies worldwide – Max dresses up in a wolf costume but his mischief-making results in him being sent to his bedroom without any supper. While he’s confined, his imagination runs wild, turning his room into a jungle of “wild things” with “terrible roars” and “terrible teeth.”
During the presidential rendition, the Obamas added their own asides to the 300-or-so word bestseller: “Do you guys make mischief?” he asked the children sitting on the White House lawn, mid-way through. “You’re not supposed to say that to your mom!” the First Lady interjected after learning that Max told his mother he would eat her up.
Obama’s choice of book – six times over – wasn’t out of left field. Where the Wild Things Are consistently ranks at or near the top in lists of the best children’s books ever written. In TIME magazine’s “100 best children’s books of all time,” it came top. Common Sense Media, which teaches families digital literacy, calls it an “all-ages masterpiece.”
Here at Literati, a try-before-you-buy book club for kids, we wanted to know why this adventure has inspired generations of children to seek out their inner monsters. And who better to unpack this for us than Professor Mark West, chair of the Department of English at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and author of Trust Your Children – Voices Against Censorship in Children’s Literature. West got the chance to interview Sendak and has a special affinity for Where the Wild Things Are.
He says one of the key factors at play is that most adults who write for children have a hard time getting into the mindset of the very people who will be reading their books. Most, he says, project an adult point of view onto their childhood self and think that the 5-year-old version of us understands things in the way we do as adults. “And that’s not true at all. It’s a rare gift for an adult author to be able to put him or herself in the mindset of a child.”
To complicate things further, West says, if you are an author who is also a parent, it makes it even harder. “One of the jobs you have as a parent is to teach and correct behavior … and that’s not compatible with good storytelling. It’s didactic.”
Roald Dahl was the rare exception, he says – Dahl was a parent who was “able to still think like a kid.” What West finds fascinating, though, is that a disproportionate number of classics of children’s literature were written by people who didn’t have children. “From Peter Rabbit to Little Women. So what’s the connection? It seems to me that if you’ve never been a parent you don’t have to unplug that side of yourself – because it was never really there.
“I talked to Sendak about that. He never was a parent so he didn’t think of the world in that way; he didn’t have to worry about things parents have to worry about. He told me that he didn’t think of himself as creating picture books for children, but creating books that spoke to memories of himself as a child. He remembered very well what it was like to feel like a four year old, or a seven year old. And you can see that in Where the Wild Things Are – and later when he wrote In the Night Kitchen. Both are picture books that draw on his own internal world as a child; a world that for some reason he still had access to.”
West says in his experience most picture book authors write about a child’s external world: going to school, losing a grandfather, making a new best friend; that these books focus on a child character and what she is doing in that external world. “But what made Where the Wild Things Are so remarkable is that Sendak only touched on that external world. Instead, it dealt almost entirely with the child’s internal world – when Max is sent to his room, it’s about what he’s experiencing; that sense of losing power. And this is something kids often feel when they get whisked off in those ways, like Max who was running around and suddenly found himself in ‘time out’, locked in his room. And he’s mad at his mother for doing this to him.”
West says that all happens in the first couple of pages of the book. The rest deals with Max coming back, psychologically speaking, to feeling good about himself. “And he does that via an indulgent fantasy. He is in charge of the grownups – the wild things. He can now boss them around, but the anger toward his mother is fleeting. He’s not going through some terrible rebellion. He’s just pissed off for a little bit, but he feels through his fantasy life that he’s in charge and not powerless any more. This is all in his internal world – not a dream so much as a daydream – and once the equilibrium is restored he can give up being king of the wild things and can go back to reality.”
Max’s reality is defined in the book by the white pages. The more color on the page, West says, the more he is living in his imagination; “where they’re having a wild rumpus. And here there are no words at all – just pictures across the page. That’s when he’s fully in his interior world. And when reality starts to exert itself, the white space comes in. There’s a fancy French word for this, used in psychological circles, called rapprochement – when the child and parent come back together again; when he can restore his relationship with his mother. It’s a rejoining. And that’s what seems to me is happening in the story.”
He says Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit employs a similar fantasy of rebellion: the recalcitrant child running away from its mother, who then comes back into the fold. “Peter is banished into the shadows but this really isn’t a rapprochement – when he comes back home again there is no reconnection. The mother is indulging the good bunnies but Peter is still stuck in the shadows. It’s still the same kind of meta-narrative but less satisfying than Wild Things, in my opinion.”
In Sendak’s bestseller, Max has suffered what psychologists term “narcissistic injury” – which West says is a fancy way of saying having your feelings hurt. “Kids think the world revolves around them, but this is part of a child’s makeup. Narcissistic injury happens when that sense of themselves being valued and important is undercut.”
West says Max’s is a fantasy that so many kids share; that even though the particulars may differ, kids often feel powerless around adults, but in their fantasy lives they can boss their parents around. “That’s why this book is so amazingly successful. It resonates on some deep, deep level. Children who read it probably can’t articulate that, but it speaks to them.”