In just a few hundred words, Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are, captured the essence of childhood emotions and captivated generations of children. Published sixty years ago, in November 1963, it is still considered one of the best-loved children’s picture books of all time.
The protagonist is a young boy named Max who is sent to his bedroom by his mother after he causes havoc in the household. Alone in his room, Max enters an imaginary world and sails to a mysterious island inhabited by monsters called the Wild Things. After trying and failing to scare Max, the Wild Things declare him their king, and they all have fun together. However, Max begins to feel terribly lonely. Despite the rage of the Wild Things he returns home, to find a hot supper waiting for him.
Sendak’s early life provides a key to understanding his book. He was born in New York in 1928 to Polish Jewish immigrants, who had arrived in the US before World War One. Many members of his extended family were later killed in the Holocaust, and Sendak had to cope with trauma at a young age. He processed this difficult reality through books, and went on to became an illustrator, illustrating children’s books by other authors before writing and illustrating his own.
When Where the Wild Things Are was first published, it received some negative reviews and was even banned in some places in the US. The criticism revolved around Max’s inability to control his emotions, which was considered psychologically damaging to young readers. But many other experts argued that this is precisely what makes the book so appealing and reassuring for children. In a 1970 interview, Sendak said that children “are extraordinarily vulnerable and have few defences” and that “childhood suffering is intense.”
In 1964, Sendak’s book won the Caldecott Medal, honouring it as the year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. It also won many other awards and inspired a film, an opera and an episode of The Simpsons. Unfortunately, in an age when banning and challenging books has escalated to an unprecedented level in the US, Where the Wild Things Are risks being targeted again. Perhaps the book’s new critics should pay attention to what Sendak once said, that “Where the Wild Things Are was not meant to please everybody – only children.
Questo articolo appartiene al numero November 2023 della rivista Speak Up.