Friday, 3 June 2011

Where The Wild Things Are

"Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book. Parents are very easily scared."

Maurice Sendak published his children’s book Where the Wild Things Are in 1963 and the book quickly became a classic. The book tells the story of Max, the little boy who misbehaves, is sent to bed without supper and makes a magical journey from his room to the island where the Wild Things live, before eventually returning home to discover that his supper is, in fact, waiting for him … still warm.

Forty-eight pages, mostly wonderful pictures - the written story contains only twelve sentences in all – and a tale which has captivated millions of three to seven year olds since it was first published. My daughters were fascinated by the story when they were small and my grandson, the four-year-old representative of a new generation, loves it too.

One of Sendak’s great strengths is that he deals with themes which are very real for small children; in this case, the consequences of misbehaviour and the fears which arise when you are alone and those you love (and who love you) aren’t available for comfort and security – the monsters who lurk in the dark. His treatment of these subjects means that the story is immediately accessible to small children – he is describing their actual world and, by naming and pictorially describing things openly, giving them mechanisms to help them cope with them.

Many of Sendak’s books, including Where the Wild Things Are, have been criticised for dealing with themes which are not suitable for small children. In the Night Kitchen (1970), which features a little boy prancing around naked, is still challenged and even banned in a number of public libraries in the United States. The critics, in my view, simply miss the point; children live full lives in our societies, are confronted with all sorts of things we might not wish them to be confronted with and, by refusing to discuss issues with them and give them channels to help them approach difficult themes and develop healthy strategies for dealing with them, we are not doing them any favours. On the other hand, to be completely fair, Sendak has generally reacted very sensitively to criticism and has, in some cases, exaggerated the extent and amount of opposition his books have in fact encountered – his comments on Bruno Bettelheim, regarding Where the Wild Things Are are one example of this. 

It was of course inevitable that the idea of filming such a popular classic should quickly come up. In the early eighties, Disney did some serious work on the idea but in the end it came to nothing and Sendak’s classic was spared the kiss of kitch which would have inevitably accompanied the project – though, to be fair, the Disney tendency to over-sweeten the pudding has never bothered children. Instead Universal Studios, in cooperation with Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone, gave the project to director Spike Jonze, who, in close cooperation with Sendak, finished the film for release two years ago.

A week or so ago, my grandson was visiting me for a couple of days and we stopped by at our local electrical market. Looking over the DVDs on sale, I spotted Where the Wild Things Are and he agreed enthusiastically to my suggestion that we buy it.

That evening we watched the film. It received the ultimate accolade from Ryan who, when it was over, promptly announced that he wanted to watch it again. And, thinking about it, I realised that I did too; though my reasons were probably very different to his.

I was fascinated by the community of monsters, the Wild Things, their personalities and interaction with each other. Jonze and Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), who wrote the screenplay together, have produced characters which work for both children and adults because they are so real, so normal and, at the same time never lose that dangerous violent unpredictability which makes them what they ultimately are – scary monsters. Thinking about this, it struck me that this is the way the world of adults must often appear to small children; big people, who are incredibly powerful and are always doing completely unpredictable, sometimes scary things and why, therefore, those adults whom you love and who love you and whose love is consistent and sure are so important and necessary in your life – even when they’re angry at you.

For an adult, of course, the attraction is somewhat different. Carol, Douglas, Judith, Ira, Alexander, Bernard and K.W. are a group of insecure, neurotic, very human monsters with complex personalities, problems, visions, relationships and group dynamics and issues which, I suspect, are familiar to most of us. The arrival of Max on their island acts as a catalyst to bring a lot of things into the open, maybe clarify some things somewhat before his departure leaves them with some problems clearer, some, perhaps, on the way to resolution, others basically as they were. Just like real life.

But personally, the behaviour and interaction of the Wild Things made me think of a particular period of my life and some of what I experienced then. Thirteen years ago, for all sorts of complex reasons I won’t go into here, I had a pretty comprehensive nervous breakdown. Part of the long process of recovery I went through involved spending a number of months in full-time residential therapy. It was therapy with a strong emphasis on group work and it meant that, in a relatively short time, you got to know a number of other people very well indeed, discovering things about them (as they discovered things about you) that even those closest to them had never known.

We were a motley crew; suffering from all sorts of problems like borderline syndromes, through bi-polar disorders, addiction issues and depression, to people whose life-stories and personality structures had landed them in individual psychological cul-de-sacs – or various mixtures of such problems. In many cases of what we call “mental illness,” the label isn’t so important anyway; as a therapist once remarked to me, “in our area the therapy often comes first, the diagnosis comes at the end.”

Many people, particularly those going through crises, have difficulties with group therapy. You think that you have such massive troubles of your own, that the last you want to do is to waste your time listening to the problems of others or, even worse perhaps, laying out your own horrible private stories in front of others. But if you’re able to open yourself up to it, you start to realise that this isn’t what it’s really about at all. Firstly, listening to the others telling their stories, you realise that while all stories are unique they are all very similar. You start to understand how others got into the mess they’re in, to see possible solutions and strategies for them … and then you start to realise that some of these solutions and strategies might just be applicable to you as well. Secondly, experiencing the interaction in the group – an interaction which goes on after the “official” sessions with the therapist are over, in many ways dominating your whole life during the therapy period – you start to see the way people act and react to each other (in many cases continuing the problematic patterns they have described in their stories) and, if you’re lucky, start to observe and reflect on your own behaviour (and patterns) within the overall group dynamic.

It helped me at any rate, though it didn’t work for everyone. There were some participants whose disorders could really only be handled with medication – though many of them also found the insights into their own situations which emerged through the discussions and interaction immensely helpful. There were others who just weren’t capable of climbing out of their own boxes and so basically continued to bang their heads against the same, largely self-constructed walls. And, just as I was coming to the end of my stay there, there was one participant … at this stage friend would be a better word to use … who finally succumbed to the limited, closed logic-loop of his subjective suffering and took his own life.

It’s a long time ago now and my life has moved on since then, generally in much more positive directions. But I still retain some friendships – one a very deep one – which were made in that strange, difficult, intense time. And one very basic realisation; that if you find yourself getting into a situation regarding important personal situations in life where you can only see two alternatives, black or white, all or nothing, then it’s high time you called “stop” and looked at things again. For, though decisions always have to be made and it is usually better to decide yourself rather than have decisions made for you, there are nearly always far more alternatives available to you than you can see at first glance.

And so, watching the clumsy, complicated relationships between the Wild Things last weekend, the things half-spoken, the issues not resolved, their behavioural patterns being repeated even when they were obviously dysfunctional, my thoughts returned to that group I was part of, all those years ago. The “monsters” in the film are thrown together by the fact that they find themselves together on a distant island; we were thrown together by our shared inability to carry on the way we had been going. When Max sails back home, leaving them behind on their island, we know that things will go on much the way they have been before he arrived. But we also know that they will go on, because – in their own neurotic, wounded, dysfunctional ways – the Wild Things do understand and care for each other. It’s not certain of course; Carol may go into another uncontrolled rage and kill one of the others, possibly Judith after she has provoked him once too often, or Douglas or Alexander because they are simply unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe K.W., who understands him very well, will be able to avert disaster (once again).

Nothing is certain or perfect anyway, and it can be dangerous to lose oneself in the pursuit of total solutions. The suicide of my friend Jens had a lot to do with that kind of fallacy. Often the way forward is to accept that there are many partial solutions for seemingly intractable problems, that ever more alternatives start to become available once you get yourself (re)started on the adventure of life. That you sometimes just have to hope and put a bit of trust in yourself and others. The way, in the end, that Max can go back to his mother because, deeper than anything else, he knows that she loves him.

And that she would never really send him hungry to bed …


Many thanks to Pagan Sphinx, who gave me the link to Slate Magazine which provided the real impetus for this post. J

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. I am so bummed! I just spent at least fifteen minutes composing a comment and blogger ate the damn thing! :-/

    I am now attempting to reconstruct it, though when this happens it never comes out as well the second time. This time I will copy it, in case the same thing happens.

    When I first began reading this essay, I assumed you would go on about the controversies around the book, perhaps delve into other children's books that have been maligned by critics the likes Bethelheim.

    When the essay turned its surprising corner (for me as I have not seen the film), I was riveted. It read so well and easily and wonderfully. As with most of your essays that I identify with, I hung on every word.

    Having not seen the film, I was momentarily taken aback when you began listing the names of The Wild Things! The Wild Things have always, just that. No particular identity was provided for them in the text. The reader interpreted each by its expression and mannerisms via the illustrations and in relationship to the main character Max. I was put-off at once! As I continued to read, I began to accept the idea of how fun it might be to see the screen writer's interpretations. It is (and has been on my list) but now I want to see it more than ever.

    In regard the broader points you are trying to make, I'd like to share something I often think about when the topic of suicide comes up. For me,this is not a theoretical thing, as I have a loved one who was on suicide watch off and on for a couple of years of her life. My partner's niece killed herself at the age of 25 a few years ago.

    When the subject of suicide comes up, people I know are always put off when I state that I can not only understand but sometimes accept and even respect someone's decision to take their own life.

    I know it's loaded and controversial and to some people, even criminal. I certainly did everything in my power to prevent the loved one I mentioned from doing even attempting to take her life. I would never *not* do everything that I could to prevent someone from taking his own life. But in some situations, given a specific combination of circumstances, I wonder if some people aren't justified.

    Have you seen the Spanish film The Sea Inside? It is a dramatization of an actual story. After seeing it a couple of years ago, my feelings on what I just described have cemented a bit more.

    Thanks again for another thought-provoking read.


  2. Another excellent and thought provoking post Francis. I know that may sound trite but it is all I can say

  3. Yes. I suppose the corollary to those monsters being just like people -- fragile, sensitive, unique -- is that people can be just like monsters. Cruel, unpredictable, rash.

  4. It's been a long time since I read 'Where The Wild Things Are' but it seems to me that what Sendak conveyed was how children work their way through from complete dependance on the parents who love them unconditionally to dealing with the strangeness of the outside world. It's a simple enough story that could easily be transferred to any playground. Young children inhabit a world of myth so their tendency to let their imaginations run free through multiples of 'what if' situations allows them to test the waters of growing up. When you think about it it's quite amazing just how brave they are.

    I really enjoyed reading this essay and, as Pagan Sphinx mentioned, was completely hooked when you switched over to your discussion about adult mental health. We have a tendency all our lives to get stuck in those 'what if' games we play. Life can be hard at any age and their isn't always a mother waiting with a nice warm supper. Having to make it ourselves is never easy.

  5. Thanks Francis. I’m very glad to have this chance to revisit the book. I remember reading it to my eldest son, now aged 45. In recent years I reacted against the universal praise it seems to attract. When people said what they liked about it, I realized that I hated it for the same reasons. I felt that Max’s family was close and suffocating. I did not envy him his Yiddishe Momme. I hated the way a child’s imaginative life was tamed and belittled. I believed in Max’s rebellion, not his family! The whole parable seemed to say that the little child can afford to enter the scary world of fantasy, so long as his loving parents are there to welcome him back to the fold before any harm is done.

    On reflection I saw that I was jealous and embittered. My own childhood lacked anything approaching such a secure family; indeed I felt like a homeless orphan without the gratification of having any stranger sorry for me. I’ve just published a post in which I tried to convey a little of that; and found it cathartic.

    Reading your post at around the same time, so measured and sane in its praise, has completed a process of rehabilitating my judgment of the book, whilst remaining proud of my own childhood, especially the achievement of surviving it.

  6. I popped over for a bit of peace after a day spent in the garden and building a barbecue. Damn thing was like a Chinese puzzle, but the young Bulgarian lad next door helped me get it right.
    Curiously, your take in this piece reminds me of Derrida - I was a fan of him as the bloke who get me teaching in the old Soviet Block - though he wasn't my favourite read! I'm happier than for a long time.
    The theme in Derrida is unattainable justice, and that the unattainable keeps us going. My own view is that something bigger is already with us, but the network isn't fired up yet. I don't see this as totalising, just possibility bringing. A time when argument will not have to win.

  7. there's a lot in your post, Francis, makes me come back for a third and fourth reading. It dawns on me that I can order the DVD from LoveFilm. Will K & I want to watch it? Always a gamble, and the way you describe it, there’s a connection to psychotherapy, a thing which I’ve backed out of. About 10 years ago I volunteered as a receptionist at a counselling agency, and it led me to a job there and training to be a counsellor. There is no dividing line between counselling and psychotherapy that I can see, except one being less professional than the other. I’ve been to group therapy too, and other things besides.

    You appear to come out of it with fond(ish) memories and that is an achievement. For me, it is lumped together with much else as part of a great big deviation from being myself, which lasted more than forty years. Being myself has two spans: 1942-1960 (first eighteen years) then 2004 to present. The period in between is the great lostness, that I’m not proud of at all, except for carefully-selected episodes.

    Should I therefore take the step of watching Where the Wild Things Are?---the movie?

  8. I hope to respond to all comments more completely in the next few days - at the moment, my time online is very limited. But just one quick answer to Vincent:

    The connection between the film and therapy is purely personal - I don't think most people would see the connection at all. Just my own quirky mind!

    Should you watch the film? All I can say is that I enjoyed it. For me, it contained depth and multi-dimensionality, as well as working as a good children's film.

  9. "Comment moderation has been enabled. All comments must be approved by the blog author." - Secured wilderness on the blog island. Graded access makes it all manageable. zoom in. zoom out.

    Being Hänsel+Gretel and fighting against your stepmother+witch is really endangering your supper, let me tell you this.

    My understanding.

  10. Just popping in Francis. I do see psychotherapy links - but generally do. I found no 'self' in my own therapy, but loads of feeling that we could all do with more of it. We probably share feelings that more honest religion could do that. I liked the movie and would have missed it had you not mentioned it.
    Much I could say in agreement with Vincent. I'm trying to get some of that in my novel (a farce) around the 'blowing up of protagonists' notions of "Queen and country" ...

  11. The book was a mainstay for my kids. They respond to that business about going out on a flight of possibly scary fantasy secure in the knowledge that they are loved. Nothing suffocating about Max's family either at least not in the book. The child needs to learn the boundary between his imagination and the reality of expectations of socially acceptable behaviour, sorry, that's just how it is.

    I could tell what they were trying to do with the movie, but honestly the little book did it soooo much better.

  12. Can't speak about that book and movie. But would you agree that some Fairy Tales are quite frightening for a child to read, without any of the positive impact that this book seems to have had on you and your children?

    And many Fables de La Fontaine (which I had to memorise at my French school, in my young years) were often nightmarish for me. There were so many tricks and deceptions in that animal world. It seemed that to be clever was more important than to be kind and generous.

    I'll certainly read "Where The Wild Things Are", if only to regret what I missed long ago that might have enriched and comforted what was (as for everyone I think) difficult growing-up-years.

  13. I'm back to add to the thread. I can't seem to leave this one alone!

    I interpret Max as a very secure child, indeed. So secure that he empowers himself to tame those wild things into submission, via his imagination. As we all know, imagination and pretend play are preparations for real life.

    Being sent off to bed without supper is one criticism of the book. It's not a very nice thing for a parent to do but it turns out to be an idle threat, since Max does, in the end, get his supper. And what parent, grandparent or caregiver hasn't engaged in an idle threat or two?

    I agree with Colleen. Young children need to be socialized and it's parents' duty to do so. Max is about four years old and rambunctious, "making mischief of one kind or another". While this is quite typical and normal for young kids, it is not okay to let it get out of hand. I personally would never threaten to send my kids to bed without dinner but I certainly would've imposed a strict consequence for such behavior; especially terrorizing the dog!

    Hell, at least Max's mother doesn't threaten to spank him (gasp!), as in the book Bedtime for Frances! It's a delightful story, though criticized for being too dated in its depiction of discipline.

    let the wild rumpus start! :-D

  14. Let the wild rumpus start! Indeed.

    A general reply first, then maybe a few more specific things:

    Sendak's Max is pretty secure, Jonze's Max is a bit more complicated. But then, the film should, I believe, be seen as something separate from the book - though inspired by it.

    In that difficult transition area from babies to full child identity (and, indeed, to a somewhat lesser degree, right through childhood) one of the things children are looking for is boundaries. They are continually discovering new things they can do; what they don't have is the experience to tell them how far they can go and what will happen when they go too far. While they are searching for the boundaries, at the same time they resent being shown them, for this is a limiting of that expanded freedom they are discovering.

    In my opinion, this is one of the most important aspects of rearing children - a continual source of stress in parent-children relationships - and a challenge which demands all sorts of great sensitivity on the part of parents. It's an area where kids can be screwed up very easily ... and one, at the same time, where we can all only do the best we can. Too much "discipline" creates traumatised emotional cripples, too much laissez-faire "anti-authoritarianism" turns out spoiled monsters. And every child is different! Sendak's Wild Things is about an episode in this whole area.

    Claude, I wouldn't be too worried about "frightening" children's stories. Fear is very much a part of every child's life and they need to be able to thematise it in their own way - stories are a major way to do this. The important thing is that their parents are accompanying them in this whole process, that they know what's going on in their kids. (And even if you think you're on the ball, you still won't know everything - just remember the secrets of your own childhood!)

    Kids are resilient too, and sometimes pc society can be a bit ridiculous. One of my 4-year-old grandson's favourite films at the moment is Home Alone. Christ on a Crutch! He loves the violent, mindless slapstick, the fact that the kid is the hero and that he can deal with and defeat the stupid (but frightening) adults. The film has a 12-certificate in Germany (probably because of the violence) but that doesn't worry my daughter (or me, for that matter, though it's basically her business, not mine). But he doesn't watch it in his room (it's stupid to give kids of that age their own TVs anyway, though some do have them), he watches it in the living room under adult supervision (at least there's generally someone there or coming in and out all the time).

    gabblogy We've known each other on-line for a number of years now and on various forums you continually harp on about the subject of moderation. I wish you'd just grow up and leave it alone!

    Firstly, this is my blog and I can do whatever I like with it. If moderation bugs you so much, set up your own completely unmoderated site and see what happens.

    Secondly, though I feel myself under no obligation to explain this, comment moderation is here - and will remain here - to keep out spam, gratuitous advertising and trolls, as well as for the fact that I am legally responsible, in many jurisdictions, for what is published here. It has nothing to do with censorship of opinions that I don't agree with.

  15. I’ll be glad to throw my own tambourine in the ring, adding a bang and a tinkle to the ongoing rumpus.

    Let no one criticise any book for being dated. They are not newspapers! Books have longevity, so they become history. History provides perspective on today’s idea of good and evil. Let no one rewrite history. Write your new history, but leave yesterday’s history intact.

    A book reflects a point of view. It may frighten or mislead a child. But it is better that a child shall learn the ways in which other generations treated their children, than risk drowning in the hell of contemporary do-goodery, without benefit of canoe or paddle. I shall not elaborate on the nature of that hell, but mildly observe that it is no better and no worse than what has gone before.

    In every generation children are exposed to books which may frighten them or their parents, or convey messages contrary to the current orthodoxy. I certainly hope so.

    When I learned to read in the Forties I came across
    Struwwelpeter (Slovenly Peter, in Mark Twain’s translation), a compendium of cautionary tales with gruesome ending: in some cases gruesome the whole way through. So what? They were fiction.

    Then there was Little Black Sambo, in Helen Bannerman’s delightful original version, which has been revised and dressed in fig-leaves of one kind or another since then.

    Stories are not manuals or guidebooks. They don’t have to portray the world as it is, or as it should be. And they should never be revised to make them up to date.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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