Children’s books are often viewed as the most tame examples of literature. But, like every other genre, Children’s Literature has its revolutionaries. And they are far from tame.
Today we love monsters in our children’s stories. There’s Monsters, Inc., How to Train Your Dragon, and The Monster at the End of this Book—not to mention the entirety of the puppet cast of Sesame Street. But these types of monsters weren’t always welcome in the world of Children’s Literature: even the tiniest elements of unpredictability, violence, and fear were considered too much for the sensitive minds of children during the early 20th century.
Of course, people who believed that clearly had an idealized view of children in the first place. The reality is that children deal with anger, frustration, and fear just as adults do. Maurice Sendak knew this, and he gave children an outlet.
Before Where the Wild Things Are was published in 1963, Sendak had illustrated almost 50 other books. This was his first full color-picture book with his own text and illustrations. He planned to take full advantage and push the boundary.
It’s amazing I’ve had success, because my books are so idiosyncratic and personal and striving for inner things rather than for outer things.
Where the Wild Things Are embodies this view in the world of its protagonist Max, who fights with his mother, is sent to bed without dinner as punishment, then sails to an untamed jungle to party with ferocious creatures called Wild Things. Max lets out his pent up feelings at the Wild Rumpus. Afterwards, he is able to think a bit more clearly about his mother and what she means to him. He sails home and finds dinner in his room, still hot.
Why is this so revolutionary? Kids get angry. We know that. It’s called a tantrum. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that such things were not to be encouraged. Acknowledging them, in many adults’ minds, meant encouraging them. No child should act like that; therefore, no child that could be a role model (like the protagonist in a gorgeous children’s book) should be a bad example.
The book made a splash from the very beginning, as Sendak expected it would. Many critics advised against buying the book, and some libraries banned it. For the most part, people just didn’t know what to do with this unconventional book. Then the Caldecott Medal came along and helped everyone figure it out.
Awarded every year to “the most distinguished picture book for children,” the Caldecott Medal is the most prestigious Children’s Literature award next to the Newbery Medal in the United States. Given the official seal of approval, the book was finally embraced by the adults who lagged behind their children in praise of the book.
From that point on, Children’s Literature would never be the same. The publication of Where the Wild Things Are marks the beginning of modern Children’s Literature. Without it, there would be no Roald Dahl, no Lois Lowry, and certainly no Adam Mansbach.
One Children’s Literature critic called Where The Wild Things Are “as close to the perfect picture storybook as an imperfect world allows.” Having personally reading it so many times that I can still recite the entire book at will, I am inclined to agree with her. Sendak:
It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.
Personally, I believe this quote applies to adults just as much as it applies to children.
Readers, which fantasy books have been the most impactful in your life—written for children or not?