How to be a Revolutionary: Create Children’s Picture Books

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.

 

An original drawing of Max by Maurice Sendak (BRB 89184)
An original drawing of Max by Maurice Sendak (BRB 89184)

 

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.

 

First edition, BRB 104802
First edition, BRB 104802

 

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.

 

A first edition of Where the Wild Things Are--note that there is no Caldecott Medal design on the cover that appears in later editions.
A first edition of Where the Wild Things Are. Note that there is no Caldecott Medal design on the cover, which is prominently displayed in later editions.

 

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.

 

First edition, BRB 104802
First edition, BRB 104802

 

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?

 

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Wkinson says:

    The book was great. The movie was terrible.

    1. Mike Wkinson says:

      The book is great. The movie is terrible.

  2. Omg that was one of my favorite books as a kid for gotten. All about it i remeber take’n my nephews to see it when it came out as a movie they wher like boring. Oh well…….

  3. JAHirsch says:

    When of my favorite children’s books. Sendak would never let us forget that every kid’s got a little “wild” in them.

  4. James says:

    H.M. Denniborg’s Trip to Lazibonia seems to have stayed in my memory the longest. Wish I could find a copy now….

  5. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy and commented:
    She continues to make the blogosphere untenable for the rest of us by being all clever and such…..

  6. scantilyglad says:

    I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series while in elementary school (in addition to Nancy Drew, of course), and while in college, I took a grad class on Harry Potter and Literary Allusion, which was (obviously) one of the best (and most difficult!) classes I ever took.

  7. Flo me la says:

    I think the movie was good. But it made me feel really, really bad. Like crying for an hour afterwards (and I watched it in a theatre in the city centre, so you can imagine how not embarrassing that was…). I don’t think I’ve ever read the book. That’s kind of sad. I love the illustrations.

  8. southleedscommunityradio says:

    Reblogged this on southleedscommunityradio.

  9. Michael says:

    I just read this book to my students the other day!

    Personally, my favorite is “Oh, the Places You Will Go” from Dr. Seuss.

  10. Paul Lampe says:

    “…not to mention the entirety of the puppet cast of Sesame Street.” 1) They are muppets, not puppets. 2) Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, and Prairie Dawn, among many others would point out that not all of the muppets are monsters.

    1. Touche–I am certainly not a muppet expert! (Though I still stand by the monster comment. In a liberal definition of the term, a monster can be any sentient being with fantastical elements incorporated into its being–not just traditionally scary ones.)

      Thanks for your input and extra perspective.

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