Professional Learning

Sendak: Where the Wild Rumpus Began

May 9, 2012

For my son, Max

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When I started teaching twelve years ago I found a copy of Where the Wild Things Are in the library left to me from the previous teacher. It is a 1965 edition of the book (I guess the value just went up). I remember sitting on the carpet and reading it. It was the beginning of my teaching career. Now years later I'm only realizing the true power of Wild Things. As authors and teachers, we wish to leave an impression, a footprint, behind that says, "I was here." Now I get to read Wild Things to my son and daughter and students so they too will someday pass it along as well. Thank you, Maurice. Let the wild rumpus begin!!!

The Wild Escapes

In 1963, Maurice Sendak, released 338 wild words (ten run-on sentences) and wildly sketched illustrations to the public. Where the Wild Things Are was met with . . . well, I guess you can say "wild" opposition. It was banned immediately from libraries and schools because it was deemed too scary for kids, appalling for parents. Wild Things became the kind of controversial work that draws denunciations. It became a target, something to yell about. Something different. (Fear of Change? Unknown? Fear of . . . dare I say, Boy?)

"I became," Sendak reflects, "A troublesome person: They expected something from me that would be trouble." I guess we can wrap them all up and present them as "Wild." And of course we don't want The Wild to escape. We want it suppressed every which way but loose, right? And here it is in a book for kids. Get your tickets. Here's Johnny. Appalling. Just appalling in the fact that a publisher would publish a book a kid would want to read. Huh? Wait a minute. They read the book? Kids flocked to it. Kids started to engulf the book by numbers. They were reading. And when you get a child to read on his own it is a major victory. Wild or no Wild, it's good. After the revolution of readers overwhelmed the community, the ban was lifted and its enemies, with a scratchy, dry gulp, swallowed the book. The Wild escaped.

Before 1963, books like Goodnight Moon, The Cat in the Hat, and The Pokey Little Puppy mirrored their cute reflection back at us. They made us feel good and safe and stable. Then WHAM! The Wild Things showed up and stirred the unconscious, shook up the sleeping demon of primitive desire. We didn't look so good then. Why? Did adults not want kids to see The Wild or did the adults not want to see their own reflection (Wild as it might have been) in a children's book? Children's books are for children, not adults. How can a basic, ten-sentence book scare us? It didn't really. It's us who scared us with the truth.

The Boy, Boy, and the Boy

Like teaching, writing children's books in the 60s was mainly a womanly career. Sendak himself admits this in a PBS interview:

Was it a breach of genre? A male crossing the lines into the children's book world might have looked suspect. Why is he here? Did this have to do with the mighty opposition? You have to remember in the education field, especially on the level of Where the Wild Things Are, was dominated by women (and still is). It might have been a man's world, but the women were and are teaching the kids. They (women) were also reading bedtime stories at home. Librarians? Women. This wasn't intentional. Sendak didn't set out to invade the stable world of Mom and kids. In the same PBS interview he states that he didn't plan on writing children's books. The only insight that he has on his genre is that in children's books he can express himself entirely in the simplest form.

There's no doubt that Maurice Sendak is all boy. He purposely conjured up a boy as his main character and wrote the story, both in style and subject, as a boy. In a time of cuddly puppies and cats in the hat, Sendak sent a shock to the book world with a book about boys, for boys, and written like a boy. He made something so simple, complex, and new. Super Duper Pow!

What happened?

Universal rejection, of course. Women ran the education world and a book that features a boy in a wolf suit, talking back to his mom, fantasizing about ruling his own fantastical world, mostly illustrated and . . . here's the kicker; it was written with ten run-on sentences, positioned like poetry. All "boy," my friend. Believe me, I lived it. And now I teach it. Most women teachers who see boys as a problem or have a problem are most likely detached from boy culture. Sendak was trying to reach the young boys who were so desperately drowning in a women's world.

Author and writing consultant, Ralph Fletcher, states in his book, Boy Writers, that most girl writers write for the teacher and boys write to entertain each other. This makes total sense when you think of the topics on which boys write. Farting, pooping, peeing, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, video games, Pokemon, Yugi-o, wrestling (the fake kind), comedy, violence; the list goes on. Sendak wrote to entertain the boy and, more importantly, to entertain himself. Sendak states he wasn't aware that he was doing something different. Was he saving "The Boy" from eternal literary boredom?

"One of the chief motives of artistic creation is certainly the need of feeling essential in relationship to the world" (Sartre). The book didn't scare them (boys) away with posh, academic pristine language. Wild Things is digestible, choppy, and filled with pauses. Sendak gave them (boys) something they could read; something that spoke to them; something that wasn't perfect; something that sounded familiar. Something essential. We can all agree that boys are very visual. They need to see pictures to be engaged. That's nothing new. Sendak did something different with Wild Things, though. He chopped up the sentences, stopping them when he felt like it, then created a bridge with an illustration that led the reader to the rest of the sentence. It was almost like boys were breaking the rules of reading and it was okay. Hey, they were reading a published book, right? That's something that is missing from literacy, school even. The joy of reading and learning is just not there. For ten run-on sentences, Sendak gave us boys joy.

Was this essential? My hand is up. "Darn right it's essential."

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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