What is Where the Wild Things Are book about?

Where the Wild Things Are

What is Where the Wild Things Are book about?

First edition cover

AuthorMaurice Sendak
IllustratorMaurice Sendak
Cover artistSendak
CountryUnited States
GenreChildren's picture book
PublisherHarper & Row

Publication date

November 13, 1963 [1]
Media typePrint (wide-format hardcover)
ISBN0-06-025492-0 (25th anniversary ed., 1988)
LC ClassPZ7.S47 Wh[2]

Where the Wild Things Are is a 1963 children's picture book written and illustrated by American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak, originally published in hardcover by Harper & Row. The book has been adapted into other media several times, including an animated short film in 1973 (with an updated version in 1988); a 1980 opera; and a live-action 2009 feature-film adaptation. The book had sold over 19 million copies worldwide as of 2009, with 10 million of those being in the United States.[3]

Sendak won the annual Caldecott Medal from the children's librarians in 1964, recognizing Wild Things as the previous year's "most distinguished American picture book for children".[4] It was voted the number one picture book in a 2012 survey of School Library Journal readers, not for the first time.[5]


The story focuses on a young boy named Max who, after dressing in his wolf costume, wreaks such havoc through his household that he is sent to bed without his supper. Max's bedroom undergoes a mysterious transformation into a jungle environment, and he winds up sailing to an island inhabited by monsters, simply called the Wild Things. The Wild Things try to scare Max, but to no avail. After stopping and intimidating the creatures, Max is hailed as the king of the Wild Things and enjoys a playful romp with his subjects. Finally, he stops them and sends them to bed without their supper. However, to the Wild Things' dismay, he starts to feel lonely and decides to give up being king and return home. The creatures do not want him to go and throw themselves into fits of rage as Max sails away home. Upon returning to his bedroom, Max discovers a hot supper waiting for him.


Sendak began his career as an illustrator, but by the mid-1950s he had decided to start both writing and illustrating his own books.[6] In 1956, he published his first book for which he was the sole author, Kenny's Window (1956). Soon after, he began work on another solo effort. The story was supposed to be that of a child who, after a tantrum, is punished in his room and decides to escape to the place that gives the book its title, the "land of wild horses".[6] Shortly before starting the illustrations, Sendak realized he did not know how to draw horses and, at the suggestion of his editor, changed the wild horses to the more ambiguous "Wild Things", a term inspired by the Yiddish expression "vilde chaya" ("wild animals"), used to indicate boisterous children.[7]

He replaced the horses with caricatures of his aunts and uncles, caricatures that he had originally drawn in his youth as an escape from their chaotic weekly visits, on Sunday afternoons, to his family's Brooklyn home. Sendak, as a child, had observed his relatives as being "all crazy – crazy faces and wild eyes", with blood-stained eyes and "big and yellow" teeth, who pinched his cheeks until they were red.[6][8][9] These relatives, like Sendak's parents, were poor Jewish immigrants from Poland, whose remaining family in Nazi-occupied Europe were killed during the Holocaust while Sendak was in his early teens. As a child, however, he saw them only as "grotesques".[9]

When working on the 1983 opera adaptation of the book with Oliver Knussen, Sendak gave the monsters the names of his relatives: Tzippy, Moishe, Aaron, Emile, and Bernard.[10]

Literary significance[edit]


In Selma G. Lanes's book The Art of Maurice Sendak, Sendak discusses Where the Wild Things Are along with his other books In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There as a trilogy centered on children's growth, survival, and fury.[11][12] He indicated that the three books are "all variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings – danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy – and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives."[11] Fundamental to Sendak's work for over fifty years is his trust in the validity of children's emotions.[13]

Dr. Kara Keeling and Dr. Scott Pollard, both English professors, assess the role that food plays in the book, arguing that food is a metaphor for Max's mother's love based on the idea that Max comes home to a "still hot" supper, which suggests that his mother "loves him best".[14] Going along with this, Mary Pols of Time magazine wrote that "[w]hat makes Sendak's book so compelling is its grounding effect: Max has a tantrum and in a flight of fancy visits his wild side, but he is pulled back by a belief in parental love to a supper 'still hot,' balancing the seesaw of fear and comfort."[15]

Where the Wild Things Are is a story that shows children's resilience through their "spirit" and "pluck".[16] Max is able to stand up to the Wild Things with their "terrible teeth" and "terrible claws" using "the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once."[16]

Professor Liam Heneghan describes Max’s dream as one of mastering the wild, from which he also learns to master his “inner tumult”.[17] It sets forth the unrestrained rowdiness of the Wild Things and enlightens the reader to the idea that one cannot live in the wild forever: “In this notion of wilderness, there is a heightened reminder that after our fill of wilderness, one can, or perhaps even should, return, replenished, to the comforts of home."[17] Heneghan concludes, “The overarching thought is an old one: a human engages with Wild Things and in so doing comes into accord with the world and gains a measure of self-mastery."[17]


According to Sendak the book was banned in libraries and received negative reviews at first. It took about two years for librarians and teachers to realize that children were flocking to the book and for critics to relax their views.[18] Since then, it has received high critical acclaim. Francis Spufford suggests that the book is "one of the very few picture books to make an entirely deliberate and beautiful use of the psychoanalytic story of anger".[19] New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis noted that "there are different ways to read the wild things, through a Freudian or colonialist prism, and probably as many ways to ruin this delicate story of a solitary child liberated by his imagination."[20] Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association listed the book as one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children".[21] Five years later School Library Journal sponsored a survey of readers which identified Where the Wild Things Are as a top picture book.[5] Elizabeth Bird, the librarian from the New York Public Library who conducted the survey, observed that there was little doubt that it would be voted number one and highlighted its designation by one reader as a watershed, "ushering in the modern age of picture books". Another critic called it "perfectly crafted, perfectly illustrated ... simply the epitome of a picture book" and noted that Sendak "rises above the rest in part because he is subversive". President Barack Obama read it aloud for children who were attending the White House Easter Egg Roll in multiple years.[22]

New York Times writer Bruce Handy brought up the idea that "as a child myself, without benefit of personal insights subsequently gleaned from more than a decade of talk therapy, I had been left cold by Where the Wild Things Are."[23] Deborah Stevenson, a writer for The Horn Book Magazine, talks about the effects the book had on a child who "screamed, apparently not with delight, every time Where the Wild Things Are was read to him. It is quite possible for some young readers or listeners to be moved to alarm by a book, just as they can be moved to joy or excitement or boredom."[24] Sendak responded to this criticism in an interview, asking, “Did she hate her kid? Is that why she was tormenting her with this book?”[25]

Despite the book's popularity, Sendak refused to produce a sequel; four months before his death in 2012, he told comedian Stephen Colbert that a sequel would be "the most boring idea imaginable".[26]Where the Wild Things Are was number four on the list of "Top Check Outs OF ALL TIME" by the New York Public Library.[27]


An animated short cartoon based on the book, which had taken five years to complete, was released on September 8, 1973, [3] directed and animated by Gene Deitch and produced at Krátký film, Prague, for Weston Woods. Two versions were released: the original 1973 version, with narration by Allen Swift and a musique concrète score composed by Deitch himself; and an updated version on September 23, 1988, with new music and narration by Peter Schickele.[28]

In the 1980s, Sendak worked with British composer Oliver Knussen on a children's opera based upon the book.[10] The opera received its first (incomplete) performance in Brussels in 1980; the first complete performance of the final version was given by the Glyndebourne Touring Opera in London in 1984. This was followed by its first U.S. performance in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1985 and the New York City premiere by New York City Opera in 1987. A concert performance was given at The Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2002.[citation needed] A concert production was produced by New York City Opera in spring 2011.[29]

In 1983, Walt Disney Productions conducted a series of tests of computer-generated imagery created by Glen Keane and John Lasseter using as their subject Where the Wild Things Are.[30]

In 1999, Isadar released a solo piano musical composition titled "Where the Wild Things Are" which appeared on his album Active Imagination, inspired by the Sendak book. The composition was revisited and re-recorded in 2012 on Isadar's album, Reconstructed, with Grammy winner and founder of Windham Hill Records, William Ackerman, producing.[31]

The 2005 Simpsons episode, "The Girl Who Slept Too Little", features a spoof of Where the Wild Things Are entitled "The Land of the Wild Beasts".

The live-action film version of the book is directed by Spike Jonze. It was released on October 16, 2009.[32] The film stars Max Records as Max and features Catherine Keener as his mother, with Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Forest Whitaker providing the voices of the principal Wild Things. The soundtrack was written and produced by Karen O and Carter Burwell. The screenplay was adapted by Jonze and Dave Eggers. Sendak was one of the producers for the film. The screenplay was novelized by Eggers as The Wild Things, published in 2009.

In 2012, indie rock quartet alt-J released the song "Breezeblocks", inspired in part by the book.[33] Alt-J keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton said the story and the song share similar ideas about parting with a loved one. "Breezeblocks" reached certified ARIA Gold status in Australia.[34]

In 2016, Alessia Cara released her second single, "Wild Things", which charted at number fifty on the Billboard Hot 100. In an interview with ABC News Radio, Cara stated she took inspiration from Where the Wild Things Are, saying "each 'Thing' represents an emotion and [the main character] kinda escapes into this world ... and that's kinda what I wanted to do".[35]

See also[edit]

  • 1963 in literature
  • List of children's books made into feature films
  • List of children's classic books


  1. ^ "Where the wild things are". Heritage Auctions. Retrieved July 16, 2021.
  2. ^ Where the wild things are. Library of Congress. Catalog Records. Harper & Row. 1963. Retrieved June 17, 2013.
  3. ^ a b Turan, Kenneth (October 16, 2009). "Where the Wild Things Are". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 12, 2012.
  4. ^ "Caldecott Medal & Honor Books, 1938-Present". Association for Library Service to Children. American Library Association. Retrieved June 19, 2013.
      "The Randolph Caldecott Medal". Association for Library Service to Children. American Library Association. Retrieved May 27, 2009.
  5. ^ a b "SLJ's Top 100 Picture Books" (PDF). School Library Journal. 2012. Poster presentation of reader poll results. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 23, 2016. Retrieved June 17, 2013.
  6. ^ a b c Warrick, Pamela (October 11, 1993). "Facing the Frightful Things". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 27, 2009.
  7. ^ Shea, Christopher (October 16, 2009). "The Jewish lineage of "Where the Wild Things Are"". The Boston Globe. Brainiac. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
  8. ^ "Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak". Traditional Fine Arts Organization. April 26, 2005. Retrieved August 28, 2009.
  9. ^ a b Brockes, Emma (October 2, 2011). "Maurice Sendak: 'I Refuse To Lie to Children'". The Guardian. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  10. ^ a b Burns, Tom, ed. (March 2008). "Maurice Sendak". Children's Literature Review. Detroit, MI: Gale. 131: 70. ISBN 978-0-7876-9606-1. OCLC 792604122.
  11. ^ a b Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (June 1, 1981). "Book Of The Times". The New York Times. Retrieved October 12, 2009.
  12. ^ Gottlieb, Richard M. (2008). "Maurice Sendak's Trilogy: Disappointment, Fury, and Their Transformation through Art". Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. 63: 186–217. doi:10.1080/00797308.2008.11800804. ISBN 978-0-300-14099-6. PMID 19449794. S2CID 25420037.
  13. ^ Maguire, Gregory (December 2003). "A Sendak Appreciation". The Horn Book Magazine. 79 (6).
  14. ^ Bhadury, Poushali (April 2011). "Critical Approaches to Food in Children's Literature". The Lion and the Unicorn. 35 (2): 189–194. doi:10.1353/uni.2011.0013. S2CID 145308185.
  15. ^ Pols, Mary (October 14, 2009). "Where the Wild Things Are: Sendak with Sensitivity". Time. Archived from the original on September 21, 2011. Retrieved October 18, 2009.
  16. ^ a b Kakutani, Michiko (May 16, 2017). "The Roots Of a Singular Imagination". The New York Times.
  17. ^ a b c Heneghan, Liam (April 30, 2018). "Our Imaginations Need to Dwell Where the Wild Things Are". Literary Hub.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  18. ^ Sendak, Maurice (October 16, 2009). Hart, Hugh (ed.). "Review: Where the Wild Things Are Is Woolly, But Not Wild Enough (Sendak Says Wild Things Film as Feral as Book)". Wired.com. Retrieved December 30, 2009.
  19. ^ Spufford, Francis (2002). The Child That Books Built: A Life of Reading (1st ed.). New York City: Metropolitan Books. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-8050-7215-0. OCLC 50034806.
  20. ^ Dargis, Manohla (October 16, 2009). "Some of His Best Friends Are Beasts". The New York Times. Retrieved October 16, 2009.
  21. ^ "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". National Education Association. 2007. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  22. ^ Bird, Elizabeth (July 2, 2012). "Top 100 Picture Books #1: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak". School Library Journal. Retrieved June 17, 2013.
  23. ^ Handy, Bruce (October 9, 2009). "Where the Wild Things Weren't". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 6, 2021.
  24. ^ Stevenson, Deborah (June 1996). "Frightening the children?: Kids, grown-ups, and scary picture books". The Horn Book Magazine. 72 (3): 305.
  25. ^ Sutton, Roger (November 2003). "An Interview with Maurice Sendak". The Horn Book Magazine. 79 (6).
  26. ^ Carlson, Erin (January 25, 2012). "Maurice Sendak Calls Newt Gingrich an 'Idiot' in 'Colbert Report' Interview". The Hollywood Reporter. The Live Feed. Retrieved February 21, 2012.
  27. ^ "These Are the NYPL's Top Check Outs OF ALL TIME". January 13, 2020.
  28. ^ Johnston, Russell (March 12, 2009). "Nashville Scene – 'Bach in Black'". The Tennessean. p. 46.
  29. ^ Wakin, Daniel J. (March 10, 2010). "For New York City Opera Season, Bernstein, Strauss and New Works". The New York Times. Retrieved March 19, 2013.
  30. ^ Amidi, Amid (February 23, 2011). "Early CG Experiments by John Lasseter and Glen Keane". Cartoon Brew. Retrieved June 19, 2013.
  31. ^ "Active Imagination (Solo Piano)". AllMusic. December 28, 1998. Retrieved March 12, 2012.
  32. ^ Sperling, Nicole (September 11, 2008). "'Where the Wild Things Are' gets long-awaited release date". Entertainment Weekly. Inside Movies. Archived from the original on September 21, 2019. Retrieved September 12, 2008.
  33. ^ Podplesky, Azaria (December 18, 2012). "alt-J Taps Maurice Sendak and a Kate Middleton Look-Alike For 'Breezeblocks' Video". Seattle Weekly. Archived from the original on July 8, 2017. Retrieved June 10, 2013.
  34. ^ "ARIA Charts - Accreditations - 2013 Singles". Australian Recording Industry Association. Retrieved March 19, 2013.
  35. ^ "Alessia Cara on 'Wild Things': 'It's Just Really an Empowering Song'". ABC News Radio. April 26, 2016. Retrieved January 28, 2017.

  • Maurice Sendak: "Where the Wild Things Are" by Now on PBS
  • Where The Wild Things Are – Early Disney CG Animation Test on YouTube
Preceded by

The Snowy Day

Caldecott Medal recipient
Succeeded by

May I Bring a Friend?

What is the main message of Where the Wild Things Are?

Psychoanalyst Joan Raphael-Leff, points out that this story acknowledges that when a child is in a crazed tantrum, they lose sight of all the good in that moment. What is often overlooked, she says, is the effect a child's emotions has on the carers, and all the wild things they stir up within the grown-up.

What do the wild things represent in the book?

Each of the Wild Things seems to represent a different emotion or feeling that exists within the mind of young Max, and therefore represents a challenge that he must overcome.

Why is where the wild things are controversial?

Readers believed Where the Wild Things Are was psychologically damaging and traumatizing to young children due to Max's inability to control his emotions and his punishment of being sent to bed without dinner. Psychologists called it “too dark”, and the book was banned largely in the south.

What do the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are represent?

According to some, the wild creatures in the film represent Max's emotions, and the story thus takes the form of the process in which the child learns to manage his emotions, but in reality the film is even more complex than that.