Children's Corner: How 'Where the Wild Things Are' changed children's literature


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In February 1963, author/illustrator Maurice Sendak told his editor, Ursula Nordstrom, he was working on a new picture book.

Nordstrom, the legendary children's book editor of Harper & Row (now HarperCollins), wrote in a letter several days later to Sendak it was "wonderful" that "you're hoping to write and illustrate your own beautiful picture book next -- instead of doing a lot of illustrating for other people."

But in the letter, dated Feb. 19, 1963, and published in "Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom" (a volume edited by children's book historian Leonard Marcus), Nordstrom was a bit fuzzy on the specifics of the story Sendak wanted to tell in the picture book.

"You were speaking about something, or someone, or some little animal, getting out of some enclosure -- and I think that might grow and develop into a basic and beautiful story," Nordstrom added.

As usual, Nordstrom's intuition about creative genius was spot-on. Several months later, Sendak completed work on the book, which he titled "Where the Wild Things Are."

Now celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication, "Where the Wild Things Are" has sold more than 16 million copies and is widely regarded as the most important children's picture book of the 20th century. It opened the door for a more honest portrayal of children's emotions and influenced generations of picture book creators.

"Bringing the genre to new levels of psychological realism, 'Where the Wild Things Are' touched not only the children who read it, but most of the artists who entered the realm of children's books after it appeared," writes children's book expert Anita Silvey in "100 Best Books for Children."

In "Where the Wild Things Are," Sendak, who died last year at 83, relates how a mischievous boy named Max retreats into fantasy and a forest full of "wild things" as he storms and rages against his mother's decision to send him to bed without any dinner.

Sendak's text is both sparse and lyrical as it details the way Max "sailed off through night and day/ and in and out of weeks/ and almost over a year/to where the wild things are."

The illustrations, meanwhile, pack an enormous emotional wallop, showing Max and the wild things reveling in a "wild rumpus" before the homesick boy heads back to his room, where his mother, reversing course, has set out dinner "and it was still hot."

"Where the Wild Things Are" won the 1964 Caldecott Medal, given annually by the American Library Association to the most distinguished picture book for children. It was a controversial choice, with some children's book experts hailing the book as a masterpiece and others contending Sendak was frightening children.

Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, acknowledging he hadn't read the book, nevertheless wrote in the Ladies' Home Journal magazine that "Where the Wild Things Are" would "increase the desertion fears of children," Ms. Silvey writes in "100 Best Books for Children."

In a 1988 interview, published in "Show Me a Story!," another volume edited by children's book historian Marcus, Sendak noted that Bettelheim "also didn't like that Max was denied food.

"He (Bettelheim) did come around to agreeing with me years later," Sendak said in the interview with Mr. Marcus. "But his initial reactions did me a disservice."

The ever tart-tongued Nordstrom, meanwhile, wrote in a Nov. 21, 1963, letter to a library science professor who supported the book that "I think this book can frighten only a neurotic child or neurotic adult."

Nordstrom, who famously said that Sendak's art had been created "by the hand of God," was particularly proud that she was the one who "discovered" him as he was working as a window designer for F.A.O. Schwartz, the fabled New York City toy store.

It was the start of a professional connection and personal friendship that resulted in some of the best children's books ever published. Some were written by others and illustrated by Sendak, such as "A Hole Is to Dig" and "I'll Be You and You Be Me," both written by Ruth Krauss, "Little Bear," written by Else Minarik, and "What Can You Do With a Shoe?," written by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers.

But Sendak's most famous books were those he both wrote and illustrated. They include such classics as "In the Night Kitchen," "Outside Over There," "Chicken Soup With Rice" and, of course, "Where the Wild Things Are."

In the 1988 interview with Sendak, Mr. Marcus asked him how he felt about the fact that, despite the many other books he wrote and illustrated, "Where the Wild Things Are" remained the one for which he was best known.

"It is not my favorite book, but it is a book I'm extremely fond of, and very proud of. It's fine if that's the one I'm going to be known by," Sendak said.


Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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