This year, which is racing to a close, marks the 50th anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Maurice was a busy boy: he wrote or illustrated more than 100 books, yet Wild Things proved far and away to be his most popular creation. So much so, in fact that when the Library Journal surveyed its readers on “their all-time favorite picture book,” they selected Where the Wild Things Are as No.1. In an early review, the Journal noted that it is “the kind of story that many adults will question,” but “the child will accept it wisely and without inhibition as he knows it is written for him.”
But things weren’t always so rosy for Max and the monsters. When Wild Things was first published in the early ’60s, Publishers Weekly lauded Sendak’s “superb” artwork, but warned that the book’s pictures might prove frightening for kids and added that they were accompanied by “a pointless and confusing story.” Whoops! So much for reviews: To date, the book has sold more than 20 million copies in 32 languages.
That’s an amazing feat for any book, but it’s especially impressive when you consider that Wild Things tells its tale using vivid illustrations but only 338 words — about 1-1/2 typewritten pages. What is there about the story that’s so captivating? Surely one key is that it has a classic hero’s journey theme: We see Max, who is banished to his room respond by transforming it into a forest filled with monsters. After they enjoy a “wild rumpus,” he returns home safe and sound.
There are two things I love about the Wild Things success story. First, it’s a tale of readers — children and their parents — who embraced a book and turned it into a beloved classic. And second, it shows creative courage: Maurice followed his muse into the forest of his own fertile mind and came back with a heartwarming take on childhood that has enchanted generations of kids. Maurice was brave enough — or wild enough — to go where he needed to go without worrying about what the adults who had to buy his book would think about it. By honoring the child within, he reached children everywhere. Bravo, Maurice. Let’s follow his example and write on.