Top 100 Picture Books #1: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
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Arguably the single greatest picture book ever created. – Hotspur Closser
Some argue that Sendak did better work than Wild Things during the span of his career and while I agree on some level that this is true, I think his other books appeal to people on different, individual levels. In truth, there has never been a picture book made that has reached so many people on so many levels like Wild Things. I mean, we are all a little mischievous, we are all a little bit adventurous (even if only in our hearts), and we all have a deep longing to be taken care of and fed good things to eat. – Owen Gray
Because it makes my tongue happy to speak lines such as, “And sailed back over a year and out of weeks, and through a day into the night of his very own room.” And because it makes my heart happy to end a story with, “Where he found his supper waiting for him, and it was still hot.” – DaNae Leu
There is no moment in any picture book more perfect than when Max returns to his room and his dinner is still hot. Enough said. – Katie Ahearn
The evolution of picture books can be broken down into two time periods: Pre-Wild Things and Post-Wild Things. Sendak’s 1963 book was that instrumental in ushering in the modern age of picture books. While tackling themes of anger and loneliness, Sendak created one of the few picture books that still seems fresh after decades in print. – Travis Jonker
For me this has to be number 1, not only because it’s a wonderful adventure story for little ones, not only because it demonstrates the power of imagination, not only because love, anger, defiance, and love again are so inextricably intertwined, not only because it’s a amazing example of how an illustrator combines the elements of design so successfully, but because it does all these things in 32 pages and 1200 words, AND children love it! – Diantha McBride
It is what it is, and, it is the best. It reminds you every time you read it why it is the best. You want to read it to every child you love, every child you like, and every child who drives you crazy. – Laura Reed
What is there to say about such a classic? It deserves all the accolades it has gotten through the years. It allows kids to be wild and misbehave and go off to the jungle, but wake up in their very own room and dinner is still warm. A comforting but fun book. – Christine Kelly
You can’t beat how much fun this book is to read. And, amazingly enough, I still have it memorized (even though I don’t think I’ve read it aloud in a couple of years). – Melissa Fox
Classic. When I heard they were going to make a movie out of the book I thought, “What?” Part of what makes this book so special is the wordless page spreads… just wild things making a rumpus… I love that Sendak gives children the power to just absorb those images. Awesome stuff. – DeAnn Okamura
Still perfectly crafted, perfectly illustrated. It doesn’t really matter that Maurice Sendak is sick of the thing, this is simply the epitome of a picture book. Sendak, like Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl, rises above the rest in part because he is subversive. Max is not a sweet little boy, he’s a crazy little kid like so many are in real life. And yes, the monsters represent his wildness, but that’s boring from a young reader’s standpoint. The fact is, Max gets to go have a monstrous adventure, and then he comes home and finds, not only soup, but a slice of cake. Because parents do manage to forgive their crazy little kids, and that’s a nice thing to know. – Kate Coombs
Monsters forever. – Rose Marie Moore
Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how to tell you this but we appear to have reached the end of our Top 100 Picture Books Poll list. And was there really, really any doubt in your mind about #1? After all, I can say nothing about it that my clever readers haven’t said better. Some of these comments make it clear that when this poll was conducted Mr. Sendak was still alive and well. With that in mind you cannot claim that it has arrived here at #1 due to its creator’s passing. Again and again the masses cry out that this is the ultimate picture book.
The synopsis from Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children reads, “In Where the Wild Things Are, the hero rages against his mother for being sent to bed without any supper. Banished, an angry Max wills his bedroom to change into a forest. In that forest he finds the Wild Things. After taming them and enjoying a wild rumpus, Max grows homesick and discovers supper waiting for him – still hot. Through his fantasy, Max discharges his anger against his mother and returns sleepy, hungry, and at peace with himself.”
Silvey tells us that Sendak had illustrated some fifty+ books for other authors before he started thinking about making one of his own. Though it was eventually published in 1963, this book was originally begun in November 1955 under the working title “Where the Wild Horses Are”. The trouble? Sendak didn’t like how he depicted horses. I find this strange since he did a fair number of illustrations for horse related books (including Charlotte and the White Horse by Ruth Krauss). In any case, horses were eventually substituted for “things”. King Kong proved an inspiration for the book, as did cheek-pinching relatives. Said Sendak of his own story “From their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions . . . They continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”
In spite of some mild controversy, the book won a Caldecott Medal, thereby proving that librarians have superior taste when it comes to these matters. Not that it was a sure thing. Minders of Make-Believe discusses how Sendak and his editor Ursula Nordstrom “braced themselves for disappointment.” Says the book: “As it happened, both inveterate pessimists were to be robbed that year of the chance to grumble and grouse. Sendak’s victory, more than most Caldecott selections, seemed to put into sharp relief the whole of a large and complex body of work. It crystallized his reputation and in one stroke transformed the increasingly self-assured and immensely articulate thirty-five-year-old into a public figure.”
In terms of the scary factor (which is to say, whether kids would end up traumatized by the book) Nordstrom has this to say on the subject: “I think this book can frighten only a neurotic child or a neurotic adult.” Later in Dear Genius (the collection of her letters) there’s an amusing note from 1974 from Ursula to Sendak where she mentions that Fran Manushkin wants to know if Sendak will be changing the last word in the book. Says Nordstrom, “As you know, new plates are being made and before the new edition comes out we wonder if you want to change the last word from ‘hot’ to ‘warm.’ I can’t for the life of me remember the history of all this but I believe we heard from a couple of children (or their rotten parents) that ‘and it was still warm’ would be better than ‘and it was still hot’ because children don’t like hot foot [sic]. Listen, have you ever had such great editorial comment in your life?” For some reason I like this little passage very very much, though “hot” is clearly the superior word.
In 2005 The Jewish Museum here in New York featured an exhibit called Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak. At the time I had only just moved to New York, and so I missed it. Fortunately, there’s a fair amount of text online describing the exhibit.
I could probably spend all day recounting the various incarnations of this book over the years. From operas to Metallica songs to a failed 1983 CGI version (yes, you read that correctly). So though I am loathe to suggest it, for a pretty marvelous encapsulation of all things wild (and all things thing) why not consider checking out the Wikipedia entry on the subject?
President Obama has a tendency to read this at his Easter Egg Rolls. Funny that such a subversive book is now considered so “safe” than even a President can read it without comment or justification (he should try In the Night Kitchen one of these years). He did it in 2009:
And no Wild Things post would be complete without a mention of the film. The film scored a 73% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes though some said things along the lines of, “It was as if Jonze had decided to remake Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for children.” If you have any questions, any questions at all, about this film then I guarantee that they were probably addressed on this almost ridiculously long interview between Ain’t It Cool News and Spike Jonze. Here is the trailer:
- In terms of the title itself, artist Ward Jenkins has produced an amazing blog post on Sendak’s use of white space. Consider this necessary reading if you’re a fan.
- And great site called Terrible Yellow Eyes solicited unique Wild Things art from a variety of different artists.
- On the occasion of Sendak’s death, Art Spiegelman created a great tribute to the man. It’s cheeky (in every sense of the word). I’ve not doubt the man would have loved it:
School Library Journal said of it, “Each word has been carefully chosen and the simplicity of the language is quite deceptive.”
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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