Study Guide

Where the Wild Things Are

By Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things Are Introduction

If we had to give Where the Wild Things Are a yearbook award, we'd probably vote it "Most Likely to Be Featured on Kids' Bedroom Walls." Because, well, look:

Maurice Sendak's iconic picture book has been around for more than half a century, and it still enchants everyone who encounters it—even President Obama, who read it at the 2016 White House Easter Egg Roll and called it one of his favorite books.

But just where does the book's power to captivate come from? And how did Maurice Sendak, who wrote and illustrated the story back in 1963, nail it so perfectly?

Consider this: Sendak set out to create a story that would frighten children. And he succeeded…sort of.

That's the thing about Where the Wild Things Are: it straddles the line between fun and frightening, whimsical and grotesque, safe and dangerous. When Max's room turns into a jungle, we're spooked and intrigued. When Max sails across an ocean for days and encounters the wild things, we're nervous and exhilarated. And when Max realizes he's lonely and returns home, we're sad and relieved.

You see, Where the Wild Things Are makes readers of all ages a little bit uncomfortable…in exactly the right ways.

Sendak's illustrations, which earned him a Caldecott Medal one year after the book was published, show Max as a complex youth. He is sweet yet menacing, docile yet mischievous. And we can see that he swings between fear, haughtiness, and complete abandon in his dealings with the wild things. In other words, Sendak's drawings and his narrative perfectly capture the soaring extremes of childhood and the push-pull that exists when children try to navigate between complete dependence on their parents and a desire to venture out into the world on their own.

Perhaps it's because we never completely grow out of that feeling that the book remains a favorite for readers of all ages. Even presidents.

What is Where the Wild Things Are About and Why Should I Care?

You—just like everyone else on the planet—are engaged in a battle between dependence and independence. Don't even try to deny it. We know it's true, and so do you. (And so did Maurice Sendak.) It's the classic individual versus society theme, and it plays out in everyone's story.

Sure, the whole dependence-independence thing was probably a bigger battle when you were younger because when you first arrived in this world, you had to rely on someone else to feed you, keep you clean and safe, and teach you all of the important things, like which Ninja Turtle wears purple and which one uses twin katana swords. In the very beginning, there was no individual you in your society. It was a life of complete dependence, and that's what Max is rebelling against.

Max, like all young kids, relies on others to feed him, pay for his Wi-Fi, and make sure his wolf suit is clean. But at the same time, he's experimenting with independence, and that can be scary. Sure, he wants to be in charge and make his own decisions and chase the dog around the house without getting in trouble, but he also wants to be safe and loved and cared for.

That push-pull between wanting to go out and take the world by storm and wanting to just curl up in someone's arms and know that everything is going to be okay can get complicated. And emotional. And result in a lot of noise and tears and frustration. And frightened puppies.

And guess what? We all experience it. As kids and as adults.

As kids, when we can't figure out how to get what we want, strong emotions take over, and we tend to act out, throw tantrums, or storm off to our rooms.

As adults, well…sometimes it doesn't look all that different. Sure, instead of sailing off to a distant land in our imaginations, we might retreat to the couch with a pint of ice cream and the most recent season of our favorite show, but still. We retreat, we wrestle with our demons, and we find a way to cope.

And that's why you should care. Because Max, just like you, is struggling to find his way. When he journeys to the land of wild things to confront and come to terms with his difficult emotions, he's doing it for us all. And when he has calmed down, he shows us that it's okay to be humble, come home, and depend on someone else for a little while.

Where the Wild Things Are Resources

Websites

50/50/50
In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Where the Wild Things Are, the Maurice Sendak Memorial Exhibition was created. You can see some of the featured pieces and read about the tour. Be sure to check out the pages under the "fifty" link—all of which contain some great inspiration and information.

Warner Bros. WtWTA Website
The official site for the 2009 Warner Bros. movie contains video footage, a photo gallery, and a few free downloads…like wallpaper and a screensaver for your computer.

From the Publisher
HarperCollins has a Where the Wild Things Are page with information about Maurice Sendak, his books, and the movie. And under "extras," they have some printable coloring pages with scenes from WtWTA. Fun!

Facebook Things
Yes, the official Where the Wild Things Are Facebook page already has well over 2 million likes, but that shouldn't stop you from visiting.

Movie or TV Productions

Where Are the Wild Things? At the Movies!
In 2009, Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze put out a film version of Where the Wild Things Are that was pretty well-received. It was nominated for and won a few awards.

2009 Movie: Official Trailer
Get two-and-a-half minutes of wild things with this glimpse into the Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers version of Sendak's story.

Wild Things Opera
Opera? Yes, opera. Before the big live-action movie production in 2009, there was an operatic version of Where the Wild Things Are, produced in part by the BBC. Maurice Sendak wrote the libretto (the words), and Oliver Knussen wrote the music and conducted.

It's Not Over Till the Wild Thing Sings
The operatic version of Where the Wild Things Are, which was co-written in 1984 by Maurice Sendak and Oliver Knussen, is still being performed. It opened in Brazil in 2016 and in Germany in 2017.

Do You Know the Score?
If not, you can see the score of the Where the Wild Things Are opera (all 141 pages of it) in Faber Music's score library.

Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak
This 2003 Spike Jonze documentary predates the Jonze/Eggers Where the Wild Things Are movie adaptation, but it's highly likely that Jonze's interview with Sendak was a big influence on the production. In this documentary, Jonze interviews Sendak, and they discuss his life, his work, his obsession with death, and much, much more.

Articles and Interviews

A Musical Review
This Guardian article reviews a 2012 production of the Where the Wild Things Are opera, written collaboratively by Maurice Sendak and composer/conductor Oliver Knussen in 1984.

Bill Moyers Goes Deep
This 2004 interview of Sendak by Bill Moyers covers everything from Sendak's early career to his views of childhood, his thoughts on children's literature, and the Holocaust.

Wild Rumpus at the GMHC
In an interview with POZ.com, Sendak discusses his mural at the Gay Men's Health Crisis building in Manhattan. He also weighs in on just what is—and is not—appropriate to talk about with children. Hint: Sendak thinks that just about everything is fair game.

Upon the Author's Death
BBC News' tribute to Sendak offers up several interesting facts about the author and his life, including that more than 19 million copies of Where the Wild Things Are had been sold worldwide by the time of his death.

"Among the Wild Things"
In this comprehensive 1966 profile of Maurice Sendak from The New Yorker, writer Nat Hentoff details his interview with Maurice Sendak, discusses Sendak's work in depth, and even meets Jennie, the little white terrier featured in many of Sendak's illustrations.

Video

A Narrated Video Tour Through the Book
This 1975 video features Sendak's original illustrations, music by Peter Schickele (of the Schikele Mix), and narration by Allen Swift. Think of it as video storytime.

The Obamas Get Wild
Watch President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama read Where the Wild Things Are at the 2016 White House Easter Egg Roll.

Wild Pop
Singer Alessia Cara acknowledges that her song "Wild Things" is a nod to Sendak's classic children's picture book. And, indeed, in the official video, she and her friends dance around in animal masks enjoying their own wild rumpus.

Audio

A Matter of Life and Death
In this nearly 20-minute interview with Terry Gross from 2011, Maurice Sendak discusses his views on life, his desire to have (and not have) children, the death of his longtime partner, being gay, and, of course, his books. Among other things.

On Drawing the Wild Things
Maurice Sendak talks about the process of creating and drawing the wild things for their eponymous book.

How Sendak Helped (and Continues to Help) Kids Survive Childhood
NPR remembers Maurice Sendak's contributions to the world of children's literature in this six-minute piece.

Images

Wild Things on Stage
This still from a production of the Maurice Sendak/Oliver Knussen Where the Wild Things Are opera shows the orchestra, some of the players, and an illustration done by a student.

Maurice Sendak
A portrait of Maurice Sendak.

The Classic Book Cover
You know it, you love it, you'd recognize it anywhere.

Movie Poster Image
Here's the official movie poster for the 2009 adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.