Where The Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, won the Caldecott Medal as the most distinguished American picture book in 1964. It is now considered a classic of American children’s literature. This book has been a favorite in my family now for going on three generations, with my two-year-old son asking me to read it to him almost every night. While the short text of the story is good, the book is more famous for its beautiful artwork. These images do more than just illustrate the story; in this article, I look at some small details from the artwork and explore how they contribute to what the book has to say about the transforming power of imagination.
The book begins with a boy named Max dressed in a wolf suit misbehaving, terrorizing the dog and talking back to his mother. He is sent to bed without any supper. But a strange thing happens: his room magically transforms into a forest with a nearby ocean. He boards a boat and sails across the ocean for nearly a year before he comes to an island inhabited by terrible monsters known in the book as “wild things.” Max manages to tame them, and they crown him king of all the wild things. After an indefinite amount of time, he grows lonely and wishes to return home. He gives up being king, boards his boat, sails back across the ocean, and returns to his room. He finds there his supper waiting for him.
Many fantasy novels have characters who journey between our world and another world. In some works, like C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, these other worlds are accepted as true: within the story, that is, they exist as real places. In others, though, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Bridge to Terabithea, the voyages to these other worlds are presented — even within the story — as dreams or as journeys of the imagination. It is not clear how to classify Max’s voyage to the land of the wild things along these lines. The narrator, on the one hand, always describes the events of the story in factual terms:
In Max’s room a forest grew [ ] and the walls became the world all around.
He sailed off through night and day and [ ] he came to the place where the wild things are.
Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed back [ ] into [ ] his very own room.
But on the other hand, one subtle element in the artwork convinces me that Max’s adventure is meant to be understood as an imaginary one. An illustration of an early scene contains a picture Max drew before he went on his adventure. Max had not yet been to the place where the wild things are when he made this drawing, yet his drawing looks exactly like one of the wild things he would later meet.
The text of the story does not refer to Max’s drawing at all, but it is an important clue in how to understand the story. I think the similarity between the drawing and the wild thing demonstrates that both originated in his imagination. Even though the narrator takes Max’s journey at face value, I think it is intended to be understood as an imaginary journey.
Throughout this imaginative journey, a change occurs in Max. At the beginning, he is just a naughty little boy. He is eager to escape his room, where he serves his sentence for misbehaving, and imagines himself as the “most wild thing of all” instead of as a well-behaved boy. He sends the wild things to bed without any supper — perhaps directing some negative feelings for his mother towards these innocent creatures of his own imagination. But as he sits alone, he has a change of heart:
Max [ ] was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. [ ] So he gave up being king of where the wild things are [ ] and sailed back [ ] into [ ] his very own room.
He no longer wishes to be with the wild things: he now wants to be with his mother. Max’s imaginative journey gave him a new perspective on his life, and this new perspective resulted in a different attitude and (presumably) in different behavior after his return. The illustrations capture this effect on Max in a subtle but powerful way. Before Max’s journey, the illustrations of Max’s real world are always contained by a white border on all four sides. As his room transforms into the forest, that border slowly shrinks until the illustrations fill the whole page. (The added black border represents the edge of the page.)
The world of Max’s imagination is larger, more wonderful, and less bounded than the real world. Every page depicting the land of the wild things has illustrations that bleed to the edges of the page; not one of them has a white border surrounding it on all four sides. When Max returns to his room from his imaginative journey, though, the border does not return.
The broadening of the illustration nicely mirrors the broadening of Max’s perspective. In the very first article here, discussing how we define “myth” on this site, I said that the mythic narratives found in ancient mythology and modern fantasy can dramatically change the way we look at our own world. As we read the story of Max’s imaginative journey, we can engage our imaginations to participate to some degree in his journey. We may even be able to have our perspective, our attitudes, and our behavior transformed in a similar way. In both the plot of the story and in some subtle details of the artwork in his Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak conveyed the role of imagination in this transforming power of mythic narratives.
- Sendak, Maurice. Where The Wild Things Are. Harper & Row: 1963.