On Literary Censorship: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are
Children’s stories are a scary business…
Welcome back to On Literary Censorship, the yearly series released during Banned Books Month where we dive deep into why books get banned, what it says about the culture of the places that ban them, and revisit them with a more open perspective. A few things worth noting: I tend to stick within the confines of my own geographical experience, which means primarily focusing on and dissecting bans in the United States, though this year will offer some branching out to other countries’ reasoning. Ordinarily I also try to engage with texts I have either not yet read or not revisited in years, but it’s been a rough couple years, so this year the focus is on children’s books! Particularly, books I was read and/or discovered as a child that laid the foundation for who I am today.
Without further ado, let’s set sail with one of children’s books’ most beloved adventures: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Originally published in 1963, this short tale of a mischievous young boy who gets sent to bed without dinner and escapes into a world of imagination had to face monsters of its own immediately after publication and through to as recently as 2009. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of its bans happened in the American South for such reasons as that psychologists found it “too dark” and the editors themselves worried that the “unvarnished story of rebellion, fear, punishment, and escape were too much for little children”. It has even been challenged for its depictions of witchcraft and/or the supernatural. Naturally, as with such previously covered notoriously banned books for children as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the readers who felt most threatened by Max and his imagination were the parents, not the children.
It’s an impressive feat, striking fear into the hearts of adults in 40 vividly-illustrated pages or less. I don’t know when the last time you sat down and had a conversation with a child was, but I am privileged to have gotten to watch two close to me grow up and develop wildly detailed imaginations through which they paint the world into a much more interesting place than it has any right to be. Just a few years ago I was regaled with the tale of a skeleton war which, unbeknownst to us adults, my young nephew had been drafted into and charged with recruiting the help of the crabs on the beach to defeat the skeletons who threatened our vacation. It was an elaborate plan, seeming to have spawned from years of strife between skeletons and humans (and beach-dwelling crabs). I have yet to figure out what inspired his journey, but we had rented a house next to one that was being renovated — and thus was a bit hollowed out in places, showing, if you will, the house’s bones — which he explained was the base for the skeleton army.
By the end of the week when I checked in to see if humanity had won the battle (we had) I was bowled over by the depth of his ability to not only create pieces of such a puzzle out of nothing, but to fit them together so intricately. We lose this ability as we get older if we are not careful, and to see it play out was inspiring not just as someone who gets to watch him grow up, but also as a writer of stories. I aspire every time I put pen to paper to create something as involved as my nephew did that week.
All this to say, children have a remarkable ability to form the world around them into something wholly different than the comparatively mundane one we find ourselves in day-to-day, and in my experience it is always at least a little dark. Even children who are afraid of the darkness find ways to understand and face it through the lens of their imaginations. For adults to be frightened and threatened by the truth of that knowledge, and by the idea that children might not just see something unruly but understand it in a way adults have forgotten, is to fundamentally be confronted with the knowledge that we do not know, truly, how our children work. In trying to protect them — especially when it comes to situations of censorship — we have forgotten how to listen to them. They are hungry for the stories censors try desperately to tear from their grasps.
The staying power of Where the Wild Things Are, and all of Sendak’s work, lies in both that it is dark and that he never once tries to frame it as a way to talk down to children. Max’s rebellion is not a story we read at anyone, it is a story to be read and understood with children, constructed by a man whose life was rife with the alarmingly unfamiliar. As a gay Jewish man from Brooklyn who’s family consisted largely of Holocaust survivors, Sendak frequently saw members of his family he’d never met before traveling in and out of his house, confronted in his own space with people who seemed a little alien and maybe even a little scary. A curator for an art exhibit spanning Sendak’s life explains that he did not reveal this connection to his family members until all of them had passed.
“The wild things really represent all the strange relatives coming from foreign lands to stay with the Sendaks because they were the first to establish a home in America. They hugged the little boy too hard, spoke words he couldn’t understand, and ate all the food in his house. Sendak was terrified of them.”
In trying to make sense of his own life and reckoning with his own traumas through the lenses of children’s imaginations, Sendak was not intending to tell exclusively children’s stories, though they did often provide children with tools to confront and understand their fears. Rather, he wanted to be understood as an artist who told stories that mattered to people, no matter what medium he told them in.
The 2009 film adaptation breathed new life into the story while maintaining the core importance of its meaning. Though it is now most commonly connected to its popularity with the “emo” and “scene” kids (both of which I proudly remain), it held to Sendak’s method of not talking down to the children and/or young adults who watched it. It did not shy away from the violence of extreme emotions, but neither did it allow such rampant expression to go unchecked. Rather, it remains a meditation on the big life issues and even bigger emotions young people often struggle to understand at Max’s age. Where the Wild Things Are is a space for these emotions and fears to be expressed and confronted without damaging punishment, where lessons about the way we understand the world and our place in it can be learned and carried with us throughout our lives. The things we experience within our imaginations can be just as real to us as the real world, and may even help us forge helpful tools for navigating an ultimately terrifying yet unifying world.
All children are wild things at one point or another. Consider the phrases parents use to explain the phases their toddlers go through: the “terrible twos” and the “threenager”; preteens’ ways of expressing themselves are often brushed off as something akin to “the way they are” that feels all too large for adults to take the time to interrogate. Add in a tinge of a derogatory tone and an eye roll and you have a polished truth: toddlers are the unruly versions of ourselves that happen before society has structured us with rules, preteens are the versions of ourselves trying to find our place amid those rules and spaces, and when it comes time for adults to confront them we have forgotten the feeling and know only to label them with something that sounds a little monstrous. But being a kid-monster is the fun part, and eventually we learn to put on wolf suits of our own and join the rumpus, returning to our lives with a renewed desire for connection with the big and little beings of the world we make together.