Where the Wild Things Are: A Journey into Childhood

Originally published in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is a children’s picture book about a rambunctious little boy, Max, who goes “wild” causing mischief and gets sent to bed without his supper. In his room, he enters a fantasy world “where the wild things are” in which he can let out all of his anger, regain control, and return peacefully to a refreshed and balanced state. At its heart, this is a story about a completely natural part of growing up: dealing with complex emotions and excess energy that is just itching to be unleashed, and learning how to find a healthy outlet that doesn’t harm or interfere with anyone else. Max’s particular outburst is unclear in the book version of the story, however his passion in saying, “I’ll eat you up!” is a sign of anger – unacceptable behavior in the adult world. The 2009 film adaptation of the same title directed by Spike Jones takes the story even deeper, to a discussion of how to temper immense emotional weight stemming from loneliness, rejection, betrayal, and misunderstandings, as well as an exploration of power dynamics and what it means to be a family.

The book represents that transition from an everyday familial interaction to something chaotic that crosses the line. It’s realizing there is a boundary where there wasn’t one before, and trying to navigate the confusion and anger that comes with not knowing why something has changed. In a 2002 interview with Jeffrey Brown of PBS, Sendak explains:

“[It’s] sort of like Alice falling down the rabbit hole… Why? Everything is arbitrary – why? It’s what you make of the little slip in time or strange moment in time. [In the case of] Wild Things, Max has this scene all the time, and his mother usually laughs and she enjoys it, [but] this is a bad day for her. It just is! We don’t know why; we don’t have to know why. And he does the same thing he’s been doing all the time, but she doesn’t like it today, and he is not prepared for her not liking it. Why has she changed? Why is she angry? Why is she upset? Why does she drive him to frantic distraction that he has to yell at her? He’s frightened. This is a change of enormous proportion.”[1]

The book resonates with its audience profoundly despite its simplicity. It brings to life something that is so hard to articulate for children – one of those unexplained moments where all of a sudden everything is wrong, and there is a reaction that doesn’t really compute for whatever reason. Perhaps the kid just wants to play and the parent is distracted or preoccupied with other things, so that when the child keeps prodding for approval and attention, the parent reacts with unexpected frustration, after which the kid has to grapple with that dissonant exchange. As a child the mixture of emotions that stem from an interaction like that can be exhausting to interpret. In Max’s case, he just needs to go into his imagination and reassert himself in order to find peace and realize that despite the occasional dramatic moment, there will always be a warm meal waiting for him back home. He needs that reminder and reassurance that he is loved, and that loneliness can be kept at bay within our minds as long as we can find our way back home.

In contrast, the film version explores much more of a backstory between Max’s relationships with his sister and mother, giving a strong indication of their domestic dynamics to really bring the situation to life and set the tone of the film. The opening sequence is heart-wrenching, seeing Max just wanting to be a part of things, to have fun building an igloo and have a snowball fight, only for his sister to disengage, ignore him, and let her friends bring his dreams collapsing down on him. It’s a traumatic and triggering scene on many levels, being rejected and literally crushed within the igloo he is so proud of, so of course he gets upset and retaliates. In this version, rather than punishing him, his mother is there for him, trying to do the right thing and talk him through it. They have a strong and loving relationship. It isn’t until her date comes into the picture that Max acts out, loses control and finally bites her, immediately realizing he went too far. His mom yells, “Max, that hurt, you’re out of control!” at which point he runs off down the street. Of course, his single mother just wants to have a nice meal and the scene Max causes is frustrating, but she runs after him (of course) because she loves him! This is where Max outruns his mother and sets sail to the land of the Wild Things.

Max’s adventure immerses the viewer in a whole new land where these huge, raucous Wild Things roam, and despite the otherness of these creatures, they are all very familiar characters embodying the imaginative thoughts and extreme emotions of childhood. The characters Max encounters offer him exactly what he was missing back home – a chance for intimacy and companionship. Max asks: “Carol, did you know the sun was gonna die?” and Carol responds, “What? I never heard that… Oh, come on. That can’t happen. I mean you’re the king, and look at me, I’m big! how can guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun, hmm?”[2]

Yet, the Wild Things are just as confused and looking for solutions as Max is, which is why they look to him as a leader. After proclaiming him king, Douglas asks, “Will you keep out all the sadness?” – to which Max responds, “I have a sadness shield that keeps out all the sadness, and it’s big enough for all of us.” As a dysfunctional group, they look to him as a savior and a guide – someone to solve their heavy adult-like problems and prevent the self-destructive tendencies that eat away at their familial unit. As emotionally undisciplined monsters, they reflect the depth and complication of the dramatic interrelationships between adult worlds. Carol and KW mirror the divorced parent dynamic, in which Carol is the abusive, loose-canon father figure and KW is the protective mother figure who doesn’t know how to maintain peace without distancing herself, resulting in the dichotomous struggle to either rebuild or let go: “Don’t go – I’ll eat you up, I love you so!”[3] As Max juggles their competing desires and expectations, he finds himself ostracized after igniting the flames in Carol during what should have been an opportunity to communicate. The subsequent fallout results in Max’s final decision to leave, remembering his home and realizing that if everyone isn’t willing to communicate, the Wild Things’ issues are beyond his skills to repair.

Max’s final return home is perfectly executed in the film. He runs home, the bouncy adventure music pumping, and his mom (played by Catherine Keener) feeds him a huge piece of chocolate cake and just sits there with her head on her hand, staring into his eyes with this look of utter love and relief until she drifts off to sleep. That simple, wordless scene just speaks directly to your heart: that, right there, is the epitome of a mother’s love. And Max just knows.

Although this ending to the film is a hugely sentimental moment, it isn’t overdone. In an interview with Jonze, he explains that the boy who played Max (Max Records) wasn’t an experienced actor, and so they had to pull a lot of tricks on set to get the appropriate reactions. Honestly, I feel the film took Sendak’s story to a whole new level and did it brilliantly, without any disrespect to Sendak’s original vision. Jonze says of the film:

[I] wanted to have it kind of like an action film starring a 9-year-old. I wanted Max to be like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. […] So much of the movie has this physical mayhem to it, like Max and the Wild Things having dirt clod fights or rampaging in the forest. [There’s fire and explosions and] in the center of all this complex physical production stuff is this 9-year-old boy and he’s the heart of the movie – he trumped everything.[4]

The production, the cast, the score, the scenery, the animatronics – everything about the film was spot on. However, a Vanity Fair interview with Spike Jonze explains that the film’s release was delayed because Warner Bros. had concerns regarding “creative differences” – in other words, “the studio doesn’t think it’s commercial enough.”[5] Regardless, although the darker emotional aspects may prevent some precautious parents from showing the film to their children before reaching a certain level of maturity, the final result of Jonze’s vision resonates deeply with its audience.

Interestingly, I think Sendak would agree that it is okay to expose children to heavier concepts, as they face these emotions frequently in their own lives. In a separate interview, Sendak talks about seeing Peter Pan as a kid and absolutely despising it because it would take an overly “sentimental” author to romanticize being a boy forever. As far as he was concerned, although adults “were mostly dreadful” and it’s “best not” to become like them, childhood was difficult. “[B]eing a child was being a creature without power, without pocket money, without escape routes of any kind, so [young Sendak] didn’t want to be a child. […] The wish is to get out.”[6]

However, in the PBS interview Sendak also talks about the internal struggle of feeling as though “there’s probably more child living in [him] than adult,” and that his writing is driven from that place within that is “riotous and strange, which we call the kid.” Arguably, writing from the “lurking” inner child proves useful, as his target audience is “the frightened child in all of us, young and old, [himself] included.” In regards to his writing style, Sendak speaks of a certain “rhythm” or “syncopation” that carries the story along for the child as a “continuous thread” of “words, pictures, words, pictures,” and you have to “catch [the audience] with your metronome right from the start” using a sort of “intuitive” timing.[7] The entire interaction is crucial, because to keep a reader or a viewer’s attention, especially for children, you need to engage them on multiple levels. This rhythm is reflected in Jonze’s choices with the film as well, combining a score that flows seamlessly between energetic and explosive scenes to more solemn expanses paired with bleak imagery. Ultimately, both versions of Where the Wild Things Are address the over-the-top emotions of childhood in engaging and relatable terms to all audiences, despite their major differences in structure and style.

Perhaps it isn’t the case for everyone, but every time I watch Spike Jonze’s version of Where the Wild Things Are, the experience ends in tears and a very strong and lasting emotional reaction. To this day, I still haven’t fully grasped what about the film is such a trigger for me, but I think it has to do with the knowledge that despite having strong parental leadership and a loving family, childhood was hard. And I think it’s hard on some level for everyone, no matter how privileged or perfect their early life may seem from the outside. That inner battle every kid faces every day at school, the struggle to be accepted as who you are, to navigate the ever-changing social world, to make friends and find your place in the overarching power structures that you’re only beginning to understand. It isn’t easy, and it’s particularly hard for the kids who feel like outsiders, even if they have no obvious reason to feel that way. I guess I relate to Max on a very deep level, because I was that kid – I remember feeling like no one was hearing me, no matter how loud I got or how hard I tried to communicate. It seemed like no one understood, and whatever problem I faced wasn’t significant enough for anyone to listen. I wish there was some way I could take every kid that feels those things and tell them in a way that they know in their hearts is true, and that gives them strength – “I see you, I hear you, and you are not alone. You are loved, and there is nothing wrong with you. Just be yourself, appreciate others, learn along the way, and everything will be okay.”

I hope that some day I will be able to create stories for children that truly deliver this message, even if it means having to go through the agony of visiting my inner child every time I sit down to write. I hope that I can collaborate with others to produce stories through various mediums, as film in this case has proven to be so powerful and add such dimension to a simple story. Sendak says:

I don’t know how to write for children, I don’t think anybody knows how to write for children, and those who say they do and thus are marketed are frauds, basically! We can’t get into the very complex brain or spirit of a child – I don’t know how to do that. […] We do this for ourselves![8]

So if writing for children is practically impossible, I will write from my inner child – the kid who felt so deeply and didn’t know how to express it. I will write to myself, and to all the children who need to hear those words too. I will write because that’s what I’ve always needed, and maybe if I’m lucky, someone will listen. And maybe, just maybe, some day a kid will hear my stories and be inspired to tell their own.


[1] YouTube. PBS NewsHour. Remembering Maurice Sendak and His Inner Child. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWUUgjKpEaE>

[2] IMBD. “Where the Wild Things Are (2009): Quotes.” <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0386117/quotes?ref_=tt_ql_3>

[3] IMBD. “Where the Wild Things Are (2009): Quotes.” <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0386117/quotes?ref_=tt_ql_3>

[4] YouTube. “Where The Wild Things Are” Featurette: MAX and SPIKE. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kKC-UNLweU>

[5] Smith, Krista. “Spike Jonze Discusses Where the Wild Things Are.” Vanity Fair. <http://www.vanityfair.com/online/oscars/2009/10/spike-jonze>

[6] YouTube. Maurice Sendak in his own words. Where The Wild Things Are. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ogDExyl5Cw>

[7] YouTube. PBS NewsHour. Remembering Maurice Sendak and His Inner Child. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWUUgjKpEaE>

[8] YouTube. PBS NewsHour. Remembering Maurice Sendak and His Inner Child. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWUUgjKpEaE>