Maurice Sendak's Books: More Relevant and Rigorous than Ever
Nearly 50 years after publication, Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are holds up to the Common Core.
By Judith Smith Meyer
Maurice Sendak’s passing provides educators, parents, children — indeed, readers of all ages — an opportunity to revisit the pleasures of both his vivid writing and his evocative illustrations. How many of us pulled out our home, or classroom-library copies of his 1963 Caldecott-winning Where the Wild Things Are when we heard its beloved author and illustrator had died?
As a teacher heading into the era of common core standards, I realize, even more deeply now than I did when I read his books to my own children, the following things:
- how rich and complex his text is
- how his illustrations broaden and deepen the meaning of his words
- how much his signature story advances both the pursuit of genuine literacy, of making meaning from text, and experience, as well as our journey to become fully human.
In California’s Common Core State Standards for literature, from kindergarten through grade 5, the relationship of print to illustration and visual interpretation of text are acknowledged as essential elements of literacy. In the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas strand, the standards range from kindergartners being able to describe which part of a story is depicted in an illustration, to 3rd graders identifying how illustration creates mood or emphasizes aspects of character, to 5th graders understanding how illustrations contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text. Applied to Where the Wild Things Are, the new standards reinforce the timeless value of Sendak’s work for contemporary readers.
Literacy is About More Than Text
Sendak was primarily an illustrator. He started his career making drawings for his brother's stories, and first gained widespread-recognition for his artwork for the Little Bear stories by Else Holmelund Minarik. He understood deeply the power of illustration not only to support a story, but to reveal its implicit truth to readers. His work was more than just translating words into pictures. He unveiled stories that could only be found in text through high-level inference.
In an interview at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, the sole respository of Sendak’s original artwork and the foremost authority on all things Sendak, he explained that, as an illustrator, “You have to find something unique in this book, which perhaps even the author was not entirely aware of, and that’s what you hold onto, and that’s what you add to the pictures: a whole other story that you believe in, that you think is there. When you hide another story in a story, that’s the story I am telling the children.”
The power of an illustrator who mined untold stories in the written work of others came to undeniable fruition in the work for which Sendak is most lovingly remembered. In Wild Things, Sendak wrote the surface story of feisty Max, a child in trouble for making mischief, (shown in pictures hanging his toys by the arm, nailing tied-together cloth to the wall, and chasing his dog with a fork) and talking back to his chastising mother, “I’ll eat you up!”
Sendak also told the story in pictures of the Wild Things who welcome Max when he comes ashore in their land. The postures and expressions on the Wild Things' faces not only give visual reality to the words about Max’s adventure, but they build compassion for the other characters in his fantastic drama.
When his boat lands ashore, the expressions and body language of the Wild Things who greet Max are all wide-eyed, hopefully curious, and welcoming. Max exerts on them the very power he lacks at home when he’s exiled to his room without dinner; the power he escapes on his adventure across time and the sea. The Wild Things in the pictures look not just frightened, but awestruck at the hypnotic force of the young boy in his wolf suit; their paws clasping their cheeks and foreheads. With the Wild Things bowing to him, paws clasped in devout obedience, Max declares, “let the wild rumpus start.”
For three full scenes across six pages, we witness the rumpus of King Max and his subjects entirely in illustrations. The wild things are huge, hairy, scaly, and clawed, but Sendak’s incisive artwork shows us more than that. The Wild Things dance joyfully under the moon, gaze questioningly at each other, follow Max’s lead to swing in trees, link arms in unity, and keep vigilant eyes on their leader in the royal rumpus parade.
When Max decides to return home to the beckoning smells of a hot dinner, the Wild Things cry out a desperate “please don’t go– we’ll eat you up, we love you so!” but visually they all look ferocious. The only difference between Max’s words to his mother and the Wild Things’ words to Max, is that they make explicit what Max could only imply: “I love you wildly. Please stay with me.” But they express extra-linguistically what many of us show in our moments of deepest loss: anger. Connecting such apparently disparate emotions/actions as sadness and rage could advance standards about illustrations expanding character or plot at the same time it reveals to readers the essential human reality that feelings are more complex than we often believe. It can also support developing conflict resolution skills by promoting discussion of the following question: how do the Wild Things feel?
Common Core's Complexity of Texts, and Sendak's "Complexity of Children"
Research behind the Common Core features evidence that “while reading demands in college, workforce training programs, and life in general have held steady or increased over the last half-century, K-12 texts have actually declined in sophistication.”[i] At the very time that our information-based, knowledge-accelerated world requires students to navigate independently increasingly complex texts, the works they encounter in schools have steadily declined in complexity from 1963 to the present.[ii] A note Sendak himself made in a recent interview with Stephen Colbert is relevant in this context, “There is something in this country that is opposed to understanding that the complexity of children is quite amazing.”
Quantitative assessments of text difficulty based mostly on sentence and word length, including lexile measures, often misrepresent text complexity. (Steinbeck’s Pulizter Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath, based on measures of word and sentence length places at the 2nd-3rd grade level!) Notably, Where the Wild Things Are was written in the last year during which school-level reading materials were age-appropriate equivalents in complexity to the reading demands students would face in adult life.
Qualitative measures probably more accurately reflect the academic value of a literary work. By every qualitative criteria, Wild Things stands as a towering example of literacy-building text. It features multiple levels of meaning and a structure that is complex and unconventional. It also includes implicit themes and motivations, has sophisticated graphics that are essential to understanding the text and provide information not otherwise conveyed in the text, features irony, makes complex knowledge demands about life experiences by presenting multiple perspectives, can best be understood with abundant cultural and literary knowledge, and has high intertextuality; that is, makes references and allusions to other texts.
Qualitative measures used to determine text complexity reflect the profound sophistication of Where the Wild Things Are and support its use to further the kind of literacy skills students of today need to master the world they will enter when they leave school. Since college and career readiness begins long before high school, as educators we have even more reason now to embrace Sendak’s seminal work in our classrooms. And as Sendak himself points out in his interview with Stephen Colbert, “I don’t write for children. I write, and somebody says, that’s for children.” Naturally, the work of an author/illustrator who understands and honors the complexity of childhood and writes for readers of all ages would promote sophisticated reading development.
Building Literate, Compassionate Adults
Just as I recently used Karen Kaufman Orloff’s children’s story, I Wanna Iguana, in a lesson for my 8th grade English students about anticipating objections in their evaluative persuasive essays, Where the Wild Things Are, with its rich text complexity and lexile of Adult Directed 740 (in the target range for grades 1-6), could enhance literacy education at many levels. The story provides opportunities to address irony (“I’ll eat you up, I love you so!”), build skills at making inferences (“Why did Max tell his mom he’d eat her up when she sent him to his room?” “How do the Wild Things feel when they roar their terrible roars, gnash their terrible teeth, roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws?” “Why does Max host a wild rumpus?” “Why is there a hot supper on the table when he gets back home?”), and even explore themes of interdependence, appropriation of power, and reconciliation.
Significantly, in a world where poor literacy and incarceration go hand in hand, Where the Wild Things Are serves to build compassion by showing that Wild Things having feelings of their own. They are much more than figments of Max’s imagination; rather they are characters who react to his presence, as well as to his departure. Sendak’s story presents powerful opportunities for readers to speculate about how others might feel. And a key component of positive participation in society is based on compassion and tolerance for others, and on the belief that even the feelings of those unlike ourselves matter. By addressing the human need for stories to make meaning, and by using language, illustrations and thematic content that reflect the real complexity of life, Sendak provided us with a rich body of work that helps us grow as readers, and as whole human beings.
[i] California Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, and Technical Subjects, Appendix A: Research Supporting Key Elements of the Standards
[ii] Chall, Conard, & Harris, 1977; Hayes, Wolfer, & Wolfe, 1996; Hayes & Ward, 1992; Gary L. Williamson, 2006.
Elementary readers write stories from the point of view of individual monsters in Where the Wild Things are, and use Garage Band to modify their voices to hear the story in monster sounds. They learn to reinterpret stories from points of view different than that of the main character. Technology brings their stories to life in big, wild voices!
Helping children make connections between texts and their own lives builds literacy and character by starting where the children are and moving forward from there. I love Tracey Rouse's still-relevant, inspiring Lesson Planet article from 2011 for ideas to get early readers connected to text and building myriad reading and writing skills in the process. Easy to add Where the Wild Things are as part of the lessons as there are probably many children who have experienced the wrath of a parent who has had just about enough of that! Be sure to read the beautiful comment from someone who knows the author testifying to her child-centered teaching.