The book has also endured because while its details are delightfully specific – the look of the outlandish monsters, the white wolf suit, the fact Max chases the dog with a fork, and his cry “I’ll eat you up!” in response to being called “wild thing!” – it’s also entirely relatable and open to interpretation. I was obsessed with Where the Wild Things Are as a child and have carried my dog-eared copy, with its 90p price label, through countless house moves into adulthood, a talisman of sorts. My parents divorced when I was a baby and, as a very small child, I found leaving my mum and my regular home to stay at my dad and stepmum’s house unsettling, despite the warm welcome. Looking back, I realise I idolised Max, his ability to sail off into the night, far from his mother, and fearlessly confront those monsters. I longed to be brave just like him.
Of course, Max didn’t actually sail off into the night. But to my child self, there was no difference between what was real and what Max imagined within the book. Interviews with Sendak frequently reference the “doorways” or “secret entrances and exits” between the parallel realms of reality and fantasy that he intuitively understood and could readily slip between, just like a child, when creating. In 1970, when Braun visited Sendak at his home on West Ninth Street in Manhattan, the journalist described the actual passageway to his home studio as “long and narrow and dimly lit”, a space Sendak transitioned through every day to “recover the world of his childhood”. Perhaps this is what Sendak also offers his readers: more than just a book, Wild Things is a portal to the feelings and desires of our own infancy. It actually takes us through one of Sendak’s mysterious passageways, allowing us to not just hear about, but also to re-experience the childhood realm.
Above all, in our age of iPhones, computer games and AI, of oversaturation from the endless churn of 24-hour TV and social media, Wild Things is a much-needed reminder of what really makes children – and people generally – tick: freedom to express themselves, play, connection to nature, family and, of course, love. His masterpiece might be only a few hundred words in length, but it captures the very essence of the human condition: that, when all is said and done, when we need to rest from our adventuring, we all long to go home to where someone loves us best of all.
Imogen Carter is the picture book critic for The Observer.
Read more about BBC Culture’s 100 greatest children’s books:
The 100 greatest children’s books
The 20 greatest children’s books
The 21st Century’s greatest children’s books
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