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Please Join Me in a Wild Rumpus

Picture books are not simply books with pictures: they are a delicate interactive fusion of text and image that ceases to have meaning if one or the other is removed. This interaction of text and image is repeated in the interaction of adult reader and child listener. The best picture books include this relationship as part of the meaning-making experience: the presence of the child listener, cuddled up beside the loving adult reader, is implied as part of the dramatic performance that makes up the experience that is the picture book.

No book embodies this concept more clearly than Sendak’s 1963 Caldecott-winning classic, Where the Wild Things Are. Its finely-crosshatched jungles, plump monsters, and glowing moon are so familiar that we may forget the actual experience of reading it to a child — or for the younger among us, hearing it read by an adult.

Where the Wild Things Are is about boundaries — between human and animal, parent and child, inner world and outer, security and adventure, home and away. The exploration of these contrasting states is reflected in the gradually shifting boundaries between text and image, white space and illustration. The first picture, of Max in his wolf suit, is a small rectangle well-contained by wide white borders; the brief accompanying text (the entire book is just over 300 words) serenely occupies its own blank white page. With each page turn, the image grows larger. The trees that begin to grow in Max’s room start to overspill the frame into the white borders, until his room becomes “the world all around” and the image now completely fills the right hand page. In this fantasy world, image dominates more and more over language, and the central boundary between pages is crossed and the trees and water and monsters creep inexorably toward the left. When Max arrives where the wild things are, the pictures spread right across the expanse, and the text is relegated to the bottom of each page. Finally, in the dramatic culmination of Max’s fantasy, as King of All Wild Things he proclaims, “Let the Wild Rumpus start!” and for three, glorious double-page spreads, there is no more text, no more need for a reader, no more restraint. All is energy and the child reigns supreme: David dances before the Lord “with all his might.”

Yet even at this moment of maximum wildness, the safety net of home and security remains. Max wears his crown of authority over his inner wild things, and the silly, grinning monsters are actually quite well-behaved. When Max feels lonely, he completes the act of taming (begun by staring them in the eyes without blinking) by saying, “NO!” when the wild things threaten to “eat you up, we love you so.” (Sendak has said that the wild things are based on his childhood memories of visiting Eastern European relatives, who would pinch his cheeks and say they wanted to eat him up. “I was very nervous,” he recalls, “because I really believed they probably could if they had a mind to. They had great big teeth, immense nostrils, and very sweaty foreheads.”1)

Max is now ready to return home, to the world of reality, of boundaries, where the ego does not reach from pole to pole, but others exist to love and be loved. The text returns, bringing with it the voice of the adult, and his invisible mother (symbolized, many critics believe, by the ever present moon), has provided supper. The final page is text alone, no image at all, reassuring both reader and listener that the food which Max had smelled from so far away, “is still hot.” The journey is complete, and both Max and the child listener find themselves safe at home.

I like to compare Where the Wild Things Are with that other great classic picture book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, written by Beatrix Potter in 1901. Whereas Max is a boy in a wolf suit, Peter is a rabbit in a boy suit — a little blue jacket and shoes. Like Max, Peter is a “wild thing” who ventures into a forbidden and dangerous world where large bipeds threaten to eat him up — after all, Peter’s father was actually “put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” (Why do people seem to think that Victorian picture books were more prim and restrained than the books being made now?)

Both Peter and Max have their adventures and return home safe. And while Peter only has chamomile tea (“One table-spoon to be taken at bed-time”) while his sisters enjoy “bread and milk and blackberries for supper,” still he is none the worse for wear and actually returns to Mr. McGregor’s garden in the next book, to retrieve his coat and shoes. Rather than being a cautionary tale warning against disobeying mother, this story suggests, like WTWTA, that a child may venture away from home, have an adventure, and return safely, having grown up just a bit, ready to dare again another day.

As Perry Nodelman and Mary Reimer note in their classic textbook The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, the most interesting children’s books are ambivalent about “the relative desirability of growing up and not growing up.” These texts “refuse to deny either the excitement of being away or the boredom of being at home…. In their ambivalent expression of contrary values, such books offer readers room to speculate, space to grow in” (200-1).

Really great books provide ample space for a variety of readers to grow in, to find meaning for themselves, and to be surprised at what another reader finds in the same words. This is the magic of books, of course, those dead-looking objects that sit for years on shelves in back bedrooms and used bookstores and libraries, until the right reader comes along and all the settings and characters and turns of phrase come to life again, vivid as ever.

A great picture book is a special manifestation of this magic, as it calls for both a reader and a listener, and the experience unleashed from between the covers not only brings a story to life, but can create a bond that is remembered for a lifetime, and beyond. I still recall the cries of pleasure from my now-grown-up sons as they jumped on my bed like the monkeys in Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina.

And sometimes I can still hear my mother’s voice reading my favorite book from more than fifty years ago.

Can you?

1 Interview with Jonathan Cott for Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children Literature (McGraw-Hill, 1981): 52.

Nancy Lecourt is currently the Academic Dean at Pacific Union College, where

she taught in the English department for 25 years.

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