The goal of Banned Books Week, which runs from September 23 to 29 this year, is simple: to emphasize the right to free expression and reading protected in the First Amendment.
The list of important books that have been banned or contested in libraries and schools across the country is always interesting to peruse; it contains many of the books considered to be among the greatest in American literature, from Moby Dick to To Kill a Mockingbird. The Harry Potter books are there too, of course, as are many other YA books deemed dangerous in communities across America.
But one of the strangest inclusions on the list is probably the 1963 children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by the beloved author Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are is the story of a young boy named Max who runs away from home (in his dreams, of course) to a mysterious island inhabited by terrifying wild beasts. Deeming Max to be the wildest of them all, though, the beasts crown him their king and hold a Wild Rumpus in his honor.
The book is well-known to most American kids and former kids. It won the Caldecott Medal; it was on Reading Rainbow; it’s been in print for more than a half century and has sold 19 million copies, over half of which were purchased in the United States. Who would want to ban the Wild Rumpus?
Quite a few people, it seems. Its darkness and scary monsters led the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (who later said he hadn’t read the book, and based his critique on mothers’ descriptions) to write in a 1969 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal that the book was “psychologically damaging for 3- and 4-year-olds.” (Sendak is no stranger to controversy; another one of Sendak’s books, In the Night Kitchen, was the 24th most banned or challenged book between 2000 and 2009.)
Where the Wild Things Are is beloved much more than it’s banned. But maybe there’s something to the critique — something that Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers picked up on when they adapted the book into a 2009 feature film, which Jonze directed.
In the movie, Max is sad because his parents have split up and his mother is dating someone new. His father isn’t happy about that either. Max runs away from home and ends up on the island with the Wild Things, each of whom turns out to embody some part of Max’s sadness.
The film isn’t too explicit on that last point. But its recognition that Where the Wild Things Are has always been a kind of psychodrama — and its subsequent embrace of that aspect of the book in shaping the Wild Things’ fears, hopes, and conversations with Max — makes the whole story much richer and resonant with a wider range of ages than the picture-book crowd. Adults get sad and mad and angry and torn up inside too. Adults also sometimes need a Wild Rumpus to make sense of their real lives.
Like Sendak, Jonze and Eggers caught some heat for their film from people who felt it was too scary for 3- and 4-year-olds. Those people probably aren’t wrong, even if parents do sometimes underestimate the emotional maturity of their children (most fairy tales are terrifying, after all). But the movie really pulls off a feat that’s rare in today’s movie landscape: Instead of focusing on a narrow audience segment — just kids, or just adults who like fantasy, or just families with particularly mature young children — it manages to capture the universal experience of having difficult emotions and transform them into a story that’s already beloved by millions of kids, and those who used to be kids. It’s a quiet reminder of the power of scary-ish stories, and it’s made with warmth, humor, and wisdom.
Let the Wild Rumpus start!
Where the Wild Things Are is streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now, and available for digital rental on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play. Watch the trailer:
This article has been updated to correct information about the book’s inclusion on the ALA’s “most banned or challenged book” list in 2000-2009.