This past week I read Where the Wild Things Are to my 2nd through 5th graders. We’ve been reading a lot of older classic picture books lately and examining them closely to determine if we think they are still classics. One of the questions that came up was, What really happened to Max in this book?
That’s a tricky question. As a kid I always assumed that Max was pretending while he was in time-out. I had an active imagination as a kid, and this seemed like what was happening to me. Max had this imaginary world of wild things built up in his mind, and he could escape there whenever he wanted to. I loved that. I had my own worlds that I liked to visit when the real world got to be bit too much. That was one of the biggest reasons I loved (and still love) books.
Reading this book several years later as an adult, I changed my mind. It seemed clear to me that Max had fallen asleep and everything that happened in the world of the wild things was actually a dream. It made more sense that he woke up when he smelled the meal his mother had brought in. In this illustration, he very much looks like a kid just waking up from a crazy dream.
My students were split on the two ideas. A lot of them seemed to think that Max was simply imagining, but more thought that it was a dream. One student asked me to see the before and after illustrations of Max’s bed again to see if it was messed up. I flipped through both pages and showed the kids.
“The moon!” she said. “Look at the moon! Why is it different?”
In the hundreds of times that I have read this book by myself, or with kids, I had never noticed that the moon was changing the whole time. It starts out as a waning crescent and ends up a full moon in the middle of the wild rumpus.
Whatever we think happened in this book, whether Max is imagining all of the action, whether he is dreaming or whatever, Sendak purposefully threw a wrench in our theory.
My students had a few more adjusted theories to account for the moon. One boy thought that maybe this is a recurring incident and that Max gets sent to his room without dinner all the time, and the illustrations are all from different incidents. I think that this is a pretty good theory.
Another student thought that Max was still in that place in-between sleeping and awake, and was still partly in the wild-thing-dream. I think that this is a good possibility as well.
In all honesty, I think that Sendak was a very clever man and wanted to make sure we would still be talking about this book 56 years after it was first published. That’s why he never showed Max on the bed and left the sheets alone. He put the moon in there to make sure there was no way for us to know for sure what happened to Max. Maybe his room really did change and he really did travel to a far away place. It’s a picture book. Anything can happen. Every reader has a unique experience with the land of the wild things and they can all come to their own conclusions.
I’ve always loved this book, but this week, I’m looking at it with new eyes. My appreciation for it has grown exponentially. It’s one of the best and always will be.