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Lighting up Children’s Lit: Maurice Sendak

June 08, 2020 by Nora Nagy

“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.” - Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak reading his own book. Source: Self-Styled Siren Blog 2014

A few months ago I was sitting in a children's bookshop, reading Where the Wild Things Are. It was a summer evening, and some children had just finished a drawing workshop. Some of them walked up to me and asked what I was reading. I showed them the book, and suddenly about six of them were hovering over my shoulder, wanting to see the pictures and hear the story. Then a little girl asked for the book and started reading it out loud to the others. In that moment, magic happened. Although some of them did not understand a word of English, they all stared at the images, wanting to find out what would happen to Max and the wild things. The sound and rhythm of the words, along with the fabulous images enchanted the tiny audience.

Whether you read Where the Wild Things Are as a child or a grown-up, it will have a lasting effect on you, and you will probably end up reading and time and time again. If you don't know much about Sendak's work, the story of the little boy who ate his card will give you an idea of the grotesque magic it spells on its readers. The book was published in 1963, and it hasn't stopped to amaze its audience since then.

As Sendak said in his last interview with Stephen Colbert, there should be no difference between writing for children and adults, and he didn't even like the term 'children's illustrator'. As he said, "I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’ I didn’t set out to make children happy or make life better for them, or easier for them." This same idea has been shared by other successful authors like J. R. Tolkien or Neil Gaiman. When we read these stories, we enjoy them just as much as children do. We, 'grown-ups' might interpret and reflect on them from a different position but they give us just as much pleasure and food for thought as they do to children.

Inspired by Sendak, we think that discovering a 'children's book' Where the Wild Things Are and finding out about its author can be a great reading lesson for young learners, teens and adults alike.

Reading the story with young learners

1 Let the images speak for themselves.

Start with the book cover, point to the 'wild things' and ask some questions.

  • Who is he?
  • Where is he?
  • How does he feel?
  • What are 'wild things'?

You could get them to mime or create a tableau of a group of wild things. Then, look at the pictures in the book. Explore the pages one by one. If you also read the story, don't focus too much on the meaning of every word.

2 Give some space to the words and their sounds.

As you are reading the sentences, slow down and enjoy the sound of the words and the rhythm of the sentences. They will often say less, and often more than you can see in the pictures. Sendak's approach to the relationship between pictures and words was that they should never communicate the same thing. As he said in an interview:

"What I love [about] illustrating a book is that words and pictures do things for each other. To just illustrate a word is pointless — you’re just laying down a picture. But if you have the picture doing something other than what the word is doing, then something marvelous might be happening… You get a dimension in a book."

3 Play with some words.

Point to the essential nouns which are easy to find in the pictures. For example, the words wolf suit, mischief, forest, ceiling, vines, ocean, private boat, teeth, claws are easy to find in the pages.

Then, play with both the action and onomatopoeic verbs. Act out words like grow, sail, stare, blink, step. Say out loud words such as roar and gnash. And when you played out the sequence when the wild things "roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws," you can "let the wild rumpus start". By the end of the lesson you won't have to explain what the word "rumpus" means.

4 Do some arts & crafts.

Make a wolf suit, a crown, a wild thing mask or costume, draw your own magical bedroom. Here are some beautiful creations by children which can inspire you.

Reading the story with teens

Reading the story with teens will be just as inspiring as reading it with younger children. You can also start with the pictures and reading the story out loud in pairs or as a whole group. If you feel uncomfortable reading the story out loud, you can browse YouTube narrations. You will probably need to do some language work to become familiar with the words we listed in the previous section. The discussion can be longer with teens.

1 Discuss the feelings of the characters.

How does Max feel at the beginning? Why does his Mum decide to punish him? How does he build this imanigary landscape and journey? How does he feel at the end of the story?

2 Watch the film trailer.

As Sendak described in an interview, he was picky about who should direct the film adaptation of his book. When he saw Spike Jonze's idea, he was pleased and supported the film. Discuss what might happen in the film and how it looks different from the book. How does it look similar?

Watch this short video about how the film was made.


Reading the story with adults

1 Read the story.

Not only Sendak, but some critiques also have suggested that it is a story as much for grown-ups as for children. However, an adult's response might be more personal or philosophical. Some adults might reflect on their own childhood experiences, and some other might find more abstract links to the relationship between children and adults in our world. After reading the story and discussing the words and the pictures, let your students reflect on both of these aspects.

2 Read about the story.

If your students are at an upper-intermediate/advanced level, ask them to read this short and informative article about the book:

3 Research Sendak's life.

It can be interesting for you and some adult learners to find out about Maurice Sendak's life and his career as a stage and costume designer for operas. Read more about his life.

Finally, read this interview with Sendak on PBS and find inspiration in his own inspiring artists and thoughts.

"(...) And I have a little tiny Emily Dickinson so big that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong. She is such a sexy, passionate, little woman. I feel better. Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can't explain."

I'll Always Be a Wild Thing - RIP Maurice Sendak Source: Wikimedia Commons

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