By Vita Forest
My class has just finished examining Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Although it’s a short book of not many words, it is a book of big ideas which took us many sessions to explore. The plot could be described as being about a mischievous boy called Max, who after being sent to his room in disgrace by his mother, has an adventure, then decides to return home. But of course, there is much more to it than that.
We started by doing a class brainstorm on a few key words. Before the children even knew which book they were going to read, they thought about “Wolves” (nocturnal, wild, predators, teeth), “Mothers” (loving, kind, cuddles, but also bossy, mean, strict) and “Night” (dark, moon, scary, sleep, dreams). You can see how interesting this is already.
We noticed how the Wild Things were made up of parts of many creatures. Max himself is part human, part wolf. We made our own Wild Things by folding paper into three sections and having a different person draw the head, the body and the legs. These were given interesting names like Hipp-octo-snake or Echid-fish-bug.
We thought about how our eyes moved across the pages, noticing the “vectors” (six year olds are experts at this). They traced their fingers across the pictures and drew invisible lines from the Wild Things eyes across to Max (there was only one of him, but he had their attention!)
We examined each picture and each word and noticed many strange and unusual things.
- The pictures went from being small neatly contained images, to ones that devoured entire pages or two, with no white space left and no words at all…
- A crowd of large monstrous Wild Things were frightened by a small solitary child and made him their king…
- It became important to notice if Max’s eyes were open or shut. What was happening when his eyes were closed?
- There were no pictures of the mother…
- Some of the small snippets of dialogue were repeated by different characters…
Books like this one fill a primal need. In the real world, children are small helpless beings, forever at the mercy of giant grown-ups who make the rules and control every aspect of their lives. There is something thrilling about a story in which the child protagonist is somehow able to subvert the normal way of the world, and become an all-powerful being, exerting absolute control over all the other characters and the environment. Perhaps this is why this story remains so potent and so loved despite being over sixty years old. (In a similar vein, my class has enjoyed Roald Dahl’s Matilda).
Perhaps there is also something really compelling about an angry young boy finding a means within himself to let go of some of his rage. When we looked at the last image of Max returning to his room and finding his supper, I asked why they thought he was shown with his wolf hood pushed away from his face. One of my own complex little people put up his hand.
“It’s because he isn’t angry anymore,” he informed the class.
Books are important.