One of children’s literature’s most famous child characters is Max of Where the Wild Things Are. In a 2009 interview at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, author-illustrator Chris Raschka notes its influences in a memorable and, we think, very fitting way:
I recall the very first time I saw Where the Wild Things Are: It was on my friend Keith’s kitchen table; there was, right away, something mysterious and nearly exotic about the book.
Yep, mysterious and exotic. That pretty much nails it.
Max isn’t based on any real-world counterpart, but fans of this book may be surprised to know the story-that-never-was behind the book. In 1955, Sendak created a picture book dummy titled “Where the Wild Horses Are” with a plot that went like this:
A young boy sees a sign pointing toward “To Where the Wild Horses Are.” He starts to run in the direction the sign is pointing, only to see another sign telling him to “Go Slow.” That is followed by “Don’t Let Them See You” and “Hide Your Eyes.” Once he finds the wild horses, he grabs onto the tail of one, is thrown about and through the air, and loses his clothes. Now completely naked, he passes a sign that says “Beware!” and is then chased by what appears to be a wolf, a monster, and a bird. He dives into a nearby body of water and sails away on a boat to Happy Island, and it is there he finds a young bride waiting for him in a house.
(Missing from this bizarre tale is the emotional motivation Max has in the book’s final version – his rage at his mother and desire to simply get away already.)
As Sendak continued to fine-tune the tale in 1963, there even emerged—à la Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and her other mother—an alternate mother of sorts as the boy of “Where the Wild Horses Are” enters a magic garden that emerges from his forest-room. “Someone appeared and said stay with me, I am your mother,” Sendak had written.
That cannot be, said the boy, you do not look like my mother, and besides my mother is home waiting for me. With a growl the make-believe mother turned into a terrible wolf and chased the boy out of the magic garden…In a moment the boy grew to an old man and frightened the wolf away….
As Selma G. Lanes has pointed out, the notion of a mother turning into a wolf is nightmare-inducing, indeed, but it certainly does explain Max’s wolf costume.
The completed manuscript Sendak had turned into Harper included three verses that are so radically different from the final version we now hold in our hands that it is a wonder, particularly for die-hard fans of the classic picture book. After Max smells “good things to eat” and leaves the wild things, Sendak had written:
But Max didn’t care because the Wild Things
never loved him best of all — or let him
eat from grown-up plates
or showed him how to call long distance.
So Max gave up being King of Where the Wild Things Are.
‘Wild Things are child things,’
said Max as he steered his boat
back over the year and in and
out of weeks and through the day.
As Selma G. Lanes noted, all verses “suffer from over-specificity, the spelling out of mundane details in a heavy-handed way,” not to mention the line “Wild Things are child things” was too haughty and altogether out of character for Max.
The version readers see today is what some would call perfect. Many illustration lovers the world over would even admit to the beauty of the final page, free of art (and Jules’ favorite page in all of picture book-dom), what Gregory Maguire has called “one of Sendak’s most lovingly rendered pages, one of his most graphically succinct and nonetheless articulate expressions of deep meaning”:
Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980.
Maguire, Gregory. “A Sendak Appreciation.” The Horn Book, November/December 2003.