Saturday, February 7, 2015

Let the Wild Rumpus End!: The Last Page of Where the Wild Things Are

 
    In the world of children's literature scholarship, picturebooks have only been critically discussed comparatively recently. They became a popular commercial genre in the late 1800s, and picturebook illustration awards were instituted in 1938 in the U.S. (the Caldecott Medal) and in 1955 in the U.K. (the Kate Greenaway Medal). Barbara Bader, in her American Picture Books: From Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within (1976), was one of the first scholars to note that picturebooks merit scholarly discussion, but the undeniable standard in picturebook analysis is Perry Nodelman's 1988 Words About Pictures.

     Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963) is practically the centerpiece of Nodelman's study and has since become arguably the most analyzed children's book of all time. Children are captivated my Max's mischievous adventures, and adults are easily swept away in imaginative nostalgia, particularly if they themselves are now the parents of wee troublemakers like Max. After making trouble of one kind...and another...Max is sent to his room without supper by his exasperated mother (who is never pictured). Once he is confined, his room gradually transforms into a lush forest, and the reader follows Max on a journey "through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year" to where the Wild Things are. They all have a "wild rumpus," and Max is able to tame their savageness with his confidence and leadership after they make him king.

    
       Max eventually perceives that it is time for him to return to his world when he begins to smell all around him good things to eat. He retraces his long journey home and emerges in his own room, where he finds a tray of supper set out for him. Once can most certainly read Max's journey as a fantasy tale in which he literally is gone for over two years and travels to a strange land. But, the critical consensus seems to be that Max has either fallen asleep and is dreaming or is playing make believe in his room. Either way, the Wild Things are representative of his psychological state - out of control when he had been making mischief and subsequently tamed when he calms down and thinks about what he's done, so to speak.

     The final page of the book simply contains the phrase "and it was still hot." This may be one of the most well-known endings in all of children's lit, even inspiring devoted fans to get the last phrase tattooed on their skin in homage.

The final thoughts of the narrative are with the food Max finds laid out for him. That tray represents the proverbial olive branch, a signal that his mother is no longer mad at him, especially since prominently displayed beside the bowl of soup is an invitingly large piece of cake. Max is foregrounded in the image looking like he has recently woken up, though the bed in the background is still made (many have debated this inconsistency).
 

 
     The reader is not 100% sure of Max's security though until he/she turns the final page to see the last assurance "and it was still hot." This one phrase encompasses safety, domesticity, forgiveness, and nourishment simultaneously while reassuring the child reader that, when it is time for him to face his Wild Things, someone will be waiting when he gets home.


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