The Magic of Where the Wild Things Are

The author and illustrator Brian Selznick discusses how Maurice Sendak showed him the power of picture books.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Brian Selznick, the author of The Marvels, never intended to make books for kids. Today, his ambitious, immersive picture books become New York Times bestsellers, but years ago, as a young Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Selznick tended to dismiss the entire genre. Then Where the Wild Things Are changed his life. In our conversation for this series, Selznick gave a brilliant close reading of Maurice Sendak’s classic, explaining how the subtle interplay between text and image enhances and deepens the story. Then, he shared how the book inspired a 15-year artistic exploration that culminated with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznick’s Caldecott Medal-winning breakthrough.

Selznick’s books aren’t like anyone else’s: His 500-plus page epics alternate between illustrations and text, rarely featuring both at the same time. (In a 2012 profile for The Atlantic, I described how Selznick used the form—indebted equally to silent film and the “wild rumpus” section of Wild Things—to create new narrative possibilities.) His latest book, The Marvels, opens with 400 pages of mostly wordless illustration, chronicling 150 years of family history—all before the first chapter of prose. It’s a story about loss working its way across generations, as a young runaway looks toward the past to find a home.

Selznick is also the author of Wonderstruck and many other illustrated books; The Invention of Hugo Cabret was adapted by Martin Scorsese into an Oscar-winning film, Hugo. He lives in Brooklyn and San Diego, and spoke to me by phone.

Brian Selznick: Early on, I never thought I’d want to illustrate children’s books. In high school, I associated them with cute, talking animals—and when people suggested I might grow up to illustrate books for kids, as they often did, I always felt vaguely insulted. Later, when I went to art school, there were many famous illustrators on the faculty, but I never took classes with them. Even Maurice Sendak visited, but I didn’t go to hear him speak. I had never read his work as a child, and I wasn’t sophisticated enough to think about what else the form might be able to do.

I went through college thinking I was going to be a set designer for the theatre. But after graduation, I ended up getting a job at Eeyore’s Books for Children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There, my life took a very different direction than I had anticipated. It was at Eeyore’s that I first sat down with Where the Wild Things Are, and fell completely in love with it. The key to everything I wanted to do, it turned out, was between the covers of that book.

I felt drawn to Where the Wild Things Are even before I opened it. The title is so intriguing, and the cover is beautiful. The book is a great size, with nice matte paper on the jacket, and it feels good in your hands. It is, of course, a great fantasy story: A boy goes to this place where the wild things are, conquers them, becomes king of them, and then makes the decision to leave and go home to the place where he’s loved best. I found myself deeply affected by the way the page-turns work, by the way the illustrations themselves change in size and shape as the story progresses.

On that first reading, I think I intuitively understood the way the book’s layout and its story play off each other, two equally important parts—how the structure of the book is in many ways the same thing as the story being told.

If you go back and look at Where the Wild Things Are, you’ll notice that every element of the book’s design helps to tell the story of this little boy named Max. The very first drawing, which depicts Max misbehaving in his house, is just a little tiny rectangle on a big sea of white space. The adjacent text says:

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind

As you turn the page, the illustration is another small rectangle, with text that says:

and another

But as he is sent to his room, and as his room begins to transform into the forest around him, the drawings themselves begin to take up more space. Each time you turn the page, they grow and grow. By the time he is in the land of the wild things, the text has been pushed to the edge of the page. And when the wild rumpus begins—the famous, wordless section where Max and the wild things revel in the woods—there is no more white space, and no more text. The drawings themselves have taken over and are bleeding over all four sides of the open book.

It’s up to you, the reader, to move through the wild rumpus at your own pace. Then, when you come out of it, the text reappears—and Max makes his decision to head back home. As he sails back in and out of a day, and through a week, and in and out of a year, the images become progressively smaller again. But you’ll notice that, when he finally arrives, something has changed. The drawing of his room—which, when we last left it, had been a small rectangle in a sea of white—now takes over half the book. It’s a full bleed on half of the spread. His home is larger now. Max has been enlarged by the adventures he’s been on, by what he’s experienced in the land of the wild things. The physical space that he occupies in the book has grown.

Then, most profoundly, as you turn the page, the drawings disappear altogether. For the first time, we have no drawings on the spread. There is just a single line, referring to the dinner that Max’s mother has left for him:

and it was still hot.

It’s that un-illustrated last page, with that simple last line, that I think most affects us. Because one of the brilliant things about Maurice Sendak as an illustrator is he knows what not to illustrate. You should never illustrate poetry, he used to say—referring, I think, to instances when an illustration might have a reductive effect on the text. So, you don’t see Max happily eating his hot soup. You don’t see his mother with her arm around him. By not illustrating that line, we, the reader, are asked to understand and see that line for ourselves. It trusts us—whether we’re three years old or a grown-up looking back—to understand its meaning and bring our own emotions and associations to it.

For me, it means I love you. For me, it means you’re safe. It means all the things that Max’s mother, the parent, is feeling towards the child—no matter how angry the child gets, or how frustrated. No matter how much Max might lash out, or have a tantrum, or chase his dog with a fork. Ultimately, the child is still loved. All of that is encapsulated in those un-illustrated five final words: And it was still hot.

Illustrating a children’s book, I realized, isn’t just drawing a picture that goes with the story on each page. It’s thinking about the entirety of the book as part of the experience of the story. All of the structural elements that go into Where the Wild Things Are are not necessarily meant to be noticed. But we feel them. And it’s the fact that they’re there that makes the book as powerful and everlasting as it is.

I spent many years illustrating books after that, trying to figure out new ways to draw pictures. I did nonfiction books, shorter stories, novels, some of which I wrote myself, always trying to keep in mind how I might make the illustrations specific to each project. It took about 15 years of exploration before I was able to make a book like The Invention of Hugo Cabret—the roots of which, in many ways, you can see in the wild rumpus section of Where the Wild Things Are.

When I started work on Hugo I wrote the story with no pictures—I was just writing it as a novella. I wanted the illustrations to do something different, but I wasn’t sure what. Since the story was going to be about the history of cinema, I started thinking about how movies tell their stories. I thought about the moment I love in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy opens her door from the black-and-white world of Kansas into this technicolor dreamscape. And I doubled back to books like Where the Wild Things Are, where the pictures are intrinsic to the telling of the story—where each page-turn has the potential to be as exciting and dramatic as Dorothy opening her door into the full-color world of Oz.

I began to wonder if the mechanics of a picture book could hold up over 500 pages in a novel for older readers. So I went back to my novella, removing text that could be replaced with illustrations: descriptive scenes, action, things that we could watch unfold. I began to experiment with the idea that a single story could go back and forth between language and pictures without using them at the same time. It all goes back, in a way, to that division in Where the Wild Things Are: the wordless wild rumpus section, and the un-illustrated “and it was still hot.” That is where Hugo and Wonderstuck and The Marvels really got their start—though it was 15 years of watering the ground before those seeds could sprout.

As I wrote Hugo, I wasn’t always sure my instincts were correct. It was a weird story, after all: a boy who lives in the walls of a train station and is obsessed with French silent movies. Though I loved those elements, there was nothing about the story that indicated anybody would want to read it. Nobody watches silent movies. And kids, certainly, don’t watch French silent movies.

During this time, I turned to Maurice for advice. He helped me understand that the most important thing is to tell your story and to be true to the things that are most important to you. There was a certain fearlessness with Maurice and his work, especially in terms of what you might think is appropriate or inappropriate for children. Spike Jonze made a wonderful short documentary about Maurice, Tell Them Anything You Want, when he was working on his movie version of Where the Wild Things Are. In this wonderful series of interviews in his home, Maurice talks about the fact that children are smart, and children are brave, and children understand much more than you think they do. If you’re telling them something that’s true, they can handle it. They’re very often several steps ahead.

So, when I’m writing, I don’t think about writing for children—even though I’m very proud of the fact that I’m a writer and illustrator of children’s books. Other than the fact that I know I’m probably not going to use any cursing, and there’s probably not going to be a sex scene, I’m just writing the stories that I want to write, and I’m writing the characters who interest me. It’s less about the fact that it’s for kids than it is about trying to write the most satisfying version of the story that is coming to me over the three or four years that it takes me to make these books.

Often, that means thinking about things I loved when I was 10—magic, and movies, and monsters. These motifs, in various forms, are still the things that most interest me. And the feeling kids have when they’re trying to figure out their families, the people at school, and the world all around. When everything is a mystery, and everything is strange, and everything seems somewhat incomprehensible.

Maurice’s own childhood was so present in his working life. I remember going to his house when he was working on Bumble-Ardy, one of the last books he published. He was drawing this crazy parade on a piece of paper, all these figures marching across his desk. I’d point to the faces in the crowd—these weird, grotesque faces—and I would say, Maurice, where did this face come from? Where did that face come from? He told me they were resurfacing from things he had seen as a kid. It was like the person he was when he was just a scared, vulnerable, sickly child in Brooklyn had stayed with him. His art was a way to work through those fears, and was a constant source of comfort.

If I learned anything from Maurice, it was very much that it’s okay: The form is a place to work through those fears. The things that scared you as a kid are still scaring children. The world is very different from when Maurice was a kid, which is very different from when I was a kid, which is very different from the world of children today. But essentially the experience of being a child is unchanged: It’s hard to be a kid, and it’s scary to be a kid, and it’s exciting. All of that can be expressed in this incredible art form of children’s books.