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Where the Wild Things Are

by Maurice Sendak

Summary

This wonderfully imaginative book provides an excellent opportunity to discuss two basic themes with children: punishment and dreams.

Max gets sent to his room without dinner for disrespecting his mother. He then takes a trip to the magical land of the wild things. As their king, he rules the land until he gets homesick and heads for home, where he finds his dinner waiting for him, still warm.

Read aloud video by Ms. CeCe

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Where the Wild Things Are is a brilliant exploration of the contents of a child’s imagination. Angry and hurt by his mother’s punishment, Max, who may have cried himself to sleep, finds himself dreaming a fantastic dream in which he goes to a place where he can be king.

This wonderfully imaginative book provides an excellent opportunity to discuss two basic themes with children: punishment and dreams. Both of these topics are important issues in philosophy.

Max has definitely misbehaved, so his mother punishes him by sending him to bed without eating. Students can be prompted to consider whether Max’s punishment is appropriate. Does Max’s punishment “fit” his crime? Should punishments always fit the crimes they punish and how can this be done? After all, our society generally punishes criminals by putting them in jail or fining them. Do those punishments fit all the various crimes for which there are punishments?

A broader question is why should violations of rules and misbehavior be punished at all? There are various different philosophical theories addressing this issue. Some emphasize reforming the “criminal” while others focus on deterring crimes. Asking the children why Max’s mother punishes him provides them with an opportunity to think about why punishments are used both in families and society more generally.

Max’s dream about the land of the wild things raises interesting questions about the nature of the imagination and its operation. First, it is important to see what the children think about where the wild things are. If they agree that it is in a world created by Max’s imagination, they will have a chance to think about what the difference is between real things and things that are only dreamed about or imagined. Philosophers in the empiricist tradition often claim that we can only imagine things using the materials that we have previously perceived. Since many features of the wild things’ world resemble Max’s actual world, this book provides an opportunity to think about whether this empiricist claim is true.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Max was sent to bed by his mother without eating anything.

  1. How do you think Max feels when his mother sends him to his room?
  2. Do you think that Max’s punishment is fair? Why or why not?
  3. Is there a different punishment that would have been better?
  4. Should parents punish their children? Why or why not?

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew.

  1. Do you think a forest really grew in Max’s room?
  2. If not, what do you think really happened?
  3. So is the forest real or not? If not, what type of forest is it? If so, how can a forest grow in a bedroom of a house?

Max sailed through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.

  1. Where are the wild things?
  2. Do you think the wild things are real?
  3. Did Max dream them? Imagine them?
  4. What’s the difference between real things and objects that you dream about or imagine?
  5. Can you tell that you are not dreaming now?

“Max wanted to be where someone loved him best of all?”

  1. Have you ever felt loved best of all by someone?
  2. Have you ever felt that no one loved you best of all?
  3. How important is it to feel loved best of all?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Thomas Wartenberg. Edited May 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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Back to All Books Illustrated book cover for Where the Wild Things Are featuring a colorful image of a large beast with a bull's head, bear's claws and human feet. The beast sits in a forest of pink palm trees with its eyes closed as a yellow sailboat approaches the shore in the distance Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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