For 20 years or longer, author-illustrator Maurice Sendak has claimed that child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim mercilessly attacked his 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are when it was first published, causing him and the book great damage.
"Wild Things ran into a lot of trouble when it was published,'' Sendak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a Dec. 4, 1989, story. ''It was considered ugly. It was considered far-fetched. It was considered too frightening to children. Bruno Bettelheim denounced the book, which put a damper on it for a long time."
Twelve years later, Sendak was slamming Bettelheim again, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Aug. 10, 2001):
When [Where the Wild Things Are] that came out, there were psychologists who said, "This is a bad book. Any mother who sends their child to bed without dinner is a terrible mother." They objected to that, they objected to him being so rude to his mother, they objected to her yelling back at him, they objected to the Wild Things being too scary. They objected to everything. When it was first published it was very novel and different. In fact, a very important psychologist [Bruno Bettelheim] said that. He did take that back later in life. He did me a lot of damage at the beginning. [Brackets in the original.]
Sendak was still seething about Bettelheim in a June 4, 2005, interview with NPR:
Sendak: And that creep—oh, that creep, that psychiatrist, Bruno Bettelheim ...
NPR: Who ...
Sendak: ... otherwise known by me personally as "Beno Brutalheim," because he wrote a long article on Wild Things, which completely destroyed the book.
NPR: Bruno Bettelheim, when Wild Things came out, said that it might frighten children.
Sendak: [Adopts foreign accent] "Don't leave the book in a room without a light, because the kid might die of a heart attack." No, he didn't say that, but you've got it.
[Soundbite of laughter]
Sendak: Mr. Brutalheim, may he rest in peace.
By force of repetition, the Bettelheim-made-my-life-hell throughline has become a part of Sendak's permanent history. Last weekend, in preview pieces about the Spike Jonze movie based on the book, both the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journalpegged Bettelheim, who died in 1990, as an early and influential foe of Wild Things.
But like Max's travels in Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak's version is almost completely imaginary. Bettelheim's criticism came more than five years after Where the Wild Things Are was published, appearing in the March 1969 edition of Ladies' Home Journal, where he answered mothers' child-rearing questions in a monthly column. Furthermore, Bettelheim admitted in his column that he wasn't familiar with the book and that his comments "may be very unfair." (Later, he would confess that he had never opened it.) He judged the book based on descriptions provided by the mothers.
What did Bettelheim say? The offending column, titled "The Care and Feeding of Monsters," is reproduced in Heads On and We Shoot: The Making of Where the Wild Things Are. Bettelheim—who doesn't name Sendak—writes, "What's wrong with the book is that the author was obviously captivated by an adult psychological understanding of how to deal with destructive fantasies in the child. What he failed to understand is the incredible fear it evokes in the child to be sent to bed without supper, and this by the first and foremost giver of food and security—his mother."
Bettelheim's assessment was negative, but hardly book-wrecking, especially considering the grand reception the book enjoyed. In March 1964, it received the Caldecott Medal for the best American picture book, the most prestigious prize of its kind. Today, there are 19 million copies of it in print around the world.
Some reviewers did think the book might be too frightening for children. In a Jan. 22, 1966, New Yorker(subscription required) profile of Sendak, Nat Hentoff collects several of the critical responses. "We should not like to have it left about where a sensitive child might find it to pore over in the twilight," stated the Journal of Nursery Education. Publishers' Weekly offered a mix of praise and criticism, saying that "the plan and technique of the illustrations are superb. … But they may well prove frightening, accompanied as they are by a pointless and confusing story." Library Journal's critic wrote, "This is the kind of story that many adults will question and for many reasons, but the child will accept it wisely and without inhibition, as he knows it is written for him."
Perhaps the most insightful review harvested by Hentoff came from the Cleveland Press: "Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book. Parents are very easily scared."