The night that Max wore his wolf-suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his Mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.
From the opening lines of the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, the author, Maurice Sendak invites us to travel along with Max, to understand his vision of the world and the limitations associated with childhood.
Through the use of carefully chosen text and surrealistic pastel illustrations, Sendak invites us to accompany Max on a journey into his imagination. Max is escaping the reality of his life and his bedroom, by creating a world that allows him to push through the limitations imposed upon him by his mother and the realities of his childhood.
As the story progresses, a forest grows in Max’s room, and of course in his imagination as well. He is soon transported by private boat to an island where he tames the Wild Things and is feared and respected. He quickly becomes the most Wild Thing of all, and is crowned King of all the Wild Things.
As Max’s imagination grows, we notice that the text slowly disappears and the illustrations grow to three double page spreads that contain edge to edge illustrations with no text at all. These “text-free” pages correspond to the “rumpus” where the story reaches its climax and Max’s imagination has completely replaced reality.
In this book, the written text becomes associated with reality and the illustrations become associated with Max’s imagination. However, Sendak does not draw a definitive line for us between reality and imagination, but slowly allows imagination to overtake reality as the forest consumes Max’s bedroom, and then brings us back to reality as the text reappears, Max finds his hot supper waiting for him, and the book closes.
In Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak has offered one of the first examples of a rebellious young child as the main character in all of children’s literature. Max openly defies his mother’s authority, talks back to her and is eventually punished for his “wild” behavior. He has overstepped his limits and it becomes the Mother’s obligation, to bring Max back in line for his inappropriate behavior.
Later in the story, Max assumes the role of authoritarian, treating the Wild Things in much the same manner as he was treated himself. Max takes charge of the rumpus, declaring both a beginning as well as an ending to their hedonistic dance. By these actions, Max limits the Wild Things' playfulness, taming them with the trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once. Max wants to gain control over this world, in much the same way his mother controls the world outside of his imagination.
At the end of the story, Max wants to return home where someone loves him best of all. He sails home to find his supper waiting for him, and in Sendak’s classic finale, writes that the supper “was still hot.” The illustrations have completely disappeared on the last page, and a weary Max is left alone in the safety of his room with the comfort of a warm meal.
The title of this column, Overcoming Limitations, refers to one of the central tensions in Sendak’s book, as well as the current political climate we face as literacy educators. Max tries to push the limitations imposed on him by his mother and the reality of childhood in much the same way, as literacy educators, we are trying to push the limitations imposed on us by mandated literacy standards, narrowly construed reading programs and standardized assessments.
It is my contention that the search for a single main idea of a piece of literature is one of the most insidious limitations imposed upon young readers in our schools today. Attempts to uncover the one true meaning of a text, have a narrowing effect on the reading instructional practices and the literature discussions that take place in contemporary elementary classrooms.
Based on modernist assumptions about the nature of reality and the dualistic relationship between the reader and the text, the New Criticism of the 1950's and 60's, still has a profound effect on reading and literature instruction in today's schools. Although the New Critics do not deny that readers are involved in the act of reading, they hold firm to the belief that there is one "pure meaning" of a text, and that only through precise, technical, objective analysis of a text can readers come to know its true meaning. According to this perspective, only the most accomplished readers, the critics in the upper echelon of academia and literary theory, will ever come to know the true meaning of a piece of literature. Students are seen as flawed, imperfect readers, flailing around trying to find the secret codes necessary to unlock the true meaning of a piece of literature.
In our educational institutions, students become socialized into particular ways of reading and responding to texts. In other words, they learn how to play the Reading Game at school. Because of the effects of these modernist perspectives on reading instruction, students are often found waiting for the teacher or the Cliff Notes to tell them what a piece of literature is really all about. As time progresses, the teacher is perceived as the unquestioned arbiter of meaning, the keeper of the literary knowledge. Many students eventually end up "opting out" of literature discussions, deciding, instead, to wait for the teacher to hand them the correct answers. Instructional practices or commercial reading programs that require children to read a piece of literature and then answer a series of multiple choice questions to assess their comprehension, reduce the readers' response to a story to those interpretations made available in the assessments or sanctioned by the instructional manual. In many of these situations, there is one predetermined main idea for each story and it can be found hidden among the four choices on a scan-tron scoring sheet.
In contrast to these modernist perspectives, reader response and transactional theories of reading have tried to bring the role of the reader and the context of the reading event back into the interpretive process. Although the New Critics would not deny the presence of the reader in the act of reading, reader response theories perceive readers as active participants in the reading process, constructing meaning as they transact with a piece of literature in a particular context.
Rather than searching for a single main idea, reader response theories are concerned with the social construction of a "plurality of meanings" that are shaped by the social, cultural, political and historical context of the readers and the reading event. Because of the social construction of a plurality of meanings, the concept of main idea should now be defined as one socially sanctioned interpretation of a piece of literature, rather than the discovery of some universal truth, hidden deep within the bowels of the text, accessible only to a certain class of readers.
In our literature discussions, the value of exploring the conflicting perspectives associated with the construction of multiple interpretations, takes precedence over the search for a universal main idea. In other words, rather than seeing a plurality of meanings as a problem to be overcome, we need to see these diverse interpretations as an opportunity to extend our discussions and help children develop more sophisticated interpretations of the texts they experience.
From a transactional or reader response perspective, children's literature can be used to create a space, an opportunity for classroom teachers to support readers' multiple interpretations and the social construction of meaning. Literature can be used to help children better understand the world and their place in it, interrogate contemporary social issues and understand their role as a citizen in a democratic society.
In contemporary societies, children are bombarded everyday with visual images; billboards, advertisements, hypertexts, videos and environmental print, in addition to the images contained in children's picture books. The ability to make sense of these visual images, along with the ability to make sense of printed text, has a profound effect on children's reading abilities.
I believe that the use of children's picture books, especially in the intermediate and middle grades, can support children's ability to make sense of the visual images they encounter in their everyday lives. The types of picture books we choose to read with our students, and the community of readers we develop around these texts, has a profound effect on the way they view the reading process and the way they are positioned as readers. As readers read picture books, they are required to transact with the visual images as well as written text in order to construct meaning. It is the interplay between text and illustrations that make picture books unique and require readers to attend to different systems of meaning. Classroom teachers need to support readers as they develop the ability to transact with visual images and written language if they are to construct more sophisticated interpretations with picture books.
Lawrence Sipe has written that “picture books allow children to have multiple experiences as they engage in creating new meanings and constructing new worlds”. He explains that the relationship between text and illustrations in a children's picture book is a synergistic one, where the effects and meanings offered by the two in unison are greater than the sum of the text and the illustrations individually.
In the picture book Where the Wild Things Are, much of the ambiguity that exists, is only apparent when the text and illustrations are taken together. Some clues in the text indicate that Max did in fact leave his bedroom, while other clues indicate that he was only imagining his journey to the Where the Wild Things Are. There exists an ironic twist here, a sense of tension between what is offered in the text and what is offered in the illustrations. Children perceive this tension and have to participate in the production of meaning, using both the text as well as the illustrations to make sense of the story.
Perry Nodelman describes how the text and the illustrations “limit” each other and describes this relationship as one of “irony”. Text contains temporal information, that is presented to us in a sequential, linear fashion. We read the words in sequential order and progress from the start to the ending of the book. Illustrations, however, contain spatial information and are presented “all-at-once”, allowing us to move our eyes around the page as we please. Illustrations are a simultaneous visual experience, while the text is sequentially delivered. This ambiguity between text and illustrations is just one way in which Sendak creates tension in this classic piece of children’s literature.
For example, in the written text, Sendak describes Max’s travels as going through night and day, in and out of weeks and almost over a year. This statement is in conflict with Max’s return and the hot supper waiting for him. Many children in my elementary classes have used their imagination to try and resolve this tension. One child even suggested that Max's mother probably used a microwave oven to reheat the food, so that it was warm when Max returned from his adventure.
In another example, the illustrations portray a sense of elapsed time as Sendak alternates light and dark colors in the sky suggesting the progression from day to night and back to day. This passage of time and the tension between the illustrations and text is further developed by the ambiguous illustrations of the moon. In one picture it appears as a quarter moon and in others as a full moon. My students have noticed these changes in the moon and suggested that time must have passed if the moon had changed. However, this made them unsure about how the supper could still be warm.
Roland Barthes has offered a distinction between two types of texts, namely a writerly text and a readerly text. A readerly text is one where the reader may consume almost passively the meanings from the text, where the information is simply "transmitted" as the reader allows the author to determine the meaning. In comparison, a writerly text is produced actively by readers who must put the text together as they read. According to Barthes, the text forces readers to become active co-producers of meaning, writing the text for themselves during the act of reading. Readers, especially when transacting with picture books, must use both visual cues, as well as textual references to make meaning, as they transact with the story.
It is my contention that these types of writerly texts, picture books like Where the Wild Things Are, that contain ambiguity, tension or irony between text and illustrations, offer more opportunities for students and teachers to interact and construct diverse interpretations. Along with the characteristics of the texts being used, the type of the community of readers we develop also plays an important role in the way readers transact with texts. In reading communities where readers are seen as active participants in the construction of meaning, the search is not for the main idea of a piece of literature, but for the multiple interpretations that are offered by members of the community.
Because of this, the concept of readerly or writerly texts should not be allowed to exclude the importance of the social context of the construction and negotiation of meaning. In our classrooms, we may also create readerly or writerly communities depending on how we react to students' interpretations to the stories we share. By conceptualizing the reading process as a relationship among author, reader, text and context, a reduction of the complexities inherent in any of the three vertices can result in theoretical or pedagogical myopia that constrains the plurality of meanings that may be constructed.
Whether the focus is on the nature of the text (Iser), the social interactions of a community of readers (Fish), the effects of the cultural, historical and political contexts of the reading event, or the competencies that the reader brings to the reading event (Luke), literary theorists that have suggested a distinction between a monologic, text controlled model that focuses on finding the single, correct interpretation of a text, and a dialogic, reader response model where multiple interpretations are constructed in the social context of the reading event.
Margaret Meek Spencer has argued that a picture book invites all kinds of readings and allows the invention of a set of stories rather than a single story. Because our community of readers accepted and supported a variety of interpretations, students learned how to deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity that often comes with the construction of multiple interpretations of a piece of literature. My goals were to expand the opportunities for interpreting a piece of literature and create a SPACE where students could share diverse interpretations in order to deepen their own understandings of a particular text.
Ellen Langer (The Power of Mindful Learning) has written that how we learn something affects how we will use that knowledge. I believe that this pertains to our knowledge of the elements and structures of literature as well.
Finally, as adults, our interpretations of children’s literature are drastically different from that of our children and students. As “facilitators” of literature studies, we need to be careful that our interpretations don’t dominate our discussions and direct students’ thinking in ways that they would not venture by themselves. There is a fine line between facilitating a literature discussion and taking control over it, supporting certain interpretations and suppressing others.
I have learned that I need to accept my student interpretations, not as an incomplete or reduced version of my own interpretations, but rather as a unique perspective on children’s literature and the world. I need to help children live with the ambiguities inherent in quality literature and help them move beyond the limitations imposed on them by traditional school curriculum and instructional practices. In this way, I hope to create a forum for children to see the possibilities in literature and feel open to discussing the multiple interpretations and realities they create.
for further reading...