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Where the Wild Things Are

By Maurice Sendak


The young protagonist of this beautifully illustrated book, 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.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Tom Wartenberg

Where the Wild Things Are is a brilliant evocation of the contents of a child’s imagination. Angry and hurt by his mother’s somewhat cruel 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. There are two issues here, one broader than the other. The more specific issue is whether Max’s punishment is appropriate. You probably have heard the saying, “Let the punishment fit the crime.” Well, 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 they are punishments?

The 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?

This book module deals with metaphysics, society, specifically punishment, and the mind, specifically the imagination. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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