Hard to believe: People hated Where the Wild Things Are once

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Now that there's a movie coming out, everyone's all "Oh, Where the Wild Things Are was my favorite book. What a childhood classic." It almost seems like Hollywood made a movie everyone was guaranteed to want to see. Actually, the movie could be the riskiest of the year, and that would only mirror the rough road the book traveled.

The cover of the current editions may boast the Caldecott Medal, but Maurice Sendak's illustrated book was not an instant hit when it was released, nor is it necessarily today. It's been trashed by critics, chastised by psychologists and even banned. How could nine run-on sentences cause so much trouble?

Harper & Row first published Where the Wild Things Are in 1963. Sendak had worked for the publisher illustrating books for other authors, such as Ruth Krauss, Else Holmelund and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Even his editors didn't like Sendak's first solo offering. He fought with them over his text because they wanted him to change Max's supper from hot to warm, as Sendak recalled to Newsweek.

The first reviews worried Sendak's Wild Things were too scary for children. Children seemed to weather the monster rumpus, but that wasn't the end of the WTWTA haters.

At a time when parents were used to reading their children Curious George and Madeline books, the grown-up community felt threatened by Sendak's story. Just seeing a boy throw a tantrum at his mother was considered dangerous behavior. Was Sendak glorifying Max's anger?

The Caldecott delivered its stamp in 1964, naming WTWTA the year's most distinguished American picture book for children. Still, it was banned in the South specifically and by libraries all over throughout the '60s.

In his March 1969 column for Ladies' Home Journal, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim called the book psychologically damaging for 3- and 4-year-olds. Get this, he thought the idea that mom would deprive Max of food would traumatize them.

HarperCollins still publishes the book, though maybe today's kids of the Harry Potter generation aren't quite so nostalgic about it. Last week, New York Times Sunday Book Review columnist Bruce Handy published his son's assessment of the book: "The book wasn't any good."

Still, earlier this year, President Obama commenced the Easter egg roll on the White House lawn by reading passages from Where the Wild Things Are. Those kids seemed happy with it, but they were also anxious to get free Easter eggs.

The film version of Where the Wild Things Are opens Friday, directed by Spike Jonze. Early reviews seem mixed. A reaction as controversial as the book's might do Warner Brothers some good. It would be free publicity that they couldn't buy for all the ad dollars in their budget.