[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Gross argues that the protagonists' journey through a state of wildness and back in Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are mirrors a child's personal journey to self-identity and socialization.]
There are many reasons why a particular book may retain its popularity over time. Certainly excellence of story, writing, and illustration are expected and, when evaluating picture books, the integration of the writing and pictures in telling the story is essential. However, beyond any technical measures of quality, appeal, that connection readers feel to a book, is essential to its longevity.
Some characters from children's literature become so strongly associated with childhood itself that exposure to a particular book at the appropriate age is seen by many as a highly desired experience, one not to be missed. Such books have something to say to children that adults and the culture at large feel they need to hear. The ability of a book to serve children in this way is worth exploring. Over the past hundred years, the views of childhood, children's literature, and the experience of being a child, have changed and yet certain messages continue to be pertinent. For instance, The Tale of Peter Rabbit,1 written in Victorian times by Beatrix Potter, continues in multiple editions and through a wide variety of spin-off products to appeal to children the world over.2 Likewise, Where the Wild Things Are, written in 1963 by Maurice Sendak, for what might seem a very different child from Potter's intended reader, meets the new millennium commodified in much the same way that Peter Rabbit has been and as avidly enjoyed by a new generation of children.3
What is of interest here is the strong similarity of message that these two books share and the ways in which this message is deeply reflective of issues and developmental tasks with which the child struggles. That these books are works of great literary and artistic merit is taken as a given in this essay. This exploration will look at their deep connection to the life of young children and at the adult messages they convey.
Books as Instruments of Socialization
From age to age the trappings of childhood can change, and yet growing up involves developmental phases and experiences that can supersede an individual historical era or society. One such experience that children go through is that of being socialized to understand how to behave in the society in which they are born. Early in babyhood tutelage in correct behavior, how to be one of the group, begins. While the study of children has only recently begun to interest sociologists, new interest in this group has already resulted in a fair amount of work, and several models are available to describe socialization, "the process by which children adapt to and internalize society."4 These models range in type from deterministic, those models that see the child as a force to...