In these sporadic sentence diagramming posts, I diagram sentences to deepen their meaning, to become a better writer, or for my own amusement.
One of the pieces of advice I received when I wrote a book about planets for my son was to match the number of words in a sentence to the age of the reader. The person giving the advice said it dismissively, as though he didn’t believe it himself but felt compelled to pass on that piece of advice anyway.
Well, I wanted to see how that advice held up when I looked at my favorite picture book, Where the Wild Things Are. I love this book for Max’s character, for the magic storyline, but mostly for the beautiful prose full of rhythm and alliteration. This book is a joy, and when I’m down I find myself repeating the entire story in my head, or as much of it as I can remember, enjoying the beats and internal rhymes.
Sendak was just an artist whose work happened to appeal to this niche audience (and their parents).
I want to look at a sentence that Sendak didn’t make any easier for children: the first from Where the Wild Things Are.
“The night 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.”
Other than the shocking lack of commas, the first thing I noticed was that this is quite a long sentence, appropriate for someone pushing middle age, if my friend’s well intentioned advice is to be believed. It is broken up over three pages in the book, but elsewhere he has equally long sentences that stay on one page.
This is a crazypants sentence. I mean, look at it. This sucker is in a picture book?
As I diagrammed the line, I noticed the sentence (the first clause, even) is missing two words that fill crucial parts of speech: “on,” and “when,” turning what should be this clause, if written “correctly”:
On the night when Max wore his wolf suit…
The night Max wore his wolf suit…
I think doing this in the very first line of the book helps develop a feeling of urgency and immediacy. It also signals right away that this book is going to be a bit rogue.
The other thing I notice is that Max’s mother is actually the primary subject of the sentence. Sure, the sentence starts with Max wearing his wolf suit, but all that happens as a prepositional phrase. The first independent clause begins with “his mother called him ‘WILD THING!’” Although she is only referred to once in the entire book (in the first sentence), she activates the inciting incident by sending Max to bed without supper, and she produces the satisfying conclusion by leaving Max dinner, which is still hot, waiting for him when he gets back. She bookends the story, grounding Max’s fantasy in reality on both sides of his adventure. That feels like a pretty authentic role for mothers in children’s lives; they are always in the background, but not the main star of the show.