In Where the Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak in His Own Words and Pictures, at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum through July 5, visitors can slide into a giant bowl of Chicken Soup with Rice, don Wild Things costumes and dance through the Wild Things’ forest, cook make-believe food in the Night Kitchen, and read copies of Sendak’s books on the stoop of a life-size recreation of Rosie’s Door.
But Sendak’s books were never merely child’s play. As he wrote, “I think it is unnatural to think there is such a thing as a blue-sky, white-clouded happy childhood for anybody. Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it.”
The truth about childhood, as he understood it, was Sendak’s subject: “What is too often overlooked is the fact that from their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can.”
Sendak’s personal narrative, recounted in the exhibition, compellingly contextualizes his stories and drawings. The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, he was born in Brooklyn in 1928. His early childhood was marked by frightening events: Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Relatives would gather in his parents’ house to share fears about the family still in Europe.
“They all descended on our house because my Mom and Dad came first and established foot-holds in America . . . They talked in a foreign language and pinched you. They showed us love that was very heavy,” he wrote.
The eponymous wild things, in fact, were based on his memory of these relatives as “fiendish creatures,” although, he explains, “once I learned their history, it broke my heart.” His father’s entire family was killed in concentration camps, and precious photographs of those relatives he never knew are displayed in a simulated scrapbook.
Closer to home, the Lindberg kidnapping struck lasting fear into the young Sendak, reflected half a century later in his Outside Over There, a story of a baby who is stolen by goblins.
“All children — whether or not they grew up with the Lindbergh case — worry. Will Mama and Papa go away and never come back? Will I die? We don’t like to think of children worrying about such things, but of course they do. They have no choice, if they’re intelligent and sensitive and alive to what’s happening in the world.”
In 2003 Sendak collaborated with playwright Tony Kushner on a picture book and stage production of Czech composer Hans Krasa’s 1938 children’s opera Brundibar, a clear reference to the tyranny of European fascism, in which children heroically band together to defeat an evil bully. Because he intended the book to be read by very young children, the artist altered his original, Hitler-like conception of Brundibar and instead drew him wearing a Napoleonic hat.
Sendak and Kushner broke with literary convention when they changed the ending of Krasa’s story: instead of a happily-ever-after celebration of the power of good to overcome evil, however, this story ends with a haunting reminder that tyrants are never truly vanquished: “Bullies don’t give up completely. One departs, the next appears.”
Boredom was another childhood torment that Sendak recalled: “For most kids there was really very little to do. The way a child gets through a difficult time is to invent games and make-believe.” The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960) is based on a little girl who lived across the street from him as a young man. Rosie invents an alter-ego, Alinda the lovely singer, and enlists neighboring children to participate in her fantasy. Maybe boredom inspired Max, the protagonist of Where the Wild Things Are, to dress in a wolf suit, hang a stuffed pet in effigy, chase his little dog with a fork and snap “I’ll eat you up!” when reprimanded by his mother.
A frail child prone to frequent illness, Sendak spent long hours confined to his bed, drawing what he saw from his window. In 1948 he took a job designing window displays for F.A.O. Schwartz, where Harper & Row children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom saw his imaginative graphic style and offered him his first children’s book commission.
While his unconventional approach to children’s stories was ahead of its time, his versatile style was rooted in Victorian tradition. Largely self-taught, Sendak studied 19th-century illustrators and especially admired the work of British pre-Raphaelite Arthur Hughes and illustrator Randolph Caldecott.
His dreamlike pencil and watercolor sketches for Dear Mili (1985), for example, teem with meticulously rendered, oversized vegetation framing scenes of children interacting with angels and other fantastic creatures. A perfectionist, Sendak began his drawings as pencil sketches on tracing paper, transferring them to a more permanent ground when ready for publication.
Some illustrations favored simpler lines and flat areas of bold color, as in The Sign on Rosie’s Door and In the Night Kitchen (1971), while others feature precise draftsmanship and fine cross-hatching over subtle washes of color to create dreamlike worlds that morph into fantasy.
Like the all-encompassing aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement or turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau, for Sendak each book was a work of art in its entirety, right down to the endpapers.
To a generation of parents raised on happily-ever-after, Victorian-style children’s literature, his unconventional stories and pictures seemed radical and sometimes inappropriate. But for those who grew up with his obstinate, misbehaving and nonconformist protagonists, he was on point. His outrageous characters and outlandish stories in marvelous settings acknowledged that childhood can be terrifying, celebrated nonconformity, and recognized that imagination and creativity can enable children (and grown-ups) to live with their fears.
In his own words: “It is through fantasy that children can achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming the Wild Things.”
Sendak’s New York Times obituary identified him as “widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.”
Kushner took it further: “He’s one of the most important, if not the most important, writers and artists ever to work in children’s literature. In fact, he’s a significant writer and artist in literature. Period.”
The exhibit, originally curated by Jane Leavy in 2001, features new elements. Tim Frilingos, director of events and exhibitions, updated it to include new information, including Sendak’s death in 2012. Other changes, designed in partnership with Atlanta Speech School’s Rollins Center for Language and Literacy and the Georgia Art Therapy Association, highlight the importance of reading in early childhood and the ability of art to help people of all ages cope with stressful situations. Click here for information about children’s activities.
Note: The Breman is closed on Saturdays but open on Sundays.