My sister, Heather, visited me recently, and as part of a weekend to combat the wintertime blues, we decided to go to the New Britain Museum of Art and see the Maurice Sendak exhibit that is showing until early February. Generations of children will associate Sendak most strongly with Where the Wild Things Are, but I was enchanted to discover that he had illustrated a number of other books I loved when I was young.
The exhibit informed us that prior to Where the Wild Things Are, children’s books were always happy and safe, the way adults wished childhood to be. Sendak, who was both Polish and Jewish, had been strongly affected by the deaths of so many people including members of his extended family in the Holocaust as well as the untimely death of a friend during his childhood, and Where the Wild Things Are was the first to bring a darker tone to children’s books, in part because he knew that children could handle it.
The original title of the book was, Where the Wild Horses Are, but it rapidly became apparent that Sendak couldn’t draw horses. He eventually settled on “things,” which were actually all loosely based on his relatives who all gathered upon the death of a family member. Once I knew that, I could absolutely see that each “thing” was indeed a child’s interpretation of the various quirks of his family.
Sendak was a reluctant student in his youth. He and his 10th grade teacher came up with a deal that he wouldn’t have to produce the same kind of reports that his peers did as long as he drew his reports instead. Thus the exhibit included ten intricately drawn panels that comprised his report on Macbeth. I gave a lot of credit to his teacher who was willing to accept this unusual work product from a student long before such variations in learning were commonly accepted. It was apparent even from those early drawings that Sendak was a gifted artist.
One of my favorite parts of the exhibition was a wall displaying a chronology of the many books he had written or illustrated over many decades. Heather immediately noticed the Little Bear series, which had been one of her favorites. Having been steeped in his drawing style throughout the exhibit, I had suspected that Sendak had illustrated two of my favorite childhood books, “What Do You Do, Dear?” and “What Do You Say, Dear?” Both books featured vignettes of the main characters being placed in outrageous situations such as reading a book in a library and being lassoed by a cowboy. The response to “What do you do, dear?” was always dictated by good manners, in this case leaving the library quietly.
Throughout his life, Sendak would try to reply to the many children who wrote to him, and often he would sketch one of the characters from Where the Wild Things Are. Heather told me a story, that we subsequently found retold on one of the panels that Sendak’s favorite letter came from a mother who wrote that her son liked Sendak’s reply so much that he ate it. That was the highest compliment that Sendak could imagine; rather than selling the sketch for a profit, the young boy saw it, liked it, and ate it.