Sendak’s world comes to St. Louis

“Where the Wild Things Are”

By Susan Fadem, Special to the Jewish Light

With pictures and stories that are often grotesque, hilarious and poignant all at the same time, it’s no wonder Maurice Sendak’s children’s books sometimes accompany students to college. Afterward, these fans frequently cart their books from dwelling to dwelling, to later share with their own kids.

Perhaps as much as any children’s author and illustrator, 83-year-old Sendak, the offspring of Polish immigrants, has proven himself accessible to those of all ages. This appeal is amply demonstrated by “In a Nutshell: The Worlds of Maurice Sendak.”

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The exhibit’s eight double-sided boards, each a grownup-size 5 ½ feet tall, trace a still-fertile imagination, nourished in part by black-and-white photos of Sendak’s European ancestors, only some of whom made it to the United States.

Sendak’s father, Philip, emigrated shortly before World War I. He met his future wife, Sarah, at a wedding. He was smitten during the ceremony when-at the bride and groom’s request-she read a passage from author and playwright Sholom Aleichem.

From early in their marriage, Philip, a tailor, sent money to Sarah’s relatives in Eastern Europe. The funds brought them to the States, where they became regular weekend guests at the Sendaks’ home in Bensonhurst, an immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. then populated mostly by Jews and Italians.

In his “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963), Maurice Sendak immortalizes his immigrant uncles, according to Patrick Rodgers. Rodgers is traveling exhibitions coordinator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. The museum is the repository for the original artwork from Sendak’s books, now numbering nearly 100.

Sendak’s donations were prompted by his admiration for such museum items as a bookcase belonging to Herman Melville, one of Sendak’s literary idols, Rodgers said.

In “Where the Wild Things Are,” which reportedly increased demand for monster tattoos, young Max dresses in a wolf suit and misbehaves. When his mother calls him a “Wild Thing,” he retorts: “I’ll eat you up.”

As a consequence she sends him to his bedroom without supper. There, he dreams of cavorting with hairy monsters. During a recent lecture here, Rodgers said the monsters were exaggerated portraits of Sendak’s uncles, whom he remembered-nose hairs, warts and all-sitting hungrily at the Sendaks’ table to await his mother’s always late meals.

To pass the time, the uncles would pinch young Maurice’s cheeks and say, “We could eat you up!”

The title of the classic storybook likewise reveals Sendak’s upbringing. In Yiddish, “vildechaya” means “wild thing” or “wild beast.” “It’s what almost every Jewish mother and father says to their offspring: ‘You’re acting like a vildechaya! Stop it!'” the Sendak exhibit points out.

Philip Sendak’s own relatives remained in Eastern Europe, subsequently dying in the concentration camps. Along with early 19th-century shtetl life and the kidnapping of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr., son of the famed aviator, in 1932, the Holocaust remains a lasting influence on Sendak, according to the exhibit.

In “Brundibar,” the children’s opera composed by Jewish-Czech Hans Krasa in 1938, a brother and sister try to save their sick mother by singing to procure money to buy milk. The menacing Brundibar, a Hitler-like organ grinder, chases them away.

Between 1942 and 1944, the opera was performed 50-plus times by Jewish children interred at Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia and filmed by the Red Cross. Most of the children were later gassed at Auschwitz.

When Tony Kushner adapted the opera into a children’s book in 2003, his friend Sendak, who interviewed some of the few remaining performers, did the illustrations.

Also in 2003, the opera was produced, using Kushner’s libretto and with Sendak as director and set designer. Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented the opera two different seasons.

Among other exhibit insights:

• The dark-haired, rambunctious kids in Sendak’s books, based on the immigrant neighbors he sketched from his window, were self-reliant, gutsy, street-smart and sometimes lonely. They showed frustration and anger, all emotions once deemed inappropriate for children’s literature.

• To illustrate Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories,” Sendak sought inspiration from the oval portrait of his grandfather that once hung in his bedroom. During a childhood bout with scarlet fever, young Sendak lapsed into delirium. His mother found him speaking Yiddish to the portrait and trying to claw his way inside.

Alarmed, she snatched the picture from the wall and tore it into tiny pieces.

When his mother died, Sendak found the photo remnants wrapped in tissue paper. His mother couldn’t bring herself to throw them away. Sendak had the photo restored and placed it, once again, in his room. Old World men in oval portraits continue to appear in is stories.

Since the 1970s, Sendak has lived in Connecticut, where he still writes and illustrates.

“In a Nutshell: The Worlds of Maurice Sendak” exhibit

WHEN: Through Dec. 14

WHERE: St. Louis County Public Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Boulevard, Frontenac


MORE INFO: The exhibit was organized by Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia and developed by Nextbook, Inc., a nonprofit supporting Jewish literature, culture and ideas; and also American Library Association Public Programs Office. Sponsors of the national tour include Charles H. Revson Foundation, Righteous Persons Foundation and David Berg Foundation, with support from Tablet Magazine.