Maurice Sendak’s Exhibit, “In a Nutshell” Opens
by Diana Davis
On Friday, October 28, the St. Louis County Library hosted a kickoff for “In a Nutshell: The Worlds of Maurice Sendak,” an exhibit of Sendak’s illustrations and picture books. The colorful, human-sized panels feature images of the wild creatures, curious children and the vibrant Brooklyn neighborhood that existed in Sendak’s world, both of life and imagination.
Pat Rogers, the traveling exhibitions coordinator at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia that houses Maurice Sendak’s picture book artwork, gave a presentation. He explained that the museum and library was founded in 1954 through a testamentary gift by Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother Phillip, renowned dealers in books, manuscripts and art. Sendak was a fan of Beatrix Potter’s illustrations and was lured to the Rosenbach museum by being told that it had pieces of Potter’s artwork (in truth, it did not); however, it does own an antique glass-fronted bookcase that had once belonged to Moby Dick ‘s author, Herman Melville, whom Sendak greatly admired. As soon as Sendak saw Melville’s desk, he fell in love and wanted it for his own. Since the museum would not sell, in the early 1970s he decided to make the museum the repository for his work so he could visit the bookcase when he visited his collection.
Rogers showed video segments with Sendak, who is now 83. Speaking with a blustery humor and candor, Sendak said, “I gave them my art in the hopes that they would give me Melville’s bookcase, but so far, they have not.” He has been quoted as saying, “My gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Mozart. I have a tiny Emily Dickinson that I carry in my pocket everywhere. If I just read three poems, I feel better.” Of the composer he said, “When Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain…I don’t need to. I know that if there was a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart.”
Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. A frail and sickly child, much of his young life was spent indoors where immigrant relatives often visited with desolate and horrifying reports of the plight of the Jews in Poland during the Holocaust.
His father, Phillip, was a gifted storyteller and would tell ghost tales from the old country. One such tale involved children playing a game of “Dare” outside a graveyard, where it was rumored that if one stood too long on top of a grave, a hand of the departed soul would emerge from the soil, grasp the children and hold them to the earth forever. Each child had a marked stake and they were to run into the graveyard as far as their courage would carry them, slam their stake into the ground, then turn and run out quickly. The following morning they were to go back and find the winner by seeing whose stake was the farthest into the cemetery. One little girl had slammed her stake into the ground and when she turned to run away, she was held fast to the ground. The next day when the children came back, they found her body. She had driven the stake through the hem of her dress, which held her captive. The cause of death? Fright!
Early in his restricted life, Sendak began to draw. At age 12, he was taken to see Walt Disney’s “Fantasia.” He fell in love with Mickey Mouse and the idea of synchronizing art with music intrigued him. He was heavily influenced by Disney’s animated world where everything had been constructed in fantasy. After high school graduation, he was hired by F.A.O. Schwartz as a window dresser and continued there for four years while taking classes at the New York Art Students’ League. He illustrated Marcel Ayme’s The Wonderful Farm and Ruth Krauss’s A Hole is to Dig, then quit F.A.O. Schwartz and became a full-time, freelance children’s book illustrator.
Over the following years, Sendak created dozens of popular children’s books, including In the Night Kitchen, and his best-known Where the Wild Things Are, which has sold over 11 million copies and has been translated into 15 languages. In the Night Kitchen, all of the bakers look like Oliver Hardy with rotund figures, pudgy-faced grins, and miniature mustaches centered under their noses. In a video clip, Sendak said of The Night Kitchen, “I love that book, I think even more then the wild things.”
In conjunction with the headquarters exhibit, on November 9, at 6:30 p.m., the library will sponsor Family Movie Night showing: “Where the Wild Things Are” at the Rock Road Branch, 10267 St. Charles Rock Road, St. Ann. 63074. In addition to the free movie, snacks and face paintings will also be provided, so registration is required.
On Monday, November 14, at 6:30 p.m. at Library Headquarters there will be a screening of Sendak Shorts showing Maurice Sendak’s wonderful picture books come to life. In addition, there will be a series of 14 readings of “Where the Wild Things Are” as well as other books about wild things at various libraries throughout the county. The children will make masks inspired by the story and finish it off with a wild rumpus throughout the library! For times and dates, visit www.sendakexhibit.com/slcl. For more information and to register for any of these activities, call 314-994-3300.
You can also see “Sendak’s Shorts” at the St. Louis International Film Festival’s Children’s Film Showcase, presented with the Center for the Humanities at Washington University from November 18-20. Visit www.cinemastlouis.org for more information.
Maurice Sendak has been one of the most inventive children’s writers and illustrators of the past 50 years. Do not let this treasure leave town without seeing the magic for yourself.
Looking for more good reads on children’s authors? “Read Give Me Some Mo” on author and illustrator Mo Willems by Walrus contributor Tif Sweeney.