In 1956 when Maurice Sendak published his first book, Kenny's Window, the world of children's books was a very safe place. Stories were light and happy, set in a world without disorder.
Seven years later Sendak turned the children's book world upside down with his masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are, gaining international acclaim for his illustrating and writing. The book captured the public's imagination with a tale of a boy's journey into a strange land inhabited by grotesque yet appealing monsters. The main character Max-- like many of his protagonists-- acted like a real child, not some idealized version of youth.
All his life Sendak challenged the idea of childhood innocence.
"In plain terms, a child is a complicated creature who can drive you crazy," Sendak once said in an interview. "There's a cruelty to childhood, there's an anger. And I did not want to reduce Max to the trite image of the good little boy that you find in too many books."
The Vero Beach Museum of Art is currently presenting: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons, Maurice Sendak: The Memorial Exhibition that runs through December 30 in the Museum's Holmes Gallery. Organized to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, the exhibition features original illustrations for the book, which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for pictorial excellence in 1964.
Born the year before the Great Depression in Brooklyn, N.Y. to Polish Jewish immigrant parents, Sendak admits he didn't have a happy childhood. Though he grew up in the U.S., the horrors of the Holocaust were never far away. Sendak's inspiration for the monsters came from his immigrant relatives.
"I went back into my head as to who were monsters in my life, well, they were all my uncles and aunts," Sendak once recalled in an interview. “Bloodshot eyes and big huge noses and bad teeth, and they would grab you by the cheek and pummel you and say all the conventional things like, 'I'll eat you up,' and knowing them, they probably would and could."
The son of a dressmaker, as a young boy Sendak was ravaged by nearly every childhood sickness—measles, scarlet fever, double pneumonia. He started drawing to pass the time. Excelling at art, he landed a part-time job at All-American Comics while in high school.
The narrative of Where the Wild Things Are follows a boisterous and adventurous young Max who, having been sent to his room for misbehaving, ends up taking a rollicking trip to an island inhabited by Wild Things who crown him King before he returns home. In addition to the original illustrations, the exhibit includes designs for an animated short film, a feature film, and an opera based on the book. It also incorporates a selection of works from the many other picture books that Sendak illustrated throughout his 60-year career, such as the classics In the Night Kitchen and Little Bear. Several examples from his successful second career as a stage and costume designer are on display as well.
Visitors to the exhibition are immersed into the story book by participating in the "Wild Rumpus Room" which represents Max’s bedroom complete with a selection of Sendak books, puzzles and hand puppet characters for children of all ages to enjoy. Throughout the exhibit visitors are encouraged to take selfies with lifesize cut-outs of Max, or embarking on a sailing adventure in his private boat.
Sendak produced more than 50 books and used his creative talents in a number of other forms, including a collaboration with Carole King for the musical Really Rosie. He designed sets and costumes for stage versions of his books and other productions as well. Sendak died at age 83 in 2012 after suffering from a stroke.
Sendak's stories and images have left a lasting impression in the minds and hearts of generations of readers--both young and old. One Sendak's biggest fans is comedian and television host Stephen Colbert.
“Maurice Sendak was strikingly honest," Colbert observed. "His art gave us a fantastical but romanticized reminder of what childhood truly felt like. We are all honored to have been briefly invited into his world. Sendak’s talent as a draftsman and his ability to express the freedom of the imagination and childhood exploration will appeal to all ages."