In a Nutshell: The Worlds of Maurice Sendak, a traveling exhibit, recently came to my local library. Yesterday I went to see it and to hear a talk on how Sendak connects with his Easter European roots. The lecturer put Sendak's work in historical context, showing how Jewish immigrants (such as Sendak's parents) kept one foot in the old world, through memories and by keeping in touch with relatives who remained in Europe.
The exhibit and talk brought home what John Cech, a professor of children's literature and author of a book about Sendak, once said in an interview in the New York Times. "His whole life's work in some way is an attempt to understand and fathom the complexity of that heritage, with its almost unbearable legacy of loss."
Here's a sampling of the fascinating tidbits I discovered:
In Where the Wild Things Are, the spread of the wild rumpus is the only scene in which the monsters take their eyes off Max. Their eyes are fixed on the Moon, that mysterious orb that can change men into wolves and other beasts of the night.
The Lindbergh kidnapping always held a special horror for Sendak. During the time the story was in the news, young Sendak made his father sleep on the floor next to his bed, a baseball bat at the ready. An uncle, hearing this, inquired "Philip, who would want your children?" Sendak took offense at his uncle's remark, and years later took his revenge, turning the man into the ugliest of the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are. Which one was that? He never said.
Sendak based the illustration of the character Atzel in Isaac Bashevis Singer's Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories on a photograph of Sendak's grandfather that once hung in his bedroom. While suffering the effects of scarlet fever as a boy, a delirious Sendak tried to climb into the frame. His mother snatched the photo of her father and, in her fear, tore it up to protect her son. Years later, after his mother had died, Sendak found the torn pieces stuffed into tissue paper and had the photo restored.