I’m always amazed when I rewatch a favorite childhood movie or television show and find the adult humor or mature subject matter hidden beneath the surface. Never did I think the same would hold true for a classic children’s book, but it did after walking through “In a Nutshell: The Worlds of Maurice Sendak,” a new exhibit here in town.
Last weekend, I stopped by the Main Library’s Bernheim Gallery on 301 York St. to browse the exhibit on display through Feb. 24.
The library exhibit features several of the beloved characters from Sendak’s 1964 Caldecott Medal winning picture book, “Where The Wild Things Are.” There are also giant, vivid panels depicting illustrations from other notable stories Sendak has written over the years.
The national traveling exhibition delves into the influence that Jewish culture and history had on Sendak as an author and illustrator, which was an influence I never would have detected reading his work in the first grade.
Did you know that Sendak was preoccupied with “shtetl” (Yiddish for “little town”) life growing up in Brooklyn, New York and intertwined elements of the Holocaust and the Lindbergh kidnapping into his 1993 book “We are all in the Dumps with Jack and Guy”?
In fact, as a child, Sendak had become intrigued by the worn black-and-white photographs of his European relatives, many of whom were murdered in concentration camps, and based several of the monstrous “wild things” in his famous storybook off of his aunts and uncles who had scared him as a kid with their cigar smoking, crooked teeth and long nose hair.
It is said that the main character, Max, in “Where the Wild Things Are” is symbolic of Sendak and his quest to explore his European ancestry and make sense of his American upbringing.
Sendak has always been interested in deriving his fantasies from reality, and that was exactly the case for his iconic book that I’m sure many children never would have imagined held a deeper meaning beneath the adventurous tale of a boy dressed in a wolf suit wandering through the land of ferocious beasts.
It was through Sendak’s journey in literature that he was able to better understand his Jewish identity and family history that caused him conflict as a child battling his parents’ Old World mentality in the vibrant New World of Brooklyn. Without his past and inability to truly break from it, Sendak may not have become the renowned author he is today. Nor would he have finally found a sense of happiness, which he was quoted as saying, “comes only through art … music, reading, working. That’s it. And crappy television.”
Now, who would have thought that was the real story behind one mischievous boy who travels to a land inhabited by wild things?
301 York St.
Monday through Thursday: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday: 1 to 5 p.m.
A Wild, Wild Rumpus
Saturday, Jan. 28: 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Come visit the Main Library for a special reading of “Where the Wild Things Are” performed by Stage One Family Theatre. Children will meet Max and one of the Wild Things and create wild crafts with the Speed Art Museum.
Jewish Ritual Objects: Religion and Art
Thursday, Feb. 16: 7 p.m.
In concurrence with the Jewish Museum in New York hosting the exhibit “An Artist Remembers: Hanukkah Lamps Selected by Maurice Sendak,” University of Louisville history professor Lee Shai Weissbach will present an illustrated exploration of how Jewish tradition has approached questions of artistic expression through the ages.