Maurice Sendak’s Legacy

The "Wild Things" find a home at the Rosenbach Museum & Library


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“Sendak in Spring”
The Rosenbach Museum & Library

If there’s a book we all love from our childhoods, it’s definitely Where the Wild Things are. Maurice Sendak gave audiences Max, the rambunctious main character in Where the Wild Things are, along with hundreds of other characters that we’ve all come to love and adore.

The Rosenbach Museum and Library certainly has a soft spot for Sendak’s lovable characters. Their exhibition “Maurice Sendak: A Legacy,” displays the author’s original drawings of Max, the Wild Things, and includes over 65 drawings from 65 different books.

Where the Wild Things Are is Sendak’s most famous story, but as Patrick Rodgers, the exhibitions curator, explained, “he didn’t just want to be the guy known for it.” Sendak’s books are all drawn in different styles showing his versatility as an illustrator. Sendak’s illustrations at the Rosenbach range from doodles in a chemistry book to extremely detailed and realistic illustrations of goblins.

The exhibition demonstrates how personal Sendak’s work often is.  Most of the books’ characters are inspired from people in the author’s life. For example, Rosie, the strong female character in Where the Wild Things Are, was based on a girl from Sendak’s neighborhood. She would, “salute him and say something like ‘Hi Johnson!” says Rogers.

Like Rosie, the “wild things” were based on the people closest Sendak: his hairy relatives, who according to Rogers would “pinch his cheeks because they loved him so.” The book was originally supposed to be called Where the Wild Horses Are, but someone fortunately told him he was terrible at drawing horses. Sendak then decided to change horses to things and asked himself, “What are the wildest things I know? Of course, my family!”

Sendak made a trilogy of works, including Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There. In the Night Kitchen is a book about a young boy’s dream of floating to a surreal chef’s kitchen, and helping him bake a cake. The book is based on Sendak’s experience with “his sister abandoning him at New Yorks Worlds Fair,” says Rogers, the event left a young Sendak devastated enough to base the book on it. The illustrations of a naked baby floating in a milk jar, are reminiscent of the abandonment Sendak felt during the experience.

Outside Over There is a grim tale about a young girl named Ida who must rescue her baby sister after being stolen by goblins. The plot is loosely based on Sendak’s relationship with his older sister Natalie, and the fear he had after learning about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932. As a child, Sendak was extremely frightened by the kidnapping, and based the book on his personal feelings toward the event. The book took much longer for Sendak to publish, according to Rogers, who would usually finish books extremely fast.

The trilogy of books shows Sendak’s ability to bring his personal experiences into his writing and illustrations, making his work unique and expressive. Sendak once wrote that all three books are “all variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings – danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy—and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.” Sendak’s highly personal and expressive illustrations are what draw us to his work. You can see the exhibition Sendak in Spring at Rosenbach Museum and Library­ until May 26th, 2013.


Jeana Mobley is a Sophomore Custom-Designed Major at Drexel University.

Photos courtesy of the Rosenbach Museum and Library
Mural image:The Chertoff Mural. © 1961 and 2011 by Maurice Sendak and Post-Production by Stephen Stinehour.