By now we’ve all heard the news of the passing of Maurice Sendak, noted author and illustrator, and for some of us a permanent fixture on the bookshelf. Every major news outlet has covered the story and many have published heartfelt remembrances. In his May 9 appreciation, Los Angeles Times Book Critic David Ulin applauds how Sendak’s work reveals “the power of our minds to transform the world.” The day Sendak died, I listened with rapt attention as Wicked author and Sendak mentee Gregory Maguire talked about their friendship on NPR.
Here at the Skirball, Maurice Sendak’s artwork graced our galleries twice: first in the 2002 exhibition Where the Wild Things Are, which was my first experience ever at a Skirball exhibition; and then again as part of our 2010 exhibition Monsters and Miracles: A Journey through Jewish Picture Books. In the fall of 2009, as audiences geared up for Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, the Skirball hosted a daylong family program inspired by the classic Sendak book, featuring themed art projects, storytelling, and even a wild rumpus jam.
For me, Sendak’s books weren’t ones that I ever outgrew. Even as a teenager, a college student, and now an adult (and certainly as a parent of a young child), I continue to go back to them. The eccentric drawings of monsters, cooks, and creatures captivate me still. Most of them outcasts or oddballs—from Max and the “Wild Things” to Rosie from Chicken Soup with Rice, from Mickey from In the Night Kitchen to the little dog Jenny from Higglety Pigglety Pop—Sendak’s characters are ones I can always relate to.
Maybe it’s because many were based on Sendak’s Jewish relatives and therefore remind me still of my own family members (who shall remain unnamed, except for Aunt Charlotte—poor thing, may she rest in peace!—who looked eerily like one of the less attractive Wild Things, beard included!). But I think it’s more because they just seem so human. Sendak’s books were almost always about the ways in which we humans struggle to navigate the world and how those challenges impact our emotions, our relationships, and the lifelong fight to remain childlike, if only at heart.
So, whether you’re a longtime Sendak fan like me or about to join the millions who will surely bump his books up the Amazon charts this week, consider sneaking down to the kitchen late at night to bake a cake, taking a little black bag with you in search of the meaning of life, or just having a wild rumpus with some of your friends. Sendak would be proud!
Postscript: Since the writing of this post, we’ve learned also of pioneering hair stylist, cultural icon, and philanthropist Vidal Sassoon’s passing. Jordan Peimer, our VP of Programs, toured him through our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, within the first two years of the Skirball’s opening in 1996. Jordan fondly recalls that Mr. Sassoon—who was especially interested in the Sephardic displays in our museum and spoke candidly of his Iraqi Jewish roots throughout the private tour—“was a true gentleman.” Mr. Sassoon would later take the stage here at the Skirball as part of our “I Am Jewish” reading program in honor of Daniel Pearl.