Thursday, October 08, 2009
Books: Who the Wild Things were.
The online edition of the Boston Globe has an appreciation piece on Sendak's 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are.
The piece caught my attention for this little tidbit about the inspiration for the Wild Things:
In interviews, Sendak has said the Wild Things were inspired by visiting relatives, whose appearance in his boyhood Brooklyn home were a source of great alarm to the budding storyteller. Just who were these creatures, barging into the living room and upsetting the domestic routine? (They’d come over for dinner, so young Sendak was told, but was he the meal?) Sendak cites one uncle in particular, named Joe, as a template for the Wild Things, and looking at the illustrations we can imagine him as he appeared to the impressionable child: a rotund, hirsute guy, jovial but prone to overexcitement, toothy, and bulgy-eyed.
A profile piece published last month in the Oakland Tribune described the influence in even greater detail:
The youngest of three children in a Polish-Jewish family, Sendak was not the most robust child. He nearly died from bouts of pneumonia and scarlet fever, and spent a great deal of time indoors, drawing, reading and listening to his father's vivid stories about life in the shtetl and family members lost in the Holocaust. Or he was at the movies, soaking up Mickey Mouse shorts, campy monster movies and silver screen glamour. The result was an incredible mixture of folklore, cinematic screenplays, lurking danger and wild children's stories, which eventually wove themselves into the rich tapestry of Sendak's books.
And the wild things were based on the relatives who came to dinner at the Sendak home.
"They smoked cigars, their teeth were terrible, and they had hairs pouring out of their noses, and what was the matter with them?!" Sendak says in a taped interview available to museum visitors. "Waiting for my mother to get all the food ready — and her being late — meant these people could eat you. If they got to be hungry enough, they would eat you because they handle you so roughly."
But nothing terrified young Sendak as completely as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932. Famous pilot Charles Lindbergh's young son was snatched straight from his crib. And Sendak, then just 4, insisted that his own father protect him by sleeping in his room, curled up on the floor with a weapon.
"I can see him now in his underwear top and underwear, with a baseball bat," Sendak says in a taped interview. "I would not go to sleep — that's when my insomnia began — until he was safely on the ground with the bat. And my uncle's great mistake was in saying to my father, 'Philip, who would want your children?' I never forgot the pain of him thinking we weren't good enough to be kidnapped. So that's how distorted a child's emotional conception can be. And I waited all my life to get even with him."
Everyone knows that uncle now — he's the least attractive of the wild things. And now, of course, he's famous, as are all the characters in Sendak's more than 100 children's books and dozens of opera, ballet and theatrical sets, including "Brundibar," the Sendak-Tony Kushner collaboration staged by Berkeley Rep in 2005.