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From our Files: Maurice Sendak interview, 2002

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"Children's books were always very pretty," says Barbara Gilbert, curator of fine arts for the Skirball. "But Sendak wanted them to be honest." Think of the dark power of Chris Van Allsburg's "Jumanji" to understand Sendak's legacy to younger writer/illustrators.

Filtering memories through art

As the third and youngest child of an immigrant Jewish family living in New York, Sendak says honesty meant portraying the childhood he knew: one full of great loss, fear, and boredom. "Children didn't have summer camps in the Brooklyn he knew," Ms. Gilbert says, "so they were left to their own resources."

Sendak's parents considered him a frail child and often kept him indoors. His childhood, full of a housebound poverty and Jewish relatives fleeing Europe in the 1930s and '40s, marked him for life.

"I can't say exactly why," says Sendak, "but I am still trying to filter through all that business in my life and turn it into art." The interactive display at the Skirball makes direct and poignant connections between his childhood and his books.

First stop for visitors as they enter: Rosie's front stoop, based on the heroine of his third book, "The Sign on Rosie's Door," (1960). The real counterpart in Sendak's life was a neighbor girl who entertained herself and countless other children during the dark war years with her theatricals and parties.

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