The best parts of childhood are those that resonate with you as an adult. For many, the oeuvre of Maurice Sendak is one such part. While his books with their accompanying whimsical illustrations are aimed at children, the ideas and themes they contain still resonate with many older people.
The Night Max Wore His Wolf Suit: 50 Years of Wild Things, on display at the Rosenbach Museum and Library until March 2nd, displays a considerable amount of the work behind the scenes of Sendak’s most enduring book, Where the Wild Things Are. Contained in a small room in the old mansion near Rittenhouse Square is a vast array of rough concept sketches, textual notes, and the finished ink drawings familiar to those who have read the book.
Walking into the exhibit is a return to nostalgia and childhood, and learning about how this book came into creation is a fascinating journey through ever-changing fantastical and fictional worlds. When Sendak approached the project, he adapted an early mockup of a story called “Where the Wild Horses Are,” which he had written in 1955. Over the course of modifying the original story, he created the unforgettable character of Max and the uniquely empathetic Wild Things, which he based on his early childhood memories of his relatives.
Cases of early Sendak manuscripts and notes are pleasingly juxtaposed with tiny dummy books filled with line drawings and pencil sketches. It’s wonderful to see how the story many of us know and love developed during Sendak’s creative process. While the many pencil sketches on display are rough and quickly rendered, even the early ones show the same idea budding inside Sendak’s mind.
As I moved throughout the exhibit, it became quite clear through Sendak’s copious notes that he put much care and thought into the character of Max. At each step of the book’s development, he wrote to himself that he must not lose Max as the core of the story, even as the Wild Things began to emerge—that he not lose sight of Max’s complex and relatable personality.
According to the blurbs, the original concept drawings for Where the Wild Things Are depicted Max in rooms full of objects that he is upsetting with his wildness. However, in the final version, Sendak removed many of the objects to “isolate” Max as a boy who does not fit into his own world and must therefore create his own.
As a result, Max resonates strongly with the reader. Many readers can relate to the feeling that everything they do is too wild and destructive for others to understand and the feeling of isolation due to emotional and physical extremes. Max is a sympathetic character for many readers. Even though he is a child, his journey and emotions are something everyone who feels lost in the process of growing up, of becoming, can understand.
The drawings of the Wild Things, as they develop from pencil lines to fully inked and colored beings, are positively adorable, bringing back many memories of reading this story as a child. From rough pencil sketch to the rich pen, ink, and watercolor final drawings, Maurice Sendak’s love for his story and for his characters is plain to see.
The exhibit also juxtaposes Sendak’s sketches and observations of the way children play; he would use his notes based on their actions for the “Wild Rumpus” of the final book. Maurice Sendak was an author who loved and understood children in ways that few other adults did—he understood their need for finding themselves, their needs for chaos and wildness and freedom. Ultimately, Where the Wild Things Are is still memorable because it displays a love, respect, and understanding of the minds of children without infantilizing them or projecting a premature adulthood.
A small section of the exhibit is devoted to the impact Where the Wild Things Are had upon its publication. A blurb points out the daring quality of the book jacket, which does not feature Max; it creates a sense of “mystery”. Additionally, the book was originally deemed to be too scary for children due to the design of the Wild Things. However, a letter to Sendak’s publisher featuring children’s reactions would argue otherwise; many of the children found the story enjoyable rather than frightening.
The Night Max Wore His Wolf Suit may be a small exhibit, but it’s absolutely a gem—it is a veritable vault of memories and ideas. It reminded me that while Where the Wild Things Are is ostensibly for children, it’s really for everyone who has ever felt like they didn’t belong, who has felt powerless and felt like a misfit in the world.