PORTLAND, Maine — Fifty pieces of Maurice Sendak artwork will be on display at the Portland Public Library starting Friday in what is being billed as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the iconic children’s book author and illustrator’s best-known work, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
“Maurice Sendak just has been such a defining imagination for so many generations of kids and parents over the last 40 or 50 years,” said Yellow Light Breen, vice president and spokesman for Bangor Savings Bank, one of the exhibit’s primary sponsors. “It only starts with ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and then goes on to so many other great, great works. Something about that imagination really, really was a unique spark for so many years and is a source of great pleasure even for people today.”
The traveling exhibition of Sendak’s work came to Maine’s largest city from its previous stop at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and will be sent to New Britain, Conn., after the Portland show closes on Oct. 25. The public library opening from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday represents the exhibit’s New England debut.
“This is such a unique opportunity that doesn’t come to a state like Maine that often, to see the work of someone of that caliber coming here when it’s been traveling around in major metropolitan markets,” Breen said. “These are books we pick up and read to our children again now. And frankly, you enjoy them just as much as they do, maybe for different reasons.”
The late Sendak is credited with revolutionizing the genre of children’s literature through his use of potentially scary or unapologetic images — such as the giant, sharp-toothed monsters in “Where the Wild Things Are” — and many of his books became controversial as a result.
His 1970 book “In the Night Kitchen,” which featured a naked boy heading off on midnight adventures in a dreamlike kitchen, has been listed among the most frequently challenged or banned books in the country by the American Library Association.
But Rachel Weyand, program manager at the Portland Public Library, said Sendak’s unfiltered illustration style is precisely what made him resonate with young readers. She said the now-legendary author connected with children by acknowledging the fear and other emotions they so often truly felt.
Weyand said the “Wild Things” character Max, who gets angry at his mother for scolding him and storms off on an imaginary journey to a world populated by giant monsters, has a redeeming message for children when in the story he returns to his room to find a warm dinner waiting for him.
“He’s saying it’s OK to get angry and [feel] rage, and your mom or your dad is going to be there when you get back,” she said.
Similarly, the ferocious monsters in that same book represented in part the mixed emotions a young Sendak felt toward his own family members, Weyand said. It’s arguably a universal experience for children, getting their cheeks pinched by older and sometimes unfamiliar aunts and uncles, she said.
“The ‘Wild Things’ were loosely based on his relatives, who would come at him with yellow teeth and bad breath and say, ‘You’re so cute I want to eat you up,’” she said.
Sendak, who was often bed-ridden with health problems as a child, was born to hardscrabble Polish Jewish immigrants in 1928 and famously lost extended family members overseas to the Holocaust.
“He had a really sad childhood,” Weyand said. “He once wrote a letter to Walt Disney asking if he would adopt him.”
That fascination with Disney will be on display in Portland. Mickey Mouse appears in several of the hand-drawn Sendak images in the exhibition, including one in which the illustrator drew himself looking into a mirror and seeing the famous cartoon mouse’s reflection.
Another artwork on hand is Sendak’s high school panel drawings of the Shakespeare play “Macbeth,” an effort that helped launch a pen-pal relationship with his English teacher that would last the rest of her life.
“Instead of making him do a presentation in front of the class, which he didn’t like to do, she asked him to draw [Macbeth] out,” Weyand said. “He got an A.”
Weyand said the library is planning to schedule children’s programming to coincide with the exhibit. Specifics about the activities, what will be scheduled and when, will be released as that information is confirmed, she said. The show is being presented in part by the Maine College of Art.