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From our Files: Maurice Sendak interview, 2002

Maurice Sendak, self-taught artist and author of "Where the Wild Things Are" (1963), would eventually write or illustrate over 90 books, beloved by generations of children into adulthood.  Sendak, who died today, spoke with Monitor reporter Gloria Goodale on the occasion of an exhibit of his artwork at Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center in 2002.  He spoke about his personal history growing up in Brooklyn amidst the tumult of family upended after World War II; his escape into an inspired, illustrated world; and his expansion into musical and opera collaborations.

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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.

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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.

Sendak passed many hours of his young adulthood sketching the troops of children as they entertained themselves under Rosie's stern watch. "Rosie was my escape," says Sendak. "It was like settling into another world just to watch her."

Children can dress up in Rosie's costumes and perform in her makeshift theater. The author says there is a bit of Rosie in every book written after 1949, when he first began drawing her, for she also awoke in him an awareness of the role art would play in his life. "It dawned on me that art was the way I could survive."

Sendak went to Manhattan in his early 20s, where he began what he calls a long apprenticeship, illustrating children's books written by others. He was largely a self-taught artist, though the works of European artists like Goya influenced him.

"Goya's portraiture," he says, "told me pictures could be strong, political, and sensual without turning them into a hack or being self-aggrandizing."

It was only after an editor suggested he write and illustrate his own book, that he began to achieve broader success. Several of his early books from the Nutshell Library, also are brought to life at the Skirball exhibit. The area based on "Chicken Soup with Rice," an homage to his Jewish mother, for whom chicken soup was a universal cure-all, offers children a huge bowl of styrofoam soup for kids to dive in.

The fulcrum of his life and the show, is of course, "Where the Wild Things Are." Children can dress up in Max's wolf costume and rumpus on their own with the many stuffed wild things around the display. But the selections of Sendak's handwritten journals tell a deeper, more painful side to the story, one that could not be told when the book was first published.

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