During the Depression, Maurice Sendak spent his childhood cowering from his mother's overbearing relatives. All Polish Jews, they didn't speak English, never brushed their teeth, and ate everything in sight. They were "wild things," he once said. "And how I detested them."
In 1963, a 35-year-old Sendak wrote and illustrated Where the Wild Things Are about his overbearing family. The timeless children's tale is about Max, a misbehaving urchin who's sent to bed without his supper. Locked in his room, he fantasizes about conquering tooth-gnashing ogres. The beasts, Sendak admitted, were modeled after his aunts and uncles.
"They weren't vicious, but in-your-face," says John Logue, public-programs manager at the Western Reserve Historical Society, which brings Where the Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak in His Own Words and Pictures to town this week for a three-month run. "I picture the auntie coming over and squeezing his cheeks."
Created with Sendak's help, the interactive exhibit depicts scenes from several of the author's books. In the Night Kitchen part of the exhibit, children can bake goodies in a kid-friendly kitchenette. In the Chicken Soup With Rice section, they can slide into a nine-foot bowl of Styrofoam popcorn. But the centerpiece is a replication of Wild Things, complete with ogre costumes. "You can dress up and romp around, with the book as the background," says Logue. "It's a way to release your juvenile angst."
Copies of Sendak's notes, sketches, and family photos will also be on display, to shed light on both the author's childhood and his leap into kid-lit history. "A lot of it has to do with his family's experience in the Holocaust, which was not healthy for someone to grow up in," notes Logue. "But it makes a nice link between his family and the characters in his stories."