Although you may not recognize the name, you undoubtedly grew up with the work of author Maurice Sendak. His creations include the yellow-eyed, fanged monsters famously depicted in his book “Where the Wild Things Are.” On Nov. 8, the Dodd Center for Human Rights hosted the exhibit “Vilde Chayes/Wild Things: Childhood Through the Eyes of Maurice Sendak.” The University of Connecticut’s Center for Judaic Studies co-hosted and helped curate the exhibit.
Clara Nguyen, project archivist for UConn Archives and Special Collections gave opening remarks in the Konover Auditorium before introducing co-curator and director, Dr. Avniom Patt. Patt discussed the themes explored by the exhibit, specifically the Holocaust and confronting childhood fears.
“Sendek spent over 50 years bringing to life this world of fantasy and imagination … but also spark[ed] controversy with his willingness to address childhood fears head on rather than what was typical of most works: recreating reassuring tropes of traditional children’s literature,” Patt said. “His willingness to engage with the fears of children opened up a new world for children’s literature.”
Vilde Chayes is a Yiddish expression often used by Jewish parents to describe their rowdy children. Dr. Patt discussed the familial origin of the wild things in “Where the Wild Things Are,” and why he felt “Vilde Chayes” was an appropriate title for the exhibition.
“Sendak explains that this is based on a Yiddish expression,” Patt said. “A vilde chayes is literally a wild thing, and he said it’s what almost every Jewish mother or father says to their offspring. ‘You’re acting like a vilde chayes — you’re acting like a wild animal.’ So that is why this exhibit is called Vilde Chayes/Wild Things.”
After remarks, the opening of the exhibition screened the Spike Jonez documentary, “Tell Them Anything You Want,” which included anecdotes from the author and illustrator himself, as well as his profiled work and early inspirations.
A small collection of items from the Maurice Sendak Collection are displayed in the Richard H. Schimmelpfeng Gallery in the Dodd Center, which visitors could view during the opening and can continue to view for the length of exhibition. UConn’s Archives and Special Collections houses over 70 illustrated books, layouts, color separations and much more created by Sendak throughout his decades long career. This exhibit displays works from his books “In the Night Kitchen,” “Brundibar,” “Dear Mili” and of course, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Sendek was born in Brooklyn in 1928 to Polish Jewish immigrants. His childhood was plagued by illness which kept him bedridden, but fostered his love for reading and art. The loss of many of his relatives in Poland to the Holocaust cast a shadow of grief and survivor’s guilt over many of his early years. Much of his work reflects his early awareness of childhood mortality and attempts to resolve some of these traumatic experience, Patt explained.
As discussed during the event, the mature themes that Sendak explores have received pushback, landing him on many banned book lists. “In the Night Kitchen,” which depicts a naked boy, and “Where the Wild Things Are” have been widely challenged and are considered too crude or frightening for the young audiences Sendak writes for. However, Patt emphasized how the author’s tendency to put adolescent characters in dangerous situations speaks to Sendak’s belief in the tenacity of children rather than an affinity for the macabre.
“We can clearly see here this very strong theme of confronting one’s fears, but also empowering children to show them they have the ability to overcome their fears,” Patt said.