October 6 2009 by Amy Graff
A wild rumpus has come to San Francisco's urban jungle.
Last week, the Contemporary Jewish Museum opened a retrospective of over 100 works by children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, including rare and original pieces from his 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are, the book about an angry boy named Max whose mom sends him to bed without dinner.
"There's a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak," which runs through January 19, 2010, features original watercolors and drawings from Sendak's books, rare sketches, never-before-seen working materials, and exclusive interview footage. You'll find a final drawing from Pierre, A Cautionary Tale with the mischievous boy standing in front of the lion who eats him; a photograph of Sendak's real-life German shepherd, Agamemnon, who was a model for the dog in Outside Over There; and a preliminary drawing of the Where the Wild Things Are wild rumpus scene in which Max tries to tame the monsters as a way to control his own anger.
An exhibit spotlighting a children's book author seems like something for families to enjoy, but is it really kid appropriate? To find out, I brought my 5-year-old son Dante to a press preview of the show.
I'm not going to lie and say that Dante was deeply engrossed for hours. This isn't a hands-on children's museum exhibit. It's an art museum-style experience with framed pictures hanging on the walls (though they have generously hung the works a few inches lower for little people), and after 45 minutes Dante asked to leave. Yet our visit was worth it because there were plenty of ah-ha moments when he connected with the works. The best being when he saw the giant mural of the Wild Things and he made scary faces, showing his "terrible claws" and "terrible teeth." When you see that mural, the words from the book pass through your head but only a child would actually act them out.
The exhibit offers a great opportunity for parents to expose their children to a "real" museum environment. The material is presented in a sophisticated fashion, but it directly relates to kids and welcomes them. What's more, the museum has planned several family days when Sendak-themed activities, performances, and art projects will keep kids engaged and entertained (see below for list of upcoming events). You can also pick up a copy of a gallery guide designed for kids that makes the exhibit a more interactive experience, grab a bite to eat at the cafe where the menu features a Max's Sandwich, and visit the gift shop selling Wild Things slippers and stuffed animals. On a typical, weekend, a family could easily spend an entire afternoon at the museum, taking in all the Sendak stuff.
We spent most of our time in the gallery where Dante was a huge fan of the children's book nook. He plopped right down on one of the bean bag chairs and flipped through a copy of Where the Wild Things Are. This is a great spot for kids to hang while their parents read the exhibit display copy that recounts the history of the author who was born in Brooklyn in 1928 and who is still working today at 81 years old.
Dante was excited when he spotted a final drawing from the Little Bear book. "That's when Little Bear pretends to go into outer space," he explained. "He jumps really, really high and thinks he's in space. But he's not in outer space. He wears that funny hat because he thinks he's an astronaut." This is when another journalist previewing the exhibit started to quickly write in his notepad and came over to ask me what age my son was. He seemed impressed that this 5-year-old kid knew more about the art pieces hanging on the wall than he did.
And it was Dante who spotted the giant Sendak characters pictured high on the walls (I never would have even noticed them). "Look at that big moon up there, Mommy!" he said. "It looks so mad. Why is it so grumpy?"
Associate curator Dana Solomon told us these characters as well as the murals were intentionally installed to make the exhibit more playful and appealing to children.
"I think it's a fabulous show for kids," Solomon said. "It shows the process of illustrating a book for children learning to draw. He's a great author for kids because he wasn't afraid to show a full range of emotions. He didn't candy coat things. He shows that kids get mad and jealous, something many authors are afraid to do."
My son actually got mad when I was deeply engrossed in some display copy, after we had been at the museum for nearly an hour. "Let's go Mommy!" he growled. "Let's go! Come on!" This is a moment Sendak would appreciate and I envisioned the author sketching an illustration of my frustrated son.
I wasn't ready to go but I left knowing that I would return with my 6-year-old daughter who loves to draw and make her own books. We'll try to visit during one of the many events listed below.
Upcoming family events
Preschool Gallery Hours: Sunday, September 13, 10 a.m.-11 a.m.; Sunday, October 11, 10 a.m.-11 a.m.; Sunday, November 8, 10 a.m.-11 a.m. The museum opens early for preschoolers and their families. Risers will allow little museum goers to see the art up-close, and movement classes and performances will keep them entertained. Kids receive free admission.
Free Target Family Day: Sunday, October 18, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Families get into the museum for free and can wander through the galleries, make art, and sing and dance along to lively musical performances inspired by Sendak's stories and characters.
A Wild Rumpus! Family Gala: Saturday evening, November 14 Dinner, cocktails for all ages, performances, and a private viewing of the exhibition.
For more events, click here.