‘Wild Things’ are roaming: Learn about Maurice Sendak at the Skirball

“What we really like to emphasize at our display of this exhibition is that these original works really showcase Sendak as a fine artist, not just a children's book illustrator,” says Skirball Center Managing Co-curator Sarah Daymude. Credit: Maurice Sendak Foundation.

Maurice Sendak has been scaring little kids for more than half a century. The author and illustrator is best known for Where the Wild Things Are — a tale of a mischievous little boy who creates an imaginary world filled with monsters. Sendak’s love for books and drawing began in his childhood, which was riddled with illness and loneliness. He described his older brother as his savior. Later in his career, he worked as a costume and stage designer for operas and ballets. Now the Skirball Cultural Center is highlighting his life and work with the new exhibition called “Wild Things are Happening.”

Sendak never shied away from scary imaginings because he wanted to tell kids the truth in a way they could understand, says Sarah Daymude, the exhibit’s managing co-curator. 

“You see Max [the main character] in Where the Wild Things Are, and he's meeting these creatures that were maybe inspired by some family members that he was a little scared of, but Max is never scared,” Daymude says. “That really inspires these children that read his books, too, if they are in these scary situations, and they will be in these scary situations in life, to not be afraid to … press on, and you never know what the adventure could be.” 

In the show, first-edition copies of his books are placed alongside his original artwork and manuscripts. Daymude says it is the largest collection of his work and the first exhibit since his death in 2012. 

“We go along this chronology. We start at his young age when he was first drawing depictions of Mickey Mouse when he was 6 years old. And we go all the way until the end of his career,” Daymude says. “What we really like to emphasize … is that these original works really showcase Sendak as a fine artist, not just a children's book illustrator.”

Maurice Sendak sketched this portrait of himself. Credit: Maurice Sendak Foundation.

Sendak was largely influenced by artists such as Francisco Goya, known for nightmarish visuals, and Mozart. 

“[Sendak] had this one technique that he called fantasy sketches. … He would sit down at his table, he would put on a piece of Mozart music, and he would sketch whatever came to mind and just continuously sketch until the song was over. And so what he believed was that classical music opened this creative side of his brain.” 

Credit: Maurice Sendak Foundation.

One fantasy sketch on display even features creatures from Where the Wild Things Are, Daymude points out. 

Skirball visitors can also see Ten Little Rabbits, a museum pamphlet Sendak originally published in 1970. It follows a young magician named Mino who makes rabbits appear. It was released as a full book in February 2024.

Sendak’s Jewish heritage is part of the exhibit too. Daymude says religion wasn’t part of the author’s upbringing, but it still inspired his work. “His father would tell him stories at night about shtetl life, about his family in Poland. And so this Jewish mentality was constantly there in his childhood. And like we see with Wild Things, they're inspired by his Jewish family members.” 

That influence is also part of his costume and set work for a production of Brundibár, a libretto that follows two children searching for milk for their sick mother. 

“They come across this big bully named Brundibár, who tries to get in the way of their plans. And so this Brundibár character originally was supposed to be a Hitler character, and this libretto was originally performed by children in concentration camps,” Daymude explains. “This idea of the Holocaust, this idea of his Jewish heritage, was constantly there. And I think it shows up in really interesting ways.” 

Credit: Maurice Sendak Foundation. 

Credit: Maurice Sendak Foundation.

Credit: Maurice Sendak Foundation.

Credit: Maurice Sendak Foundation.



  • Sarah Daymude - managing co-curator of “Wild Things Are Happening: The Art of Maurice Sendak” at The Skirball Cultural Center