'Wild Things' are at the Pratt Library

That day, 2-year-old Max Nistico wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another and his mother called him "wild thing." So Max wasn't even a little bit surprised when he walked into the Enoch Pratt Free Library and found himself right in the middle of his favorite storybook.

There was Max's room, looking just as it does in "Where the Wild Things Are," when a forest grew and grew …


"... and grew," said Max Nistico, who knows every word of Maurice Sendak's children's tale by heart.

There was the little red boat in which the storybook Max sails off to the land of the monsters, and there was the dinner that he found waiting when he returned — a bowl of chicken soup, a glass of milk and a big slice of carrot cake.


"Grrr," said Max Nistico, gnashing his terrible teeth and showing his terrible claws and then reaching up to give his mother, Leah Nistico of Bel Air, a terrible hug.

The grown-ups who watched Max explore the new exhibit, "Maurice Sendak: The Memorial Exhibition — 50 Years, Works, Reasons," couldn't have been more enthralled.

"This exhibit epitomizes what we're all about," the Pratt's chief executive officer, Carla Hayden, said. "We make books come alive."

She said the library staff wanted to do something special for the library's final show before a $106 million renovation of the central library gets underway in the middle of next year.

Their solution is the Sendak exhibit, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the publication of the beloved children's classic in 1963.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a traveling show of about 50 of the famed author and illustrator's original drawings. The illustrations span Sendak's career from the 10th grade, when his English teacher allowed him to draw his book report for "Macbeth," to the set and poster designs for opera and ballet that he designed later in life. Sendak died in 2012 at age 83.

That portion of the exhibit was assembled from private collections by Steven Brezzo, the former director of the San Diego Museum of Art who now works as a freelance curator. Accompanying the illustrations are quotes from 50 celebrities, ranging from President Barack Obama to actress Whoopi Goldberg about how Sendak has influenced their lives.

For instance, actor Tom Hanks proclaims, "Maurice Sendak helped raise my kids."

Included in the exhibit is a well-known self-portrait in which Sendak is standing on one side of a full-length mirror. Waving at him from the other side is his mirror image — Mickey Mouse.

Brezzo says that when Sendak was a boy, he wrote a fan letter to Walt Disney declaring that he wanted to work for him one day. Disney wrote back, saying, "I look forward to that."

"Walt's drawings had lots of circles and round buttons. They inspired Maurice to put soft edges into his illustrations," Brezzo said.

"The shapes are very simple and pure. There's a grace to them that Maurice was drawn to. He doesn't do a lot of hard edges. Even his monsters have a great deal of rotundity."


The Pratt staff added an homage to Sendak consisting of four dozen drawings by students and alumni of the Maryland Institute College of Art that interpret the author's characters or reflect on his contributions to children's literature.

Jessica Brown, the Pratt's children's services coordinator, said Sendak was responsible for changing the look and content of picture books.

" 'Where the Wild Things Are' unlocked the door to telling stories for very young children from a child's point of view," she said. "Instead of adopting a didactic, golden-rule perspective, children's authors after Sendak started asking what a child's life is like.

"Another shift is that there isn't a lot of text on the page. 'Where the Wild Things Are' really is about the illustrations."

Brown makes an interesting point. Sendak's largest fan base is among children who, like little Max Nistico, are too young to read.

That's why the Pratt's art director, Jack Young, spent a year designing and building the installation, from the LED lights that sparkle in the night sky to the monster drawing that hangs by Max's bed.

The staff also worked hard to make the exhibit accessible to children with disabilities.

Seeing-impaired children will be able to climb onto Max's bed and into his boat. They can listen to the sounds of birds twittering outside Max's bedroom and hear the slap of the waves as Max navigates his craft. And they can run their hands over Braille versions of the book and over the wall text, which is raised.

"What we really ended up doing was building a playground inside the library," Young said. "I wanted it to look exactly like the illustrations in the book, but to be safe and sturdy enough so that kids could interact with it. Every item in it is custom made."

Young also knew that he couldn't be faithful to Sendak's vision without drawing on memories of his own childhood.

"When I was a kid, I always wanted to go into Max's bedroom," he said.

"But I was scared of my closet, because I thought monsters lived inside it. So when I built this closet, I decided to put a positive image on the other side that kids would find when they opened the door."

We don't want to spoil Young's surprise, so if you want to see what's there, you'll have to go to the Pratt and twist that doorknob for yourselves.

But we can tell you what Max Nistico said as he pulled open that closet door for the first time.

"I love you," he told Jack Young. "Grrr."

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