Maurice Sendak had illustrated more than 50 books when he pitched his own idea: a story called "Where The Wild Horses Are."
A few months into the project, Sendak realized he had a big problem: He couldn't draw horses.
He turned to his childhood memories, drawing inspiration from some of his European relatives, lovable but unkempt with less than perfect teeth. He created "Wild Things," changed the book and the title, and a children's classic was born.
"Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons" is on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum through July 7. The show offers a fascinating glimpse into the late illustrator's life and the forces that influenced his work.
It's no surprise that Sendak's work is being shown at the Disney museum. He decided to become an illustrator at the age of 12 after watching Disney's "Fantasia."
"Maurice Sendak was a huge Walt Disney fan," guest curator Anel Muller says. "He considered Mickey Mouse to be the little brother he always wanted."
The exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of "Where the Wild Things Are." Fifty original works from the book are on display, many of them loaned by private collections or friends of the artist.
Despite a troubled childhood that included illness, the deaths of relatives in the Holocaust and the death of a friend, Sendak's art explodes with joyfulness and playfulness.
Highlights include a wonderful drawing of Max in his wolf suit, chasing after his dog Jenny. There are several illustrations of Wild Things, as fresh as if they were drawn yesterday, and a lovely drawing of Little Bear, the character created by author Else Holmelund Minarik.
In addition to writing and illustrating books, Sendak worked in animation and created set designs for opera and ballet. He died last year at the age of 83.
Sendak took his fans very seriously. He replied as honestly as he could to children who asked him questions they couldn't ask their parents, Muller says.
Once Sendak received a card from a little boy named Jim. He sent back a thank-you note and included a drawing of a Wild Thing.
Soon the boy's mother wrote back. "Jim loved your card so much he ate it."
Sendak couldn't have been happier.
"That, to me, was one of the highest compliments I've ever received," he said. "He didn't care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it."
Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons
Where: Walt Disney Family Museum, 104 Montgomery St., Presidio, S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except closed Tuesdays; show closes July 7
Tickets: $10 to $25
Contact: (415) 345-6800, www.waltdisney.org