Dear Mili: An Old Tale
Maurice Sendak is a great illustrator, rightly honored by the current exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library. It is showing the watercolors and preliminary drawings for his latest book, the recently discovered tale by Wilhelm Grimm now published as Dear Mili. But there may be some mixed feelings even among his staunchest admirers about this latest meeting of Sendak and Grimm.
For his earlier encounter, when he illustrated the collection of tales that was published as The Juniper Tree (1973), Sendak prepared himself thoroughly. He was by this time dissatisfied with his work on Seven Tales by Hans Andersen (1959), feeling that his visual sense of Europe had derived too much from picture books. So in 1971 he set off to visit each of the regions from which the Grimm brothers had gathered their tales. He visited the Grimm Museum in Kassel, spent the night in a Sleeping Beauty castle. walked in the Reinhardswold woods, bought postcards for their views of architecture and costume, looked at Dürer, Altdorfer, Grünewald. (These, and many other facts about Sendak, I have learned from Selma G. Lanes’s excellent and comprehensive Art of Maurice Sendak, published in 1980.)
Sendak undertook his journey in a spirit as serious as that of the Grimm brothers’ original enterprise of scholarship and salvage. They wished to preserve in print the tales told by peasants and peddlers, and make them part of the national German heritage—it was only with later, illustrated editions that Grimm’s Tales became classic children’s books. Sendak’s purpose was to preserve them as part of all children’s heritage, because they told the truth about human nature. “This is the way life is sometimes, these tales say in the most matter-of-fact way,” he told a questioner, “and this is what I believe children appreciate.” They are smarter than their elders at spotting the truth of a tale, however disguised: “They know that stepmother probably means mother, that the word step is there to avoid frightening a lot of older people. Children know there are mothers who abandon their children, emotionally if not literally.” In her Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, reviewed here last year, Maria Tatar reached a similar conclusion:
Fairy tales translate (however roughly) psychic realities into concrete images, characters, and events,…psychic realities so persistent and widespread that they have held the attention of a community over a long time.
Many readers were in for a shock when The Juniper Tree was published. No pretty colored pictures or decorations as in the Andersen stories; no enticing double-page spreads as in Where the Wild Things Are. Indeed the two squat volumes were sparingly illustrated: just one picture to each of the twenty-seven tales, austere black-and-white, with cross-hatched backgrounds, the size of the Dürer etchings for the Little Passion. The figures that fill the picture space (4 1/2” * 3 5/8”) loom larger because of their narrow limits, as if they were bursting out of their borders. In the …