Collection Highlight: Maurice Sendak’s Dear Mili

As I looked through the descriptions of the interactive exhibits featured in Play by design, The World of Children’s Books,  one offering immediately caught my attention – Dear Mili, written by Wilhem Grimm and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak.    Sendak hooked me years ago when I was doing a stint as a preschool teacher and would read Where the Wild Things Are to my students each year.  Their eyes would grow big and their posture increasingly alert as we moved through the pages following Max, the main character, as he explored what it meant to give in to some of his baser emotions or his “wild side.”    The kids in my classes immediately “got it.”  They knew in their gut what it meant to feel out of control, frustration welling up to tantrum levels.   Indeed, Maurice Sendak was a master of capturing the emotions that we as adults have decided to bury deep within us.    And, in Dear Mili, his sensitive and evocative artwork does not disappoint us.

Dear Mili has a unique history in the long trail of Grimm’s fairy tales.  In 1816, Wilhelm Grimm, wrote a letter to a young girl, named Mili, in which he recounted a story of a little girl sent away by her mother to protect her from an impending war.    The letter was preserved by the family and, 170 years after Grimm wrote it, the letter was rediscovered, in 1983.  A few years later, Maurice Sendak would be instrumental in bringing the tale to life and sharing it with the world.

First published in English in 1988, this edition of Dear Mili was translated by Ralph Manheim and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.   The story follows a little girl, who lives with her mother, a widow.  When war threatens their peaceful home, the anxious mother heartbreakingly sends the little girl, who looks to be no older than five, into the woods to safeguard her.  Along her journey, the little girl is protected by an unseen angel, through a fierce storm until she finds her way to a hermit’s cottage.  Inside the cottage, she finds an old man, who protects her and, in her gratitude, she serves him faithfully for three days.   At the end of three days, the hermit gives the little girl, who remains unnamed throughout the story, a rosebud and a promise – when the rosebud blooms the little girl would return to him again.   The guardian angel then guides the little girl back to her village where, at her home, they find an old woman sitting outside, who greets the little girl warmly.  We discover time has unraveled and what seemed like three days to the little girl was thirty years in the village.  When evening comes, the little girl and her old mother go to sleep with the rosebud between them, until the next morning, when the neighbors find them dead with the rose in full bloom.

I don’t have to tell you that some will find this story, especially the ending, disturbing for children.  However, I’d like to remind us of something Sendak himself said, “You can’t protect kids.  They know everything.”   Sendak’s illustrations in Dear Mili demonstrate this profound respect for children – his illustrations are rich and lavish and his characters have realistic expressions conveying depth of emotion, joy, bewilderment, pain.   Not only is the artwork sensitive and evocative, it’s also multi-layered with depths of meaning.  For example, in the heavenly garden we find a tombstone inscribed with Hebrew and a Star of David, subtly suggesting we contemplate a 20th century horror of world war and holocaust.   Throughout Dear Mili, Sendak captures the very raw human emotions of loneliness, despair, abandonment and reconciliation in a way that both children and adults can grasp.

Maurice Sendak also left his special mark at Kennesaw State University.  The copy of Dear Mili, held by the Bentley, was signed by Sendak when he came to speak at the university. The story is told that he was so nervous about public speaking, he had to sit with Mr. Robert Williams for several hours to chat and calm his nerves. During that time he told Mr. Williams the story of the different illustrations and described the layers of meaning that you can see if you look at them closely.

Sendak, just like his illustrations, was a multi-layered, complicated human-being.   After his death May 8, 2012, friends paid tribute to him – calling him “generous, courageous,  cantankerous” and the “person who revolutionized children’s literature, even though he said he never wrote one children’s book in his life.”  Others said he was able to catch the “fun, innocence, trickiness, and wit of childhood” in his writing and artwork.  Perhaps more importantly, friends and fellow authors and illustrators remembered him as a person who “could not abide the qualities of artifice, pretense, or calculation in art” or in relationships.  Many of his associates said to meet him was to become his close friend.  Reading those tributes made me want to go back in time, to meet the Great Illustrator, to become his friend, to hear his stories.    I have to admit, I envy Mr. Williams and his encounter with Mr. Sendak.

I hope you’ll take a moment.  Go see this beautiful new interactive exhibit, Play by Design, The World of Children’s Books at the Bentley Rare Book Gallery.  Go, using the eyes of your inner child, look anew over the illustrations you’ll find in these rare displays.  Let your imagination wander and meander.  I bet you’ll find some remnants of your own wild side.



This blog post was written by one of our awesome interns, Durema Bacchus. Check back for more of her insights about more of the Bentley’s treasures!


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