My Brother's Book by Maurice Sendak

My Brother's Book CoverI have always been fascinated with the work of Maurice Sendak and  have been a fan of his illustrations.  So when I saw his posthumously published book, My Brother’s Book, at the library I picked it up and read it.  Unfortunately, I think most of this very short book just went over my head.  I’m not real knowledgeable about his life or the literature and art from which it seems to draw its inspiration.   And while I can appreciate it to some degree my overall reaction was “interesting but rather dull.”

Here is the publisher’s description:

Fifty years after Where the Wild Things Are was published comes the last book Maurice Sendak completed before his death in May 2012, My Brother’s Book. With influences from Shakespeare and William Blake, Sendak pays homage to his late brother, Jack, whom he credited for his passion for writing and drawing. Pairing Sendak’s poignant poetry with his exquisite and dramatic artwork, this book redefines what mature readers expect from Maurice Sendak while continuing the lasting legacy he created over his long, illustrious career. Sendak’s tribute to his brother is an expression of both grief and love and will resonate with his lifelong fans who may have read his children’s books and will be ecstatic to discover something for them now. Pulitzer Prize–winning literary critic and Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt contributes a moving introduction.

Since my reaction was so limited and muted I thought it might be worth looking at how some critics approached it.

Perhaps my mistake was not to read it multiple times and view it through the lens of children’s books.  That seemed to help Dwight Garner:

“My Brother’s Book” will, in fact, probably not make many children happy. It’s an elegiac volume that has little in the way of story; the hero isn’t as winsomely bossy and obnoxious as Sendak’s characters often are.

I disliked it my first time through; I found it a bit evasive, more artiness than art. I wasn’t sure that I cared about Jack or Guy, whose appeal we are supposed to take for granted.

Yet it’s a book that rewards repeat readings. Its charms are simmering and reflective ones. This moral fable may find its largest audience among adults.

Liz Rosenberg (in a Barnes & Noble review) had a similar thought:

No one should claim that his posthumous work, My Brother’s Book, is for children. Let me make that clear from the outset. This is not a children’s book. Most kids would be bored and bewildered by it, stirred and vaguely disturbed. Being a bona fide former child myself, that was my own first reaction. The text, with its Shakespearean undertones, confused me. The images looked eerie and both too much like and too much unlike William Blake. But that was only a first, foolish impression — my own dimwitted attempt to force the book into being something it was not: intended for children.

My Brother’s Book is a beautiful, evanescent elegy, composed about Sendak himself and his late brother, Jack — who here stands for all of Sendak’s beloveds, including his late partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. (Aptly enough, Glynn was both an art critic and a psychiatrist for the young.) I use the word composed deliberately, for all of Sendak’s best work was musical and strongly rhythmical, “a kind of muscular rhythm,” as he once described it. The book echoes language from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, a play of love, loss, jealousy, and imagination run amok. That play contains Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” The note could not be more apt.

More below.

On the other hand, Ellen Handler Spitz has a different take on the books worth and the insight it may provide:

Maurice Sendak, the much beloved children’s author and artist who died last year at the age of 83, hoped, according to his devoted friend Tony Kushner, that My Brother’s Book, posthumously published this month, would be his masterpiece. Unfortunately, it is not. It is a 32-page, topsy-turvy narrative told in labored blank verse, with 13 watercolor, pencil, and ink illustrations derived from the work of other artists.1

Unintelligible as a story, mostly unoriginal as art, emotionally distant (we never get close enough to its characters to care deeply for them), My Brother’s Book, one could argue, might well have been kept private as an archival document instead of being marketed to a mass audience of fans as a collector’s item.

She goes on to argue that: “This small book should remind us that Sendak studies have neglected a crucial element of his work: his sexuality.”

For her part, Helen Saltzman does see a connection between Sendak’s work for children and this work:

What My Brother’s Book does have in common with Sendak’s works for children is a primal feeling of terror, in a disorienting, dreamlike realm. Here, these elements combine in a sparse elegy to Sendak’s older brother Jack, also a children’s author, who died in 1995. In the poem, two brothers, Jack and Guy, are, like the Sendak’s, driven apart by a cataclysm. Jack is exiled to “continents of ice – / A snow image stuck fast in water like stone. His poor nose froze”; while Guy is sent spinning around the world and sky. Peril is everywhere, in malevolent-looking foliage, red-glowing forests, a polar bear many times larger than a man – but the greater danger comes from within, the anger and grief that fueled Sendak throughout his life. This is a beautiful tribute to “his noble-hearted brother/ Who he loves more than his own self”, but both devastating and devastated.

As might be expected then, I think your reaction to this book will have a lot to do with your connection to Sendak and his work as well as the themes and references that lie behind the work.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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