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.

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