Where art, literary tradition, and children’s lit HINGE with poetry
Maurice Sendak’s posthumous story, My Brother’s Book, with its swallow-you-whole watercolor cover art appears, at first, to be another cherished children’s book. However, it is quite the departure from his well-loved story, Where the Wild Things Are. Although the same playful dreaminess slips its way into this love story for Sendak’s deceased brother, it is far more darker, much more heartbreaking, and (most likely) not actually for children—the pictures are haunting, and the language rife with the demons of sadness. As the protagonist, Guy, asserts, “A sad riddle is best for me,” and so too is it best for this book.
This is a Dante-esque journey of “two brothers dreaming the same dream,” where Guy, journeying into Sendak’s frozen version of the underworld, hopes to rescue his brother, Jack, from “continents of ice.” Instead, he finds the freeze has melted and that Jack has become “deep-buried in [the] veiled blossoms” of a cherry tree. This beautifully poignant revelation is, as Stephen Greenblatt says in the introduction, a “safe haven […] reached [if] at all, only after terrifying adventures.” It is this ambiguity, the knowing that a lost brother has become a permanent fixture in an unknown, though beautiful world is as heartbreaking as the moment when they separate. It is only in death where they may meet again.
The journey is framed in the realm of the fantastic and the fairy tale, with hints of nursery rhyme and Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale sprinkled throughout. The poetry wanes in and out of the traditional nursery rhyme, alternating between more narrative lines, such as “Catapulting Jack into continents of ice— / A snow image stuck fast in water like stone. / His poor nose froze,” and more heavily rhyme-based lines like “Into the lair of a bear / Who hugged Guy tight / To kill his breath / And eat him—bite by bite.” This alternation between the two styles enhances the eerie Brother’s Grimm quality of the tale, while at the same time reminding the reader that this is not just a cute rhyme for children. Instead, it is a special world and work of art that only Sendak can create—the beautifully haunting horrors we all face in grieving made more apparent, more real, through the mysteries of adventure and the fantastical.
The book itself is a beautiful work of art with stitched binding and a watercolor cover that mirrors the haunting interior pictures. It is as much of a mystical joy to hold as it is to read. Take a peek inside to see for yourself.