My Brother’s Book
By Maurice Sendak
Numerous articles and elegies were written about Sendak last year after he died, but very few finished the first paragraph without mentioning his famous cantankerousness. It’s a narrative that’s gained a lot of traction—cranky old man writes children’s books!—because it engages in the sort of easy, reductive thinking that Sendak so famously despised. And nowhere did he despise it more than in others’ characterizations of his books. “I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie-book person,” Sendak griped in an interview published posthumously in The Believer. “A moron! That’s the way we’re treated in the adult world of publishing.”
Because he hated the industry labels that others imposed on his work, Sendak may have been delighted to see the critical response to his new book, the first to be published since his death. My Brother’s Book is a strange, ethereal, and visually stunning farewell, one that the New York Times decreed “may find its largest audience among adults.” Influenced by The Winter’s Tale (“I’ll whisper it, the minutest cricket shall not hear,” says Sendak’s hero, echoing Shakespeare’s Mamillius), the language of My Brother’s Book is mysterious and poetic; the defiant, willful protagonist found in many of Sendak’s other stories is no more. Instead there’s a doting boy, Guy, who allows himself to be swallowed by a bear in order to be reunited with his beloved brother who, after a star smashed the Earth in two, was frozen in a continent of ice.
If the story lacks much internal logic and, well, story, such inscrutability seems intentional. Much has been made of the brothers’ relationship vis-à-vis Sendak’s own fraternal relationship, as well as his 50-year partnership with Eugene Glynn, who died in 2007. While these autobiographical details offer more context, what’s most interesting about My Brother’s Book is its refusal to be neatly ordered, tidily drawn (the illustrations almost bleed), or easily understood. “A sad riddle is best for me,” Guy says to the bear, and that’s what this book is. Sendak would surely be delighted by our uncertainty.