Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dear Mili

Dear Mili
Wilhelm Grimm ~ Maurice Sendak
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988

This is one of those Sendak books that catches a good deal of flack. The first time I read it to my son I cried buckets. If you are uncomfortable with talking to your child about themes like war and sadness, heaven and death, then read no further. From Publisher's Weekly: "Preserved in a letter written to a young girl, Mili, in 1816 and not discovered until 1983, the Grimm story is prefaced by a tender address in which he underscores the story's message: although there are many obstacles that can prevent people from being together, 'one human heart can go out to another, undeterred by what lies between.' The story that follows implies that love transcends even death."

The text is very heavy and filled with talk of religion and God, but my five-year-old is totally entranced by it, the pictures in particular. The story of a young girl who is sent into the woods by her mother to escape a war, it is pure fantasy with ideas of what heaven is and the job of the guardian angel.

You can imagine how the child felt at being left all alone. She went deeper and deeper into the forest, the wind blew wildly in the tops of the fir trees, and when thorns took hold of her dress, she was terrified, for she thought that wild beasts had seized her in their jaws and would tear her to pieces. The woodpeckers, crows, and hawks screamed furiously, and at every step sharp stones cut her feet. She trembled with fear, and the farther she went, the heavier her heart grew. The sky clouded over, every trace of blue disappeared, and the storm wind buffeted the branches so hard that they cracked. In the end the dread in her heart grew so great that she could go no further, and she had to sit down. She said to herself: "Oh, dear God, help your child to go on."

Gloomy, no? Fear not, there's a good deal of uplift of the human spirit in these pages, but ultimately the story is about love and death and the profoundly deep connection between parent and child that extends far past what is real and known... punctuated with gorgeous illustrations, of course.

I'm all about my son understanding this. I have a feeling that at five, he's more open than he will ever be to believing in the unbelievable. I feel like as we grow older, the farther we move away from the cosmic and the unfathomable. Sure, both of the main characters in the book die at the end, but what happens then is a dialogue between parent and child about what love means, and the ultimate safety that comes from knowing that no matter what happens... love never dies. It stays within each of us long after the people we care about have gone. That maybe love can even perform miracles. At the end of the day, who wouldn't want their child to believe that, despite the gory details?Also by:
A Very Special House
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present
Moon Jumpers
What Do You Say, Dear?
Pierre: A Cautionary Tale
Some Swell Pup
Let's Be Enemies
Chicken Soup with Rice
Lullabies and Night Songs
Outside Over There
I'll Be You and You Be Me
The Juniper Tree
Where the Wild Things Are
Seven Little Monsters
Open House For Butterflies
The Giant Story


Chandra said...

I freaking LOVE this book! Along with Outside Over There it's one of my favorite picture books of all time! Oh and In The Night Kitchen!! I love Sendak! For parents who *are* comfortable exploring darker themes with their kids he is the go-to guy. A close second is Steig.

Maria Pereira said...

Sendak illustrations are really beautiful <3

Jennifer said...

Dear Mili has never really been a favorite of mine, but what I do love, which fans of Mili will probably love, is the two Clemens Brentano stories Sendak illustrated, The Tale of Gockel, Hinkel, and Gackeliah which is a sort of morality tale/allegory/fable and Schoolmaster Whackwell's Wonderful Sons, which is a more traditional fairy tale. Brentano wrote really fascinating literary fairy tales. They're worth looking at, if you manage to locate them - very hard to find!

Sandra said...

I found this book at a used book store and thought it was just *beautiful*. I bought it for my eldest niece. I was so miffed though, because my sister, after reading it thru once, judged it too sad and THREW IT AWAY!! I agree it's very sad, and *of course* I defer to my sis on what her kids are or are not ready for. I just wish she would've given the book back to me....

Anonymous said...

My daughter is 24 years old and she has loved this book since she was 3 years old! During a recent move, the book was lost and she was devastated. But now, I can surprise her for Christmas as a gift. She can read it to her daughter and they can enjoy it together.

sara g said...

Did any of you notice that Sendak's illustrations have a strong subtext about the Holocaust?

Anonymous said...

I've been searching and searching for this book! I had a copy as a very young child and now that I have a five year old of my own (who is very fixated on death and God/Jesus, etc) I've been longing for a copy but I couldn't remember the title!
Thank you SO much for this post. This book means so much to me!

Unknown said...

Sara g: I don't particularly understand it, but, yes, apparently Sendak had the holocaust on his mind when he illustrated this book. Other commentators have mentioned it also. It is something I would like to explore and study. So, it is not your imagination, and kudos to you for seeing that!!

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