Editor Michael di Capua is talking about My Brother’s Book, Maurice Sendak’s final work, as he looks through the folder he kept for the project. “There’s a photograph in here,” he says. “I don’t remember the moment he gave it to me. It’s an old black-and-white photograph of two boys. The younger boy is maybe two, and the older one is about four. They have yellow stars pinned to their coats. The younger one looks scared, and the older brother has his arm around him—he’s protecting him.”
My Brother’s Book was written for Maurice’s older brother Jack, but the two boys in the photo aren’t Maurice and Jack. Sendak never told di Capua who they were. Yet it’s not hard to guess what drew Sendak to the photograph, or why he gave it to di Capua as they worked on the book. It represented everything Jack was to him: companion, protector, ally.
The story of Sendak’s dark, fear-filled childhood is a familiar one. Childhood illness often kept him in bed, and his Polish-Jewish immigrant parents talked openly about the possibility that he might die. Radio broadcasts of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping terrified him. The Depression loomed, then the Holocaust; the world was full of dread.
Four years older than Maurice, Jack offered his younger brother comfort and laughter. He brought Maurice comic books and took him to the movies. The two entertained the family with wildly improbable stories that Maurice illustrated on sheets of shirt cardboard (their masterpiece was called They Were Inseparable). They built toy airplanes together; they made a complete model of the 1939 World’s Fair out of wax. “He saved my life,” Sendak often said.
They published two picture books together—The Happy Rain (1956) and The Circus Girl (1957), then drifted apart—Maurice to greater fame, Jack to a quieter life. It wasn’t until Jack’s final illness and the last few months of his life that the brothers rediscovered their old intimacy. Jack died in 1995. “Maurice never got over it,” says di Capua simply. “He was bereft.”
As the months went by, and Sendak began to think about writing something for his brother, something unlike anything he had written before. “He talked about it from time to time, mostly in the context of frustration; he felt the need to do it but it wasn’t coming easily,” di Capua recalls.
John Vitale was the longtime director of production at HarperCollins; he first met Sendak the day the artist delivered the paintings for Outside Over There, and he worked on all the books Sendak did with Harper. He and Sendak grew close, and he remembers Sendak wrestling with the text, which took the form of a poem.“At first he didn’t think about publishing it,” Vitale told PW. “But after he started to work on it he felt it was so beautiful that he wanted to share it.” Sendak remained uneasy with the piece, and had trouble deciding what to call it. In the end, Vitale says, it was Sendak’s close friend, playwright Tony Kushner, who named it. “ ‘You’re always talking about working on ‘my brother’s book,’ Tony said. ‘Maybe that’s what you should call it.’ ”
In June 2000, Sendak was finally ready to show di Capua a draft. They worked on it “the way we worked on all his other books,” di Capua says, which meant a process of fine-tuning, considering the virtues of one word over another, leaving alternates in the margins when the choice wasn’t clear. By the following March “the text was already very close to its final form.”
Inspiration and Influences
In a story published earlier this month, Kushner told the AP about taking Sendak, years ago, to see a production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; Sendak wept through it, Kushner remembered. Bits and pieces of the play appear in My Brother’s Book, turned upside down, or recast in mythic dimensions. The whole work follows the arc of Shakespeare’s bittersweet romance, beginning in suffering and ending in reunion. In Sendak’s poem, the brothers Guy and Jack are separated when a comet strikes the Earth, catapulting “Jack to continents of ice—/ A snow image stuck fast in water like stone.” Desperate Guy finds himself in the clutches of the great white bear who guards the underworld. He evades a fate as the bear’s next meal with skillful riddle making: “I’ll whisper it,” he says, remaking Shakespeare’s beguiling line, “the minutest cricket shall not hear.” Then he demands to know Jack’s fate: “Bear!—Tell me!—Whither?—Where?” Cast into a blossoming underworld, Guy and Jack are reunited, embrace, then sleep, “dreaming the same dream.”
Shakespeare is only one of the roots that feed the work. The presence of Sendak’s beloved Emily Dickinson can be felt in the bare-bones lines; Sendak even draws on earlier work of his own as Guy begs the bear for help. “In February it will be/ My snow-ghost’s anniversary,” Guy says, using a rhyme from Chicken Soup with Rice to remember Jack, who had died in February five years before.
For several years, the poem was put to one side as other projects commanded Sendak’s attention. He immersed himself in Brundibar, the opera whose Czech composer and almost all of its child performers perished at Auschwitz. He and Kushner collaborated on a book version of the opera, which was published in 2003. “Exhausting, complex, demanding,” di Capua called the project. “He was desperate to do it and deeply invested in it. It was one of the most important books he ever did.”
Sendak created new illustrations for Ruth Krauss’s Bears in 2005, then turned to Bumble-Ardy, work that anchored him through the anguish of his partner Eugene Glynn’s final illness and the grief that followed Glynn’s death in 2007. Bumble-Ardy wasn’t published until 2011. Although he rarely worked on two books at once, Sendak returned to My Brother’s Book in 2010 while finishing Bumble-Ardy, beginning work on the book’s illustrations.
From then on he painted steadily, holding as inspiration William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, remembering the artist’s visionary power as he painted. “Blake neither wrote nor drew for... men at all,” Blake’s biographer Alexander Gilchrist wrote, “but rather for children and angels.” In Sendak’s intimate, closely painted watercolors, the figures of Jack and Guy tumble through a succession of strange and starry worlds that Blake would have recognized.
Some images corresponded clearly to the events in the poem, while others just “poured out of him, suffused with the feeling and the emotion and the imagery of the text,” says di Capua; he calls the process by which Sendak worked “spontaneous combustion.”
Sendak and di Capua ordered the pictures in the pages of a dummy for the book Sendak had made. They needed two more, they decided, and those were finished by February 2011.
Sendak’s longtime designer Cynthia Krupat had retired, but he was convinced that only she could make a book as handsome as the one he envisioned. He mailed her the artwork and begged her to consider working on it, and “she was so moved and impressed that she said ‘yes,’ ” says di Capua. She had, he adds, an uncanny ability to anticipate Sendak’s wishes. At one point, Sendak asked di Capua to convey to Krupat his feeling that the text and pictures should have borders around them, as the images in Songs of Innocence do, but di Capua forgot to tell her. When they got the layouts back from Krupat, they found delicate gray lines around the text and pictures. “She just knew,” says di Capua. “That’s how she is.”
Sendak was already in the hospital when he saw the final layout; he was “delighted, ecstatic” with it, di Capua remembers. It was his last look at the book. He died four days later, on May 8, 2012.
At the end of a 2006 New Yorker profile, Sendak said, “When my brother Jack died, I wanted to do something extraordinary for him. Five years later, I had an idea. The poem I wrote was very dark. I hope to finish it.” He did finish it, and in the finishing it grew to be more than just a poem for Jack. It was a fearless and tender look at his own fate, and a farewell gift to all who loved his work.