Dear Mili: An Old Tale (Wilhelm Karl Grimm)

Sendak, Maurice

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Illustration

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Aug-04-2000
  • Last revised: Aug-15-2000


Maurice Sendak’s illustrations of a fairy tale by Wilhelm Grimm are integral to this children’s book and have therefore been included in this art database. Refer to the "Commentary" section below for the discussion of Sendak’s illustrations.

This fairy tale by Wilhelm Grimm, rediscovered in 1983, is prefaced by a short letter to "Mili," presumably a young girl much like the one in the story; what follows is a tale designed to teach children that life can be unpredictable. The story also demonstrates, however, that the unknown can sometimes provide shelter and security even when things are not familiar.

A young widowed mother, afraid for her daughter when the village they lived in was about to be attacked by invading warriors, sends the child to hide in the forest for three days. Alone and frightened, the girl loses her way, prays to God and is led to a little house tucked away in the woods where she meets a kind old hermit, Saint Joseph.

Three days (translated thirty years earth time) later, he decides it is time for the girl to return to her mother, whose dying wish is to see her daughter once more before death. Handing Mili a rosebud, he promises that after she meets her mother, she will be able to return: "Never fear. When this rose blooms, you will be with me again." The next morning the neighbors find the child and mother together, dead in their sleep.


This fairy tale can be viewed from three different perspectives. First, there is the straightforward narrative of any good children’s story. Second are themes central to Christianity, while a third perspective echoes the myth of Persephone and Demeter, which bears striking similarities to the fairy tale. As a young girl, Persephone becomes separated from her mother. Tricked by Hades, she is forced to spend a long time in the Underworld. In both myth and "Dear Mili," the girls confront the anxiety and fear that follows separation from their mothers, and both experience difficult journeys on their way back to them. Nature and the seasons play a part in both.

Maurice Sendak’s illustrations do more than complement Grimm’s story: they are integral to it, enlarging the narrative on every page. The pictures add visual information to what we are being told: the brewing storm (war?), other lost children (being sent away from the Nazi’s?) are as visible as is Mili’s guardian angel (frightened, barely discernible in the tree) soon to become visible as the little girl playmate-companion who leads her back home, and who tells the child after bringing her back out of the woods, "Go now. From here on, you won’t be able to see me."

Still other images on a textless double page are suggestive of paradise and allusion: a choir of children transfixed by a Mozart-like (?) conductor; gravestones with Hebrew inscriptions, a Jewish star on one. The final double spread is an allegory in itself---moon, sun (rising or setting?), youth and aged mother reunited under a most robust tree of life, real and fantasy worlds coexisting, bringing healing and reconciliation at the time of death.

The 3 days/30 year equivalency, subtle in the text, is explicit in the final illustration in which the old woman with bowed head looks up to see her dear daughter "wearing the same little dress" she wore when sent away. Saint Joseph kept his promise: "They had fallen happily asleep, and between them lay Saint Joseph’s rose in full bloom."

It is noteworthy that many of Sendak’s Polish relatives died in the Holocaust. Also of interest is Sendak’s response to criticisms that his drawings are too scary: "Parents shouldn’t assume children are made out of sugar candy and will break and collapse instantly. Kids don’t. We do." (TIME, Dec 5, 1988 v30 n23 p74(1).


40 pp. WIlhelm Grimm's text was translated by Ralph Manheim.

Primary Source

New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988