Title: Dear Mili
Author: Wilhem Grimm
Illustrator: Maurice Sendak
Date published: 1981 (from a letter first sent in 1816 and subsequently lost)
Themes: War; Death; Journey; supernatural intervention, Familial Devotion, Hope
Dear Mili is a delightful long-lost story from Wilhem Grimm and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The story itself is an evocative and somber exploration of the individual human and especially the child’s reaction to war and tragedy. While heart-achingly sad at times the greater truth underlying the story pushes the reader along through a landscape made ethereal by Sendak’s wonderful illustrations, illustrations that at times like a frightening and mysterious cabinet of curiosities filled with strange images barely hidden, watching. Sendak’s illustrations blend in seamlessly with the narrative each giving greater depth to the other to such a degree that it feels almost collaborative, despite the 70 years separating Grimm’s Death and Sendak’s birth.
At heart Dear Mili is a journey story in the classic tradition but a journey into what unusual land? The reader is not quite certain if Little Mili’s path takes her through a real world landscape that has been intruded on by other worldly figures or if she has somehow intruded into the other world herself or indeed if her path follows the old death roads of folklore and myth. Not until the last few pages are we given an answer and when it comes it hits like a powerful and sublime grace note .
Dear Mili cannot be said to be a fairy tale in the Grimm tradition. It is too philosophical and too intimately crafted for a particular person. Mili was a very real little girl and this story was written as a letter for her in 1816. Despite this the tale has a strength born of its universal meaning. Mili, though a real person could be any person in similar circumstances with similar feelings and apprehensions. And for children who have tasted the bitter fruit of conflict such a story could not help but too have a more significant meaning. Perhaps muchof ths power of this story lies in how the war is conveyed. We never see the war itself and so can’t be quite sure who the aggressors might be and to children touched by war patriotic notions of us vs them, the good guys and the bad guys is often diminsiehd through personal anguish and confusion. The war appears first as a horizon on fire looming in the distance and stalks each narrative image nearly unseen but eerily nearby, not simply a catalyst but an actual character integral to the story. Whats more this could be any war precisely because it is all war and the symbolic imagry is among Sendaks most evocative and certainly most disqueting. Here the image not only propells the narrative but serves to elevate it into something higher. That this story haas strong Christian undertones should come as no surprise. This was a common element in much of Grimm’s retellings but here Christianity loses all its religious trappings and sheds its dogma until it is rendered as pure hope amid a world of turmoil. For this reason it would be a mistake to call Dear Mili a Christian alegory.
Adults should not feel excluded either. The themes are not merely difficult concepts conveyed to a child, they are difficult concepts conveyed with the forthright honesty and sincerity of a personal letter.
Dear Mili is the kind of story that draws us in to a different world compelling us to follow Mili on her journey. We feel impotent to console her, and as a parent this impotance struck an especially upsetting chord, yet empowered by the shared experience of walking in her shadow. It is a beautiul story that is at once charming in its simplicty and deeply moving in meaning. Anyone of us who has the courage to face sadness and be moved it will find Dear Mili well worth their attention.