For fear of finding something worse


A brilliant illustrator can transform any story, revealing its possible meanings and sometimes changing them. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass would be less scary without John Tenniel’s drawings (especially those of the Duchess and the Jabberwocky), and Winnie-the-Pooh less lovable without the help of Ernest Shepard. Maurice Sendak brought his artistic talents to over seventy works by other writers, always making them more interesting. Most popular illustrations of the Grimms’ fairy tales, for instance, soften and prettify them. Sendak turns them into crowded dreams full of strange birds and beasts, in which there is understanding for the villains, including the crippled witch in “Hansel and Gretel” and Snow-White’s stepmother with her fading beauty and fixed stare. He also notably illustrated three collections of tales by Isaac Bashevis Singer with drawings full of wise animals and flying demons that heighten their fantastic side and recall the paintings of Marc Chagall. As well as interpreting classic tales, Sendak could make something wonderful out of almost nothing.

more from Alison Lurie at the NYRB here.