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Segal and Sendak: A Grimm Collaboration

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Earlier this year, the NYPL Manuscripts and Archives division acquired the papers (PDF finding aid) of the acclaimed novelist and children's book author Lore Segal. The collection contains letters and literary manuscripts documenting her life as a Jewish refugee in England during World War II and her subsequent writing and teaching career. Among the papers is a small, but delightful, batch of items from the late Maurice Sendak.

Segal and Sendak collaborated on a wonderful collection of Grimm Brothers' fairy tales entitled The Juniper Tree, and Other Tales from Grimm, published in 1973. Together, the pair selected and sequenced 27 stories for the book, choosing several lesser-known Grimm tales. Segal wrote the translations and tried to keep the English versions as close to the German as possible. With guidance from her uncle Paul Stern, who was also an Austrian émigré, Segal captured the nuances of the Grimms' archaic language, as well as the images of magic and horror found in the original folk tales. Sendak illustrated the stories with black and white etching-like drawings, perfectly depicting the Grimms' grotesque characters: a half-hedgehog boy, an ogre with one foot and one hoof, and many ugly toads, to name a few.

Their letters and notes contain some of their discussions on story selection, translation details, and whether or not to include an introduction. One note contains this scrap of feedback from Sendak regarding the story Allerleirauh (in the book entitled Many-Fur) a story involving incest that, through narrative amnesia, has a happy ending. After first throwing it into the "maybe" pile, Sendak reconsidered:

Undated note from The Juniper Tree filesUndated note from The Juniper Tree files

"I suddenly love this story. The first sentence is glorious—as is the last—such lovely incest disguised & such sweet nonsense—The only part that bothers me—seems to drag—is the queen's murder. The fake queen. The ghost queen. Unlike the rest of the story—it's vague—but that's obviously Grimm."

The queen's murder did not make it into the book. But while Segal pruned the stories for literary reasons, she did not shy away from the gorier of the Grimm's plot twists, nor did she dull any of their strange (and sometimes alarming) ideas on virtue and morality. Segal took her editorial decisions seriously, as shown in the undated notes she sent to Sendak:

Undated note from The Juniper Tree filesUndated note from The Juniper Tree files

"Let me explain the extent to which I've interfered with the story. Obviously we can't add any ideas or [incidents]...We're not going to add any ideas or even bring what would be our post Henry James instincts to bring the original idea [of incest] back in the end."

The collection's batch of Sendak letters reveals that he and Segal communicated about their work as early as 1969. In a letter from Sendak dated June 7, 1969, he described a much beloved scene from the not-yet published In the Night Kitchen. Sendak wrote:

"Here is the 'Scenario'. It needs just a little explaining—since much of the clarifying action will take place in the pictures"…The Milky Way is an enormous Milk bottle à la Empire State Building. Mickey flies over it + jumps out of his plane into the milk..."

Another highlight is a letter that Sendak wrote to Segal's young daughter, Beatrice, on June 29, 1967. In this brief note, Sendak gives a sense of how gentle, friendly, and encouraging he could be with his young admirers. After offering an excuse for why it took him so long to reply to her letter, he wrote:

"I like chicken soup with Rice best too. It was what my mother gave me when I was a little boy — and I didn't feel well! It always made me better.
Yours,
Maurice Sendak
p.s. Your pictures are charming!"

In addition to the Lore Segal papers, researchers can find Sendak manuscript material in the following NYPL collections:

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