Brain Pickings

Maurice Sendak Illustrates Tolstoy

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Soulful drawings of sorrow and love by the young and insecure artist.

In 1961, legendary editor Ursula Norstrom sent young Maurice Sendak an exquisite letter of creative encouragement as he was spiraling into self-doubt while working on a children’s adaptation of Nikolenka’s Childhood (public library) by Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1852 — an intense, expressionistic chronicle of the inner life of a young boy, the first novel in the author’s autobiographical trilogy.

Thanks to Nordstrom’s steadfast support, Sendak did finish the project and it was published two years later, the same year Sendak’s own now-iconic Where the Wild Things Are was released. His youthful insecurity, however, presents a beautiful parallel to the coming-of-age themes Tolstoy explores. The illustrations, presented here from a surviving copy of the 1963 gem, are as tender and soulful as young Sendak’s spirit:

The closing pages of the book echo the ideas and ideals of Tolstoy’s personal magnum opus, his Calendar of Wisdom, as he describes the final moments of the family’s lovable servant, Natalya Savishna:

She left this life without regret, did not fear death, and accepted it as a boon. This is often said, but how seldom it really is so! … Her whole life had been pure unselfish love and self-sacrifice.

What if her beliefs might have been more lofty and her life devoted to higher aims — was that pure soul therefore less worthy of love and admiration?

She accomplished the best and greatest thing in life — she died without regrets or fear.

Though long out of print, used copies of the Sendak-illustrated Nikolenka’s Childhood can still be found online. Complement it with Sendak’s posthumous love letter to the world and his unreleased drawings and intaglio prints.

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