Maurice Sendak, America's foremost children's illustrator, died last year at the age of 83. Sickly and frequently bedridden when young, he later described his Brooklyn childhood as "that terrible time". Subject to the detested attentions of various visiting relations, whom he later transformed into the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are, he spent long hours watching healthier children play outside. But there were pleasures too – in particular reading comics, and illustrating the stories written by his older brother Jack.
This last picture book is the artist's farewell to that same brother, a far more occasional children's writer, who died in 1995. Written shortly after the event, Sendak only added the illustrations when he knew his own time was short. It starts with two brothers, Jack and Guy, sharing the same dream, and ends with each enfolded in the other's arms. A series of tangled and obscure adventures in between is framed by references to The Winter's Tale. This play's theme of loss and eventual reunion was especially poignant for Sendak in old age, grieving both for his brother and for Dr Eugene Glynn, his psychoanalyst partner of 50 years, who died in 2007.
Abandoning the ferocious cross-hatching found in his earlier work, Sendak this time turned to watercolours, better suited to an increasingly shaky hand and fading sight. The end results are reminiscent of his hero William Blake, and new ground for an artist still capable of springing surprises. Familiar Sendak characters also appear, from naked youths – attacked in previous picture books by mean-minded critics as "inappropriate" – to a vast bear who shows his affection by wanting to eat whoever he is talking to.
Love and menace were often linked in Sendak's imagination, along with the idea of finally arriving at a safe haven, but only after surviving perils along the way.
With both text and illustrations packed with images that defy easy understanding, this book offers a journey into an extraordinary imagination. Not really designed to be read through at one sitting, it is directed more towards a child's intuitive acceptance of how the everyday can walk hand in hand with the surreal. Each re-reading reveals something new as the old master bids adieu, not just to the brother who meant so much to him but to all his readers as well.