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“Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear” and the disappearance of Else Holmelund Minarik

little bear's friendsWhen I was little, I fell in love with the classic early readers. Frog and Toad, Frances, and Little Bear. Little Bear, unlike the other two, is not illustrated by the author. The books were written by Else Holmelund Minarik and the original five were illustrated by Maurice Sendak. They’re gentle, funny books, and as a wee thing, I loved the world and the magic that Holmelund Minarik and Sendak created between them.

Of course, at the time I was completely unaware of the history of the books. I didn’t know that Little Bear started the category of early readers (something that gets stamped all over the current editions). I didn’t know that Holmelund Minarik, a former journalist and teacher, wrote them for her own daughter because she wasn’t satisfied with the books that were being published for young children. I didn’t know that she refused one publisher who wanted to change the bears to people because “all children of all colours would be reading the stories” and she wanted them to not be excluded.

The first Little Bear book was published in 1957, six years before Where the Wild Things Are and thirteen years before In the Night Kitchen. Sendak was not yet a household name. But by the time the mid-1990s rolled around and Little Bear was turned into a TV show, that had changed. Else Holmelund Minarik might have written Little Bear, but it was Maurice Sendak who illustrated it and Maurice Sendak whose name was attached to the TV show and to some editions of the books published after the TV show aired.

Not Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear, even though she was the one who wrote the books, and even though I have heard that Sendak disliked Little Bear. (My source didn’t have a source for this–if you do, I would love to see it! EDIT: Apparently, Sendak at least thought fondly of Minarik! Yay!) No, it’s “Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear,” on games, DVDs, and this book and this one and this one.

And I get it. I really do. Sendak is one of the most beloved figures in 20th century children’s literature. When Holmelund Minarik died, there were some nice obituaries of her. When Sendak died, there was an enormous outpouring of remembrance, of grief. As a marketing decision, choosing to call the TV show “Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear” makes sense.

But the problem is, this is quite literally an erasure of Else Holmelund Minarik, in favor of a better-known, more powerful man. And that should be ringing all kinds of alarm bells. It doesn’t matter how awesome Sendak was, or how beloved. Yes, his contribution to the books is important. I love his illustrations for the Little Bear Stories, regardless of his feelings about the project. But the decision to deny Holmelund Minarik credit for the books that SHE, not Sendak, created is not a neutral one, nor is it only a marketing one. This kind of thing matters. It sends a message that woman creators can be cut out entirely, removed from the record, so to speak. I’m not okay with that, under any circumstances, and certainly not under these ones.

Links about Else Holmelund Minarik:
brief profile
Guardian obituary
NYT obituary