December 05, 1988 12:00 PM

Once upon a time, a little girl with blue bows in her hair and sadness in her eyes was sent alone into the forest to escape war and wicked men. Thorns tore her dress, sharp stones cut her feet, and crows screamed menacingly overhead. Finally, a kindly hermit comforted the child and guided her home to Mother. But the little girl did not live happily ever after. The child and her mother died together in their sleep.

Such themes of terror, reconciliation and death make Dear Mili the grimmest of the 211 fairy tales compiled in the 19th century by the German brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Yet the discovery of the story, lost since its creation 172 years ago, is a cause for celebration among Grimm fans and among devotees of illustrator Maurice Sendak, who has worked his own dark magic on the melancholy tale. Published last month with a staggering 250,000 first printing, Dear Mili took only four weeks to reach No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Dear Mill first made news five years ago, when a German dealer placed it with an American colleague for sale. It had been written, he explained, as part of a letter to a little girl named Mili, and then forgotten. Farrar, Straus and Giroux acquired the manuscript for a substantial five-figure sum, and Sendak, who also illustrated the Grimms’ The Juniper Tree, began brooding over how to bring the story to life.

For Sendak, who lost many of his Polish relatives to the Holocaust, the story evoked some of the same sorrow he had felt visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. He modeled Mili after Anne, a young girl, says Sendak, “who sees the arbitrariness of life.” He also drew on “those aggressive, passionate landscapes” of Vincent van Gogh. Some have complained that the resulting drawings are too scary. To which Sendak responds, “Parents shouldn’t assume children are made out of sugar candy and will break and collapse instantly. Kids don’t. We do.”

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