Brain Pickings

Ursula K. Le Guin on Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work

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“All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”

Since long before the question of where good ideas come from became the psychologists’ favorite sport, readers, fans, and audiences have been hurling it at authors and artists, much to their frustration. A few brave souls like Neil Gaiman, Albert Einstein, and David Lynch have attempted to answer it directly, or in Leonard Cohen’s case to delightfully non-answer it directly, but none have done so with greater vigor of mind and heart than Ursula K. Le Guin — a writer of extraordinary wisdom delivered with irresistible wit, and the eloquent recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

In 1987, Le Guin addressed the eternal question in an essay titled “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?,” found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection of her speeches, essays, and reviews, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (public library | IndieBound).

Noting that audiences frequently ask her the canonical question after lectures and talks, she considers the two reasons that make it impossible to answer:

The reason why it is unanswerable is, I think, that it involves at least two false notions, myths, about how fiction is written.

First myth: There is a secret to being a writer. If you can just learn the secret, you will instantly be a writer; and the secret might be where the ideas come from.

Second myth: Stories start from ideas; the origin of a story is an idea.

Well before psychologists’ pioneering findings to that effect, Le Guin writes:

I will dispose of the first myth as quickly as possible. The “secret” is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.

[…]

Some of the secretiveness of many artists about their techniques, recipes, etc., may be taken as a warning to the unskilled: What works for me isn’t going to work for you unless you’ve worked for it.

Seconding Jack Kerouac’s question of whether writers are born or made, Le Guin considers the role of what we call natural talent and what it lies beneath it:

My talent and inclination for writing stories and keeping house were strong from the start, and my gift for and interest in music and sewing were weak; so that I doubt that I would ever have been a good seamstress or pianist, no matter how hard I worked. But nothing I know about how I learned to do the things I am good at doing leads me to believe that there are “secrets” to the piano or the sewing machine or any art I’m no good at. There is just the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.

She then turns to the second central fallacy of the origin-of-ideas question, namely the notion of the “idea” itself:

The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of “idea” to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.

Echoing Einstein’s idea of “combinatory play” and artist Francis Bacon’s notion that original art is the product of finely “grinding up” one’s influences, Le Guin speaks to the combinatorial nature of the creative process:

I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.

Mystical as the process may be, Le Guin goes on to outline its “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing:

  1. The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
  2. The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
  3. The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
  4. The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
  5. The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.

Artwork from Stefanie Posavec's 'Writing Without Words,' visualizing the patterns of sentences, paragraphs, and words in a text. Click image for details.

Echoing T.S. Eliot’s notion of idea incubation, she adds:

All these kinds of patterning — sound, syntax, images, ideas, feelings — have to work together; and they all have to be there in some degree. The inception of the work, that mysterious stage, is perhaps their coming together: when in the author’s mind a feeling begins to connect itself to an image that will express it, and that image leads to an idea, until now half-formed, that begins to find words for itself, and the words lead to other words that make new images, perhaps of people, characters of a story, who are doing things that express the underlying feelings and ideas that are now resonating with each other.

Considering the lopsiding of that five-point balance, Le Guin speaks to the importance of failure in growth:

If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story. Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.

In a sentiment that Rebecca Solnit would come to second decades later in reflecting on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, Le Guin deploys one of her characteristically animated metaphors that can’t help but put a smile on the soul:

Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together. Ignorance of English vocabulary and grammar is a considerable liability to a writer of English. The best cure for it is, I believe, reading. People who learned to talk at two or so and have been practicing talking ever since feel with some justification that they know their language; but what they know is their spoken language, and if they read little, or read schlock, and haven’t written much, their writing is going to be pretty much what their talking was when they were two.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild,' one of the best children's books of the year. Click image for details.

She returns to the vital balance of those five elements:

There is a relationship, a reciprocity between the words and the images, ideas, and emotions evoked by those words: the stronger that relationship, the stronger the work. To believe that you can achieve meaning or feeling without coherent, integrated patterning of the sounds, the rhythms, the sentence structures, the images, is like believing you can go for a walk without bones.

Le Guin considers the epicenter of that relationship — of the elements, of reader and writer:

Imagery takes place in “the imagination,” which I take to be the meeting place of the thinking mind with the sensing body… In the imagination we can share a capacity for experience and an understanding of truth far greater than our own. The great writers share theirs souls with us — “literally.”

[…]

The intellect cannot do the work of the imagination; the emotions cannot do the work of the imagination; and neither of them can do anything much in fiction without the imagination.

Where the writer and the reader collaborate to make the work of fiction is perhaps, above all, in the imagination. In the joint creation of the fictive world.

With a self-effacing wink at her profession and the odd creative rituals of her ilk, Le Guin considers the writer’s eternal tussle with his or her consciousness of, and often self-consciousness about, the audience — an audience that, today, is exponentially more able and willing to make its presence and opinion known via likes, tweets, and other innocuously named, spiritually toxic Pavlovian mechanisms:

Writers are egotists. All artists are. They can’t be altruists and get their work done. And writers love to whine about the Solitude of the Author’s Life, and lock themselves into cork-lined rooms or droop around in bars in order to whine better. But although most writing is done in solitude, I believe that it is done, like all the arts, for an audience. That is to say, with an audience. All the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

But her most piercing point — one she would come to echo three decades later in her National Book Award acceptance speech — is a monumental disclaimer:

I beg you please to attend carefully now to what I am not saying. I am not saying that you should think about your audience when you write. I am not saying that the writing writer should have in mind, “Who will read this? Who will buy it? Who am I aiming this at?” — as if it were a gun. No.

While planning a work, the writer may and often must think about readers: particularly if it’s something like a story for children, where you need to know whether your reader is likely to be a five-year-old or a ten-year old.* Considerations of who will or might read the piece are appropriate and sometimes actively useful in planning it, thinking about it, thinking it out, inviting images. But once you start writing, it is fatal to think about anything but the writing. True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium.

And yet the reader, Le Guin argues, is an essential piece of the telling of the story. The writer’s work should extend an invitation for collaboration to the reader:

The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story.

[…]

It comes down to collaboration, or sharing the gift: the writer tries to get the reader working with the text in the effort to keep the whole story all going along in one piece in the right direction (which is my general notion of a good piece of fiction).

In this effort, writers need all the help they can get. Even under the most skilled control, the words will never fully embody the vision. Even with the most sympathetic reader, the truth will falter and grow partial. Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.

Dancing at the Edge of the World is a glorious read in its entirety. Complement it with Le Guin on being a man and on aging and what beauty really means.

Complement for more timeless wisdom on writing from some of history’s greatest authors, see this ongoing omnibus of advice, including Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

* C.S. Lewis would beg to vehemently differ, as would Tolkien, and Maurice Sendak would practically leap in protestation.

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Creative Value of Staying Loose: MacArthur Geniuses on the Art of “Connected Irrelevance”

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“Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes. Cheat on the chaotic stumbling-about, and you’ve robbed yourself of the raw stuff that feeds the imagination.”

The history of the term “genius” is as long and convoluted as the term’s modern usage is nebulous and arbitrary. It’s hard to even agree on the greatest genius who ever lived, yet alone on who today is worthy of the label. But if there is one entity that confers that honor more unambiguously than anything else, it is the MacArthur Foundation’s fellowship, colloquially known as the “genius grant,” which occupies in today’s popular imagination a place partway between fairy godmother and patron saint of creativity.

In the late 1980s, former trial lawyer Denise Shekerjian read a newspaper account of how the prestigious award was bestowed upon the creative individuals selected by the MacArthur Foundation’s secret committee — a mysterious phone call informed the lucky recipient that she or he has been awarded a generous six-figure grant ($350,000 then; $625,000 now), with no strings attached, to continue pursuing her or his chosen field of creative endeavor. Fascinated by the notion, Shekerjian set out to investigate what made these fortunate individuals worthy of the generous grant and the “genius” status it conferred.

The result was the slim, near-forgotten, and immeasurably insightful 1991 book Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born (public library | IndieBound) — a collection Shekerjian’s conversations about creativity with 40 diverse recipients of the coveted award — artists, writers, scientists, composers, filmmakers, a translator, a Mayan epigraphist, and a creative universe in between. Applying the essential pattern-recognition of creativity, Shekerjian then synthesized these interviews into several core insights on what it takes and what it means to reach genius-level creativity.

Among them is the concept of “staying loose” — an antidote to the misguided myth of the “a-ha moment” as a core of the creative process, emphasizing instead the zigzag nature of the creative life and the importance of “the long period of uncertainty that precedes the magic moment of epiphany,” or what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” and what Rilke meant when he extolled “living the questions.”

Painting by Maira Kalman from her unusual alphabet book, 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

Lamenting how traditional accounts of genius focus on the precise moment of creative breakthrough and thus “neglect the very soil from which the creative flower blooms,” Shekerjian — whose prose is itself delight-granting genius — considers why at the outset of a creative journey “a period of uncertainty is a helpful state of affairs” and writes:

Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes. Cheat on the chaotic stumbling-about, and you’ve robbed yourself of the raw stuff that feeds the imagination.

For many of us, staying loose is an uncomfortable, unsettling feeling if sustained for too long. Ambiguity is confusing, even alarming. We like to frame our inquiries in sharply delineated terms and prefer clean, tidy resolutions to yes or no dictions. Fuzzy circumstances, the ragtag and bobtail of daily uncertainty, exhaust us. It’s much nicer, we think, to have our options cast as either black or white, entirely excluding the hazy middle zones of gray.

Creative people, by contrast, seem to have a great tolerance for the ambiguous circumstances that begin most projects and are more accepting, even welcoming, of this unstructured time. They aren’t lusting after quick outcomes or definitive bottom lines. They are more willing to entertain a prolonged period of leisurely drifting about, curious to see where the unpredictable currents will take them. From this lightness of spirit come the fruits of imagination; there will be plenty of time for the sweat of exertion later on.

Many of the MacArthur “geniuses” she interviewed echoed this notion of staying loose — from poet Douglas Crase’s case for “the dim and mushy start” of a poem to Mayan scholar David Stuart’s faith in the revelatory discoveries that come about by randomly sifting through stacks of hieroglyphics. But one of the most enchanting articulations comes from poet, novelist, and essayist Brad Leithauser, who was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1983:

In every field, things get so specialized. The generalist — and artists are often, by necessity, generalists — winds up feeling a sense of futility. At the moment I’m trying, for example, to write about Kobo Abe, the Japanese novelist. I’m reading him, as I have to, in English. There are Japanese souls who have spent the last few decades pondering him. Am I going to come up with anything new and special? Well, my hope is yes. I cling to the optimistic belief that the haphazard and the hopscotch, the creature that sips among many flowers, may actually come up with something. It’s finally an irrational belief, in most cases, an unrealistic goal. But one holds to the sense that just sipping broadly enough, from enough flowers, strange and fruitful pollinations will arise.

(Shekerjian herself is a wonderful meta-testament to this notion — at the time she began working on the book, there were 6,822 “hits on creativity in print” in the library database, a number that seems laughably endearing today when a search for “creativity” yields 173,000,000 Google results in 0.49 seconds, but one that she found discouraging at the time. And yet she performed precisely this kind of loose flower-hopping that rendered her book exceptional then, and even more exceptional now, even amid our Googletopia where we struggle to extract true wisdom in the age of information.)

Frederick Wiseman by Gretje Ferguson

Staying loose is also how legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman — “a master of uncertainty, the grandmaster of the documentary,” per Shekerjian, and the recipient of the “genius grant” in 1982 — makes his celebrated movies.

Shekerjian points to his first film, Titicut Follies, which tells the story of the inmates at the Massachusetts Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The 1967 film was so controversial that after winning a number of film festival awards, a federal judge ruled that it could only be shown to mental health professionals and law students, leading Wiseman to later boast that it was “the only document of any sort — films, books, plays — in American constitutional history that has a partial ban on its use other than a matter involving national security or obscenity.” And yet, despite the restrictions, the film took on an underground life of its own and went on to become a cult-classic among civil libertarians. (Since the dawn of the digital-media age, the film is now available to all.) Wiseman went on to make a film a year, exploring “the way we live, our institutions, our stress.”

He was thirty-six at the time and, as Shekerjian puts it, “too old, some might say, to have given up his solid law career in order to take up, willy-nilly, some artsy thing like filmmaking.” But, like writer Michael Lewis, he did. His crew consisted of a photographer and a young writer named David Eames, who later wrote about his experience with Wiseman in a New York Times article, articulating the subtle but crucial difference between staying loose and being wholly unmoored from any creative vision:

I don’t think Fred had any notion that this project, so vaguely conceived, so loosely defined, so fuzzy and wacky and chancy, would turn out to be, a long year later, a film called Titicut Follies. Which is not to suggest he didn’t know what he was doing… Part of his genius lies in his unilateral trust in his own instincts and his unswerving dedication to them.

Shekerjian writes:

All of his movie projects begin the same way: with only a very broadly constructed feeling for the subject matter, almost no preparation or research, and as few preconceptions as possible about what he’ll find in the institution he has decided to investigate.

He enters a scene quietly, casually. He leans up against walls, he wanders, he lingers, he observes. He doesn’t work with a script… He doesn’t stage the action. He doesn’t direct the people he shoots. In these initial weeks of the project, he isn’t interested in proving a point or fleshing out a theory or chasing down an angle. He rambles. He roams. He sinks into the chaotic welter of detail and doesn’t worry about trying to make sense of it all.

[…]

The approach is loose, hazy, open. Some of what he films makes no sense to him… He’ll think about it later. In the meantime, he stays open, available.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

The point, in essence, is that the “temperament of receptivity” Oscar Wilde believed was required to appreciate art is also required to create it — a permeable membrane between mind and world is what allows the creative force to flow through, to transmute one into the other and back again, until the final work of genius is birthed. Much of creative genius, however, lies in the editing process that chooses what flows in and what flows out — what French polymath Henri Poincaré had in mind when he asserted that to invent is to choose. Considering the role of critical judgment in Wiseman’s genius, Shekerjian captures this elegantly:

The editing process — creating form from chaos — is at the heart of his art.

“Staying loose” is essentially a matter of open-mindedness, or what modern psychologists like to call “divergent thinking.” Writing in an era when cognitive psychology — the very discipline whose output now feeds an entire industry of pop-psychology publishing — was “an emerging territory of science,” Shekerjian highlights the work of pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and cites one particularly fascinating study he conducted with a colleague:

In the experiment, art students were asked to select and arrange objects from which they were to create a still-life drawing. Analyzing the results, the team discovered a relationship between the procedures of the students and the quality of their products and professional standing seven years later. The most creative among them (as judged by their eventual commercial success, which in a field as slippery as creativity is as valid a standard as any) played with more objects, inspected them more carefully, and chose more unusual objects for their compositions. They tended not to have a clear and precise idea of the sort of principle they wanted to capture in their drawings, but rather discovered the arrangement through the handling, positioning, and repositioning of the objects. And even as they proceeded to finalize their drawings, they continued to change and adjust the position of the objects as well as to experiment with different paper.

This, Shekerjian notes, is empirical evidence that “staying loose in the early stages of a project greatly improves the chances for a more creative result.” But there is another reason to “embrace a period of rambling discovery” — it opens us up to unexpected influences that might at first appear unrelated to our creative endeavor but end up enriching it enormously. This is what legendary educator Abraham Flexner meant in his spectacular 1939 case for the usefulness of useless knowledge. (The recent boom in biomimicry in solving design problems is an excellent example.) Considering this parallel benefit of staying loose, something she poetically terms connected irrelevance, Shekerjian writes:

What blocks a creative solution to a problem is often an overly narrow and single-minded concentration from a single frame of reference. The person who can combine frames of reference and draw connections between ostensibly unrelated points of view is likely to be the one who makes the creative breakthrough.

Illustration by Bhajju Shyam from 'The London Jungle Book.' Click image for more.

This notion of breaking out of a single frame of reference, Shekerjian observes, is common to many MacArthur “geniuses.” The poet Joseph Brodsky reported listening to music to enhance his poetic prowess and touched on it in delivering the greatest commencement address ever given. Wiseman reads poetry and looks at art “to see how others have solved some of the same problems he faces.” (There is, of course, the famous example of Einstein coming up with some of his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks.) Shekerjian writes:

Staying loose, allowing yourself the freedom to ramble, opening yourself up to outside influences, keeping a flexible mind willing to entertain all sorts of notions and avenues — this is the attitude that is most appropriate for the start of any project where the aim is to generate something new.

Uncommon Genius — which also gave us legendary science writer and essayist Stephen Jay Gould on how dot-connecting powers creativity — remains a must-read. Complement it with Werner Herzog on creativity and Julia Cameron on how to unblock the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow.

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The Best Children’s Books of 2014

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Intelligent and imaginative tales of love, loneliness, loyalty, loss, friendship, and everything in between.

“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

“It is an error,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien seven decades earlier in his superb meditation on fantasy and why there’s no such thing as writing for children, “to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.” Indeed, books that bewitch young hearts and tickle young minds aren’t “children’s books” but simply great books — hearts that beat in the chest of another, even if that chest is slightly smaller.

This is certainly the case with the most intelligent and imaginative “children’s” and picture-books published this year. (Because the best children’s books provide, as Tolkien believed, perennial delight, step into the time machine and revisit previous selections for 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

1. THE LION AND THE BIRD

Once in a long while, a children’s book comes by that is so gorgeous in sight and spirit, so timelessly and agelessly enchanting, that it takes my breath away. The Lion and the Bird (public library | IndieBound) by French Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc is one such rare gem — an ode to life’s moments between the words via the tender and melodic story of a lion who finds a wounded bird in his garden one autumn day and nurses it back to flight. In the act of helping and being helped, the two deliver one another from the soul-wrenching pain of loneliness and build a beautiful friendship — the quiet and deeply rewarding kind.

Dubuc’s warm and generous illustrations are not only magical in that singular way that only someone who understands both childhood and loneliness can afford, but also lend a mesmerizing musical quality to the story. She plays with scale and negative space in a courageous and uncommon way — scenes fade into opacity as time passes, Lion shrinks as Bird flies away, and three blank pages punctuate the story as brilliantly placed pauses that capture the wistfulness of waiting and longing. What emerges is an entrancing sing-song rhythm of storytelling and of emotion.

As an endless winter descends upon Lion and Bird, they share a world of warmth and playful fellowship.

But a bittersweet awareness lurks in the shadow of their union — Lion knows that as soon as her broken wing heals, Bird will take to the spring skies with her flock, leaving him to his lonesome life.

Dubuc’s eloquent pictures advance the nearly wordless story, true to those moments in life that render words unnecessary. When spring arrives, we see Bird wave farewell to Lion.

“Yes,” says Lion. “I know.”

Nothing else is said, and yet we too instantly know — we know the universe of unspoken and ineffable emotion that envelops each and beams between them like silent starlight in that fateful moment.

The seasons roll by and Lion tends to his garden quietly, solemnly.

Summer passes slowly, softly.

Wistfully, he wonders where Bird might be. Until one autumn day…

…he hears a familiar sound.

It is Bird, returning for another winter of warmth and friendship.

The Lion and the Bird is ineffably wonderful, the kind of treasure to which the screen and the attempted explanation do no justice — a book that, as it was once said of The Little Prince, will shine upon your soul, whether child or grown-up, “with a sidewise gleam” and strike you “in some place that is not the mind” to glowing there with inextinguishable light.

Originally featured here.

2. HUG ME

A hug is such a simple act. But how anguishing when one is denied this basic exchange of human goodwill and kindness. Surely, one doesn’t even have to be human to feel the anguish of that denial. At first glance, this seems to be the premise behind Hug Me (public library | IndieBound) by animator-turned-children’s-book-author Simona Ciraolo — a sweet story about a young cactus named Felipe, who longs for such softness of contact in a family that sees emotional expression as a sign of weakness. Felipe runs away, looking for a new family to give him the affection he yearns for, but only finds heartbreak and rejection.

Felipe’s lonesomeness grows deeper when his first friend, a “bold, confident” giant yellow balloon who hovers over Felipe’s solitary patch of desert, succumbs to the inevitable outcome of the mismatched relationship. Even as he grieves his friend, Felipe is scolded for his emotional sensitivity rather than comforted with the very hug he needs.

Reaching his emotional tipping point, he finally departs to look for a new family, but quickly realizes that he is unwelcome everywhere and is left with nothing but his own company — not the self-elected art of solitude that can be so nourishing, but a forced lonesomeness that saddens the soul.

At last, Felipe finds a true friend in a little rock longing for affection amid a family as stiff and stern as his own, a kindred spirit whose cries for connection resonate in perfect unison with his own — a sweet finale reminding us that nothing dissolves loneliness like empathy and the awareness of shared experience.

There is, of course, a deeper allegorical undertone to the tale, beyond the surface interpretation of celebrating one’s inner softness in a culture that encourages hard individualism and a prickly exterior. A subtle undercurrent celebrates the spiritual homecoming of finding one’s tribe, the expansive embrace found in a kinship of souls. The story is also a celebration of free will, reminding us ever so gently that whatever our circumstances, we always have choices — and that our inability to see this is perhaps our gravest self-imposed limitation.

Originally featured here.

3. AH-HA TO ZIG-ZAG

As a lover of imaginative and intelligent alphabet books and of absolutely everything Maira Kalman does, I find the letters of the alphabet and the words they make insufficient to express the boundless wonderfulness of Kalman’s Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag (public library | IndieBound) — the children’s-book counterpart of her magnificent My Favorite Things, which began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

In this ABC gem — which doubles as a design-history primer full not of snobbery and self-important art-speak but of a playful celebration of uncertainty and imperfection — Kalman culls thirty-one objects from the museum’s collection and strings them together into a tour of the alphabet, with her characteristic quirk, candor, and exuberant creative curiosity as the loving guide.

Her unusual selections, often of seemingly mundane artifacts, bespeak her extraordinary gift for finding magic in “the moments between the moments between the moments.” The accompanying words emanate from a beautiful wanderer’s mind and a spirit that is so clearly generous and kind.

There is the “itsy-bitsy nail” in I; the beautiful embroidered pocket in P, which offers the pause-giving factlet that “a long time ago, women didn’t have pockets in their clothes”; the clever play on continuity that offers “terrible news” in T as a painting of burnt toast accuses the antique toaster in Q (“Quite the toaster!) of malfunction.

The last letter winks at Kalman’s wonderful Principles of Uncertainty:

The final spread in the story offers a sweet message of embracing imperfection — a gentle reminder for all ages that, as Anne Lamott memorably put it, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”:

But the end is not really the end — perhaps the most touching and empowering part of the book is its postscript of sorts. In the closing pages, Kalman tells the heartening story of Nellie and Sally Hewitt — the two young women who founded the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum:

They loved to sing and dance. They were just a little bit wild. A little bit.

They had sharp eyes. The kind of eyes that really LOOK at things.

One day they decided to collect the things they loved, and create a museum. And they really did it. Which is a lesson to be learned. If you have a good idea — DO IT.

Originally featured here.

4. WEDNESDAY

For more than a decade, Brooklyn’s family-owned indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion has been publishing immeasurably thoughtful and lyrical picture-books that invite young minds of all ages to explore such subtleties of the human experience as loneliness, loyalty, loss, the unknown, and the rhythms of life.

Now comes Wednesday (public library | IndieBound), the American debut of French children’s book author and illustrator Anne Bertier. It is translated by Enchanted Lion founder and editor Claudia Zoe Bedrick herself, a longtime Peace Corps volunteer, who continues to do for contemporary children’s books what Ursula Nordstrom did for the most beloved classics of the twentieth century.

Partway between Norton Juster’s 1963 gem The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and the endearing Sendak-illustrated Let’s Be Enemies, this unusual, minimalist, maximally imaginative book tells the story of two friends, Little Round and Big Square, who get together to play their favorite game every Wednesday — a game of association and transformation, where “as soon as one of them says a word, they transform themselves into it.” Together, they transmogrify into fanciful shapes — a butterfly, a flower, a mushroom, a kite.

But the fun is abated when Little Round begins to feel littler, unimportant and insufficient, as Big Square begins to parade a repertoire of words beyond Little Round’s transformation capacities.

They retreat to opposite corners, each gripped with indignation — until Little Round, undoubtedly aware that mutual understanding is at the heart of friendship, comes up with a reconciliatory idea and proposes that they come up with the words together rather than taking turns. Their first collaborative formation exudes subtle symbolism in speaking to how the I-ego keeps us separate from the universe:

“I’m going to hold myself very tall and straight.”

“And I’ll be the dot,” says Little Round.

“Our i really works!”

On they go with this collaborative creation, joyfully transforming together into a candy, a clown, a hat, a boat, a bowl, and increasingly abstract combinations that eventually take shape into recognizable forms.

The story is at once simple in its playfulness and a beautiful allegory for the combinatorial nature of creativity and thought itself, for the way we transform the building blocks we assemble by way of being alive and awake to the world — impressions, experiences, memories, influences — into new combinations that we call our own ideas. There is a reason Einstein called his thought process “combinatory play.”

Originally featured here.

5. WILD

“All good things are wild and free,” Thoreau wrote in his terrific treatise on walking. More than 150 years later, Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes makes an imaginative 21st-century case for this in Wild (public library | IndieBound) — an irreverent, charming, and oh-so-delightfully illustrated story, partway between Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and one of the most endearing things to come by in decades.

The story opens with a joyful and carefree little girl native to the woods, raised by the creatures of the whole forest. She is boundlessly, ebulliently wild, and wholly unashamed of her wildness.

Bird taught her to speak.
Bear taught her how to eat.
Fox taught her how to play.
And she understood, and was happy.

One day, two creatures who look an awful lot like her, only bigger, appear out of nowhere, put her in the belly of their metal beast, and hurl her into a wholly different new life — a civilized one.

Off in the big city, a somewhat well-meaning but rather dictatorial elderly couple sets out to de-wild her. “FAMED PSYCHIATRIST TAKES IN FERAL CHILD,” a newspaper headline proclaims.

The little girl is frightened, but mostly perplexed.

They spoke wrong.
They ate wrong.
They played wrong.
And she did not understand, and she was not happy.

One day, she has had enough.

Because you cannot tame something so happily wild…

Emanating from the playful and poetic story is a clarion call to shake off the external should’s that shackle us and stop keeping ourselves small by trying to please others, to celebrate what John Steinbeck called “the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected”. It is an invitation, at once tender and mischievous, to pause and ask, as Mary Oliver memorably did: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Originally featured here.

6. HANSEL & GRETEL

J.R.R. Tolkien memorably asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Maurice Sendak similarly scoffed that we shouldn’t shield young minds from the dark. It’s a sentiment that Neil Gaiman — one of the most enchanting and prolific writers of our time, a champion of the creative life, underappreciated artist, disciplined writer, and sage of literature — not only shares, in contemplating but also enacts beautifully in his work. More than a decade after his bewitching and widely beloved Coraline, Gaiman returns with another terrific embodiment of this ethos — his adaptation of the Brothers Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, the talent behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven.

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have attracted a wealth of reimaginings over their long history, including interpretations as wide-ranging as those by David Hockney in 1970, Edward Gorey in 1973, and Philip Pullman in 2012. But Gaiman’s is decidedly singular — a mesmerizing rolling cadence of language propelling a story that speaks to the part of the soul that revels in darkness but is immutably drawn to the light, that listens for the peculiar crescendo where the song of the dream becomes indistinguishable from the scream of the nightmare.

With stark subtlety, Mattotti’s haunting visual interpretation amplifies the atmosphere that Gaiman so elegantly evokes.

In this wonderful short video, Gaiman — who has previously explored why scary stories appeal to us — discusses what makes fairy tales endure with legendary graphic storyteller Art Spiegelman and longtime New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly:

I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.

And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming — it’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell you that story — as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.

The book is also available as a deluxe edition — a lavish large-format volume with a die-cut cover, and dog knows die-cut treats are impossible to resist.

Originally featured here.

7. ONCE UPON AN ALPHABET

In the 1990s, three decades after the debut of his now-iconic grim alphabet book, the great Edward Gorey reimagined the letters in a series of 26-word cryptic stories. Now comes a worthy modern counterpart by one of the most original and imaginative children’s book storytellers and artists of our time: Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (public library | IndieBound) by Oliver Jeffers — an unusual and utterly wonderful tour of the familiar letters that takes a whimsical detour via quirky, lyrical, delightfully alliterative tales for each, and makes a fine addition to the canon of offbeat alphabet books.

Jeffers’s art is subtle yet immeasurably expressive. His stories brim with the fallible and heartening humanity that makes up our vastly imperfect but mostly noble selves — our paradoxes (A is for “astronaut,” and Edmund the astronaut is afraid of heights), the silly stubbornnesses (B is for “burning a bridge” and we meet neighbors Bernard and Bob, who have spent years “battling each other for reasons neither could remember”), the playful flights of curiosity (E is for “enigma,” like the question of how many elephants can fit inside an envelope), the existential perplexities (in P, a “puzzled parsnip” spirals into anguish over realizing that he is neither a carrot nor a potato), the self-defeating control tactics we employ in attempting to assuage our fear of impermanence (the robots in R are so terrified of rusting that they steal the rainclouds from the sky and lug them around in carts).

There are touches of loveliness and thoughtfulness: The budding scientist (M is for “made of matter”) is a little girl and the manly lumberjack (L) lucubrates by lamplight, reading a copy of Once Upon an Alphabet.

There are also charming winks at continuity: The nun in N flips the enigma from E and posits that “nearly nine thousand” envelopes can fit inside an elephant; the fearless owl and octopus duo in O, who roam the ocean searching for problems to solve, come to the rescue when a regular cucumber plunges into the ocean in S (for “sink or swim”) because he “watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him,” only to realize he didn’t know how to swim; when Xavier in X wakes up one morning and is devastated to find out that his prized X-ray spectacles have been stolen, he rings the owl and the octopus for help.

There is, too, a sprinkle of Goreyesque darkness alongside the delight, speaking to Maurice Sendak’s conviction that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark: In T, a writer sits in front of his “terrible typewriter,” which has the uncanny ability to make his stories come true, until one day he is eaten by a monster he wrote. (The creature, coincidentally, is reminiscent of Sendak’s Wild Things.) In H, Helen lives in a half house, the other half having been swept into the sea by a hurricane; “being lazy, and not owning a hammer,” she hadn’t quite got around to fixing it yet” — so one day, she rolls out the wrong side of the bed and plummets into the ocean.

Originally featured here.

8. THE FLAT RABBIT

Neil Gaiman, in discussing his gorgeous new adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, asserted that we shouldn’t protect ourselves and children from the dark. But when the thickest darkness comes, in childhood as much as in adulthood, it brings with it not the monsters and witches of fairy tales but the tragedies of life itself — nowhere more acutely than in confronting death and its ghouls of grief. And when it does come, as Joan Didion memorably put it, it’s “nothing like we expect it to be.” What we need isn’t so much protection as the shaky comfort of understanding — a sensemaking mechanism for the messiness of loss.

That’s precisely what Faroese children’s book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson does in The Flat Rabbit (public library | IndieBound) — a masterwork of minimalist storytelling that speaks volumes about our eternal tussle with our own impermanence.

The book, translated by Faroese language-lover Marita Thomsen, comes from a long tradition of Scandinavian children’s books with singular sensitivity to such difficult subjects — from Tove Jansson’s vintage parables of uncertainty to Stein Erik Lunde’s Norwegian tale of grief to Øyvind Torseter’s existential meditation on the meaning of something and nothing.

The story, full of quiet wit and wistful wonder, begins with a carefree dog walking down the street. Suddenly, he comes upon a rabbit, lying silently flattened on the road. As the dog, saddened by the sight, wonders what to do, his friend the rat comes by.

“She is totally flat,” said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her.

“Do you know her?”

“Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”

The two agree that “lying there can’t be any fun” and decide to move her, but don’t know where to take her and head to the park to think.

The dog was now so deep in thought that, had you put your ear to his skull, you would have actually heard him racking his brain.

Embedded in the story is a subtle reminder that ideas don’t come to us by force of will but by the power of incubation as everything we’ve unconsciously absorbed clicks together into new combinations in our minds. As the dog sits straining his neurons, we see someone flying a kite behind him — a seeming aside noted only in the visual narrative, but one that becomes the seed for the rabbit solution.

Exclaiming that he has a plan, the dog returns to the scene with the rat. They take the rabbit from the road and work all night on the plan, hammering away in the doghouse.

In the next scene, we see the rabbit lovingly taped to the frame of a kite, which takes the dog and the rat forty-two attempts to fly.

With great simplicity and sensitivity, the story lifts off into a subtle meditation on the spiritual question of an afterlife — there is even the spatial alignment of a proverbial heaven “above.” It suggests — to my mind, at least — that all such notions exist solely for the comfort of the living, for those who survive the dead and who confront their own mortality in that survival, and yet there is peace to be found in such illusory consolations anyway, which alone is reason enough to have them.

Mostly, the story serves as a gentle reminder that we simply don’t have all the answers and that, as John Updike put it, “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery.”

Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time.

“Do you think she is having a good time?” the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog.

The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there.

“I don’t know…” he replied slowly. “I don’t know.”

For a grownup counterpart, revisit Joan Didion on grief and Meghan O’Rourke’s magnificent memoir of navigating mourning.

Originally featured here.

10. THE BABY TREE

Children’s questions have way of being so simple that they spill into the philosophical. And yet one particular question kids ask stumps grown-ups more than any other, hurling us into a cesspool of self-doubt as we struggle for an answer that is neither too age-inappropriate nor so obviously fanciful that it fails to get the young inquisitor off our back: “Where do babies come from?” Thankfully, Australian-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall, who has given us such treasures as her visual love stories based on Craigslist missed connections and her illustrations for Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, addresses that dreaded question with equal parts warmth, wisdom, and wit in The Baby Tree (public library | IndieBound) — an elegantly age-appropriate explanation of how reproduction works that neither talks down to children’s inherent intelligence nor boggles them with overly clinical dry science.

Instead, Blackall tells the imaginative tale of a little boy whose parents inform him one day that a new baby is coming.

I have a hundred questions in my head, but the only one that comes out is Are there any more cocopops? And because Mom and Dad are all happy about the baby coming, they let me have a second helping of cocopops and I make sure it’s a big one.

But once the little boy is able to get his real question out — Where do babies come from? — his parents are already out the door, running late for work. So he sets out to pose it to all the other grownup and growner-than-himself people in his life.

Right before dropping him off at school, his teenage babysitter (named after Blackall’s own daughter, Olive) tells him that babies come from the baby tree, which grows from a seed you plant.

At school, his teacher says they come from the hospital, then anxiously hurries to occupy the class with washing the paintbrushes.

His grandfather says a stork carries the baby in a bundle at night and drops it off for the parents to find on their doorstep in the morning.

Roberto the mailman says babies come from eggs, but “he doesn’t know where to get the eggs.”

Finally, confused by the wildly different explanations, the little boy asks his parents for a clear answer, and they give him a simple, sensitive, biologically accurate yet warmly conscientious answer about how reproduction works:

From inside their mom, says Mom.
They start off really tiny, says Dad.

Almost too small to see, says Mom.
They begin with a seed from their dad…
Which gets planted in an egg inside their mom…

The baby grows in there for nine months…

Until it runs out of room…
And it’s ready to be born. Sometimes at home…
But usually in the hospital.

The little boy is delighted to realize that everyone was right after all — Olive was right about the seed, Roberto about the egg, and his teacher about the hospital — except his grandpa:

I’m going to have to tell Grandpa where babies really come from.

At the end of the story, Blackall offers equally simple, succinct, and affectionately accurate answers to other questions about babies that little kids might be pondering, from how the seed gets from the dad into the mom to how adopted babies come about to what happens in families with two moms or two dads.

All in all, The Baby Tree is perfect in every imaginable way, so evidently the loving work of someone who understands both the curiosities of childhood and the perplexities of parenting. With her tender illustrations and thoughtful blend of fiction and nonfiction, Blackall — who understands complexity — offers a gentle and honest answer to a question that has continued to stump grownups but no longer has to.

Originally featured here.

11. SHACKLETON’S JOURNEY

In August of 1914, legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton led his brave crew of men and dogs on a journey to the end of the world — the enigmatic continent of Antarctica. That voyage — monumental both historically and scientifically — would become the last expedition the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which stretched from 1888 to 1914. From Flying Eye Books — the children’s book imprint of British indie press Nobrow, which gave us Freud’s comic biography, Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land and some gorgeous illustrated histories of aviation and the Space Race — comes Shackleton’s Journey (public library | IndieBound), a magnificent chronicle by emerging illustrator William Grill, whose affectionate and enchanting colored-pencil drawings bring to life the legendary explorer and his historic expedition.

As Grill tells us in the introduction, Shackleton was a rather extraordinary character:

Shackleton was the second of ten children. From a young age, Shackleton complained about teachers, but he had a keen interest in books, especially poetry — years later, on expeditions, he would read to his crew to lift their spirits. Always restless, the young Ernest left school at 16 to go to sea. After working his way up the ranks, he told his friends, “I think I can do something better, I want to make a name for myself.”

And make it he did. Reflecting on the inescapable allure of exploration, which carried him through his life of adventurous purpose, Shackleton once remarked:

I felt strangely drawn to the mysterious south. I vowed to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow, and go on and on ’til I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis on which this great round ball turns.

From the funding and recruitment of the famed expedition, to the pioneering engineering of the Endurance ship, to the taxonomy of crew members, dogs, and supplies, Grill traces Shackleton’s tumultuous journey from the moment the crew set sail to their misfortune-induced change of plans and soul-wrenching isolation “500 miles away from the nearest civilization” to their eventual escape from their icy prison and salvation ashore Elephant Island.

As a lover of dogs and visual lists, especially illustrated lists and dog-themed illustrations, I was especially taken with Grill’s visual inventories of equipment and dogs:

Despite the gargantuan challenges and life-threatening curveballs, Shackleton’s expedition drew to a heroic close without the loss of a single life. It is a story of unrelenting ambition to change the course of history, unflinching courage in the face of formidable setbacks, and above all optimism against all odds — the same optimism that emanates with incredible warmth from Grill’s tender illustrations.

Years later, Shackleton himself captured the spirit that carried them:

I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.

Originally featured here.

12. THE MEMORY OF AN ELEPHANT

Psychologists believe that our capacity for creative work hinges on our memory and the ability to draw on our mental catalog of remembered experiences and ideas. More than that, memory is our lifeline to our own selves. Indeed, can there be anything more central to identity than memory?

The Memory of an Elephant: An Unforgettable Journey (public library | IndieBound) is a most unusual picture-book by writer Sophie Strady and illustrator Jean-François Martin. Unusual not because it measures an impressive 15 inches in height — though that alone makes it a kind of enchanting narrative poster — but because it blends the fascination of encyclopedic curiosity with deep questions about memory, identity, and what makes a life worthwhile.

Marcel is a soulful old elephant who sets out to write an encyclopedia as his legacy. Having seen the Eiffel Tower built in 1889 and the first iMac introduced in 1998, and having filled the century between with a long lifetime of adventures and successes of his own, he undertakes “the enormous task of listing — in an enormous, illustrated encyclopedia — everything he’s learned throughout his long and exceptional life.”

But just as he is about to begin looking back on his many years and drawing on his vast memory-bank of knowledge, he finds his living room — his dedicated environment essential for writing, charmingly populated by iconic mid-century modern furniture and some unmistakable Eames designs — flooded with “a mountain of parcels wrapped in bright and patterned paper,” surprise birthday presents from his friends.

As he opens each package and plays with the present inside, the double meaning of the word “present” reveals itself. Marcel is transported to his past and the many lives compressed into his long and accomplished existence — his days as a world-famous musician, his stint as a sailor, his sabbatical in Vietnam, his time tending to the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens, his accidental participation in France’s historic Mai 1968 worker strikes and civil unrest.

Marcel comes upon the last unopened package, a large cardboard tube. Inside, he finds a poster that reads: “In May, we’ll have our way.” As he begins to ponder the strange time-travel quality of what sounds like a political slogan from the 1968 riots, he suddenly realizes it is actually May 1, the date of his birthday. Just then, his friends emerge from behind his elegant furniture for a proper birthday surprise.

Everyone has been waiting for the old elephant to open not only his presents, but the doors of his memory.

The main story is peppered with curious encyclopedic asides both about elements of Marcel’s memories, from music to technology, and about elephants themselves — we learn that an elephant sleeps very little at night, “usually standing, always on alert,” and takes standing naps throughout the day; that an adult elephant needs to drink 30 gallons of water a day and eat between 220 and 440 pounds of food depending on the season; that an elephant can’t jump and must have one foot on the ground at all times; that despite an enormous weight of about five tons, an elephant makes no noise while walking.

Originally featured here.

13. 29 MYTHS ON THE SWINSTER PHARMACY

Few children’s book writers today could compare in humor, sensitivity, and sheer creative irreverence to Lemony Snicket, the young-readers pen name of grown-up author Daniel Handler, under which he has penned such magnificent creative collaborations as 13 Words, illustrated by the great Maira Kalman, “Who Could That Be at This Hour?,” illustrated by celebrated cartoonist Seth, and The Dark, one of the best picture books of 2013, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Now comes 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by the inimitable Lisa Brown — a project all the more charming for the heartening fact that Handler and Brown are married and a living echelon of a romantic relationship that’s also a creative collaboration.

It tells the story of a little girl, a little boy, and their little dog, who grow intensely fascinated with the mysterious Swinster Pharmacy of the neighboring town and begin pondering what it might sell. Beneath it is a lovely allegory about the capacity of children’s imaginations to see enigmatic wonder in even the simplest things and find multiple meanings in the most mundane.

First, the small party journeys to the next town to investigate in person, surreptitiously observing the white-coated employees and even following one of them home one night, to his house right across the pharmacy.

Rumors around town say there are four secrets about the Swinster Pharmacy, but no one knows what any of them are.

Everything is cause for suspicion: The fruit bowl on the Pharmacy counter contains grapes that aren’t cut in half; strangers walk by casually, “just snacking or whispering or something,” and stop when they pass the Pharmacy; a news story about arson in the town pans the street on which the Pharmacy resides; they measure the building and it turns out to be a perfect square; “something about the door is electric.” All very, very suspicious.

The threesome decide to sneak behind the trees across the street from the Swinster Pharmacy and quietly scope out the comings and goings of the pharmacy’s customers. Again, very suspicious activity ensues:

A woman went in once and came out fifteen minutes later wearing the exact same outfit.

The pharmacy begins to haunt the children’s dreams:

In all of our dreams, the Pharmacy squats in the middle of the block like something blue and hungry. In the morning it is on the corner.

And still the mystery of what the Pharmacy sells endures.

What makes 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy most enchanting is that, whether intentionally or not, it serves as a cautionary parable for the subjective ways in which we decide what is true and what is real — a reminder that without the essential tools of critical thinking, we warp the art of observation into a subjective filter that colors our perception of the world to paint it as what we want it to be rather than what it is.

Originally featured here.

14. MY TEACHER IS A MONSTER

“Love,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in his poignant letters to Gandhi on why we hurt one another, “represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children)…” Tolstoy believed that if only we managed to see through our superficial differences and our fear of the other’s otherness, we’d recognize instantly the universe’s basic “law of love” — something to which we are born attuned, only to forget as we enter adulthood. Kids, of course, can often be especially cruel in their inability to accept otherness — but that’s why it’s especially enchanting to witness, let alone spark, the precise moment in which a child lets go of some learned bias and sees in another person his or her intrinsic goodness, a return to innocence and Tolstoy’s “law of love.”

From children’s book author and illustrator Peter Brown comes My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) (public library | IndieBound) — a sweet contemporary fable about one such moment of seeing through the mask of terrifying otherness the soft heart of our shared humanity.

In vibrant, textured illustrations and simple words, Brown tells the story of little Bobby, who sees his stern teacher, Ms. Kirby, as a scary green ogre — until, one weekend, the two unexpectedly bump into each other at the park.

Suddenly, the leisurely environment strips them of their weekday roles. After the inevitable awkwardness and disorientation — in one particularly sweet exchange, Bobby, who resists his initial instinct to just run away, raises his hand while sitting next to Ms. Kirby on the bench; she gently reminds him that, outside the classroom, he can just ask his question — they have no choice but to first reluctantly, then tacitly, then gladly get to know each other.

Just as Bobby makes the first move with a compliment on Ms. Kirby’s enormous hat, the wind takes over.

The hat, it turns out, is Ms. Kirby’s favorite, so she runs after it distraught as the wind sweeps it toward peril. Right before it drops into the duck pond, Bobby leaps and saves the day. Ms. Kirby, ecstatic, proclaims him her hero and the two set out to feed the ducks side by side. Meanwhile, strangely, some of Ms. Kirby’s greenness seems to have faded and her boar-like nostrils have shrunk ever so slightly.

Bobby decides to show Ms. Kirby his favorite spot in the park and they climb up some big boulders, atop which Ms. Kirby — now with an almost neutral complexion and a hint of rosiness — gets an idea.

She hands Bobby a sheet of paper, which he gleefully folds into a paper plane and releases into the sky — the very act for which the monstrous teacher had scolded the kids in the classroom.

“I think that was the single greatest paper airplane flight in history!” Bobby exclaims. “I think you’re right,” Ms. Kirby — now having lost almost all of her monster teeth — agrees.

By the time they return to the bench at lunchtime, both are glad they had run into each other.

Miraculously, Ms. Kirby has transmogrified from a monster into an ordinary woman. With each shared moment and each small kindness exchanged, her monsterness had dissolved into her simple humanity — a sweet reminder that however much people may be the product of their culture and surrounding context, when one learns to see with “the eye of the heart,” their basic goodness will eventually emanate.

In a way, the story shines a compassionate light on a different facet of the same broader issue Brown explored in his previous book, the equally wonderful Mr. Tiger Goes Wild — a tender tale about authenticity and acceptance. The challenge of understanding others despite their differences and that of feeling accepted ourselves despite our quirks are two sides of the same coin — a coin that is undoubtedly our most valuable currency for human bonds.

Originally featured here, alongside my interview with Brown.

15. THE PILOT AND THE LITTLE PRINCE

“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” So sang a 1943 review of The Little Prince, published a few months before the beloved book’s author disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. But though it ultimately became the cause of his tragic death, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot also informed the richness of his life and the expansive reach of his spirit, from his reflection on what his time in the Sahara desert taught him about the meaning of life to his beautiful meditation on the life-saving potential of a human smile. It was at the root of his identity and his imagination, and as such inspired the inception of The Little Prince.

That interplay between Saint-Exupéry the pilot and Saint-Exupéry the imaginative creator of a cultural classic is what celebrated Czech-born American children’s book author and illustrator Peter Sís explores in the beautiful graphic biography The Pilot and the Little Prince (public library | IndieBound) — a sensitive account of Saint-Exupéry’s life, underpinned by a fascinating chronicle of how aviation came to change humanity and a poignant undercurrent of political history, absolutely magical it its harmonized entirety.

Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900, a golden age of discovery, just as airplanes had been invented in France and the dawn of aviation was emanating an exhilarating spirit of exploration and invention. Young Antoine quickly became enchanted with that exhilaration and at the age of twelve, he built a makeshift flying machine.

Sís writes:

It did not take off, but this didn’t discourage him.

That summer, he rode his bike to a nearby airfield every day to watch the pilots test planes. He told them he had permission from his mother to fly, so one pilot took him up in the air. His mother was not happy. Antoine couldn’t wait to go up again.

The obsession had permanently lodged itself into his psyche. When the war came and he was summoned to military duty, young Saint-Exupéry requested the air force but was assigned to the ground crew. Again, he remained unperturbed. Two years later, when he heard about a new airline operated by the postal service to deliver the mail, he got himself hired — first as a mechanic, and soon as a test pilot, eventually learning to fly by accompanying other pilots on mail routes. Sís writes:

One day, he heard the news he had been waiting for: he would fly the mail from France to Spain by himself. Henri Guillaumet, another pilot and later Antoine’s good friend, told him not just to depend on the map but to follow the face of the landscape.

Saint-Exupéry was living his dream, flying in Europe and West Africa. Eventually, the airline assigned him to an airfield in Cape Juby in southern Morocco, and the two years he spent in the desert were among the happiest in his life, a period he would go on to cherish with beautiful and bittersweet wistfulness for the rest of his days. Sís captures the romantic poetics of the experience:

He lived in a wooden shack and had few belongings and fewer visitors. With an ocean on one side and desert everywhere else, it seemed like one of the loneliest places in the world. But he loved the solitude and being under millions of stars.

The locals came to call him Captain of the Birds as he rescued stranded pilots and appeased hostile nomads who had shot down planes and kidnapped flyers. His time in the desert became powerful fuel for his writing and the raw inspiration for The Little Prince. But the skies remained his greatest love. Sís traces the trajectory of Saint-Exupéry’s travels and passions:

Eager to explore other skies, Antoine joined his fellow aviators in creating new mail routes in South America. Nothing could stop them as they crossed glaciers, rain forests, and mountain peaks, battling fierce winds and wild storms.

Antoine spent more time in the air here than anywhere else because the pilots now also flew at night. With stars above and lights below, his world felt both immense and small.

Upon returning to France, Saint-Exupéry fell in love, got married, and reached significant fame as both a pilot and an author. But driven by his chronic adventurer’s restlessness, he continued to dream up expeditions that came to border on stunts. In one, he competed for a prize for the fastest flight between Paris and Saigon, but he and his copilot crashed in North Africa, surviving by a hair and wandering the desert for days before being rescued. In another, he set out to become the first French pilot to fly from New York to the tip of South America. The plane crashed near Guatemala City but, miraculously, he survived once more.

As World War II engulfed Europe, Saint-Exupéry was called for military duty once more, this time as a pilot, observing from high in the skies the atrocities the Germans inflicted all over. Once his war service ended, he decided he couldn’t continue to live in France under German occupation and fled to Portugal on a ship — a trip that would stir the very foundations of his soul and inspire his magnificent Letter to a Hostage — eventually ending up in New York, where he found himself lonesome and alienated.

After writing Flight to Arras and sending a copy to President Roosevelt with the inscription “For President Franklin Roosevelt, whose country is taking on the heavy burden of saving the world,”Saint-Exupéry bought a set of watercolor paints and began working on the illustrations for the story that would become The Little Prince. Sís captures the layered message of the book, informed both by Saint-Exupéry’s passions and his forlorn homesickness, with beautiful simplicity:

He described a planet more innocent than his own, with a boy who ventured far from home, questioned how things worked, and searched for answers.

But the author grew increasingly restless once more. Longing to fly again and to see his family, who had remained in France, he rejoined his old squadron in North Africa, requesting flights that would take him back to France. Sís captures the tragic bluntness of how Saint-Exupéry’s story ended, at once almost sterile in its abruptness and richly poetic in the context of his lifelong obsession:

On July 31, 1944, at 8:45am, he took off from Borgo, Corsica, to photograph enemy positions east of Lyon. It was a beautiful day. He was due back at 12:30.

But he never returned. Some say he forgot his oxygen mask and vanished at sea.

Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars.

The Pilot and the Little Prince is a thing of beauty for both eye and spirit, and a fine addition to other delightful graphic biographies, including those of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí. Complement it with Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince and his soul-stretching meditations on solitude and the meaning of life and our shared humanity.

Originally featured here.

For more timelessly delightful and ennobling children’s books, keep an eye on this evolving bookshelf.

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Artist Francis Bacon’s Conflicted and Creative Life, Illustrated

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“It’s all so meaningless, we may as well be extraordinary.”

David Lynch has called legendary British artist Francis Bacon (October 28, 1909–April 28, 1992) “the main guy, the number one kinda hero painter.” Like Lynch’s films, Bacon’s paintings compel the way a scene from a nightmare does — a scream piercing the psyche, at once terrifying in its beauty and beautiful in its terror. “An artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs,” Bacon once told an interviewer — an ethos he himself very much embodied.

How his passions and despairs fed his art is what British writer Kitty Hauser and artist Christina Christoforou explore in This is Bacon (public library | IndieBound) — another fantastic installment in same series of illustrated artist biographies that gave us This is Dalí and This is Warhol, illuminating Bacon’s influences and infatuations to shed light on his darkly alluring art.

Hauser writes in the introduction:

By all accounts, Francis Bacon had an effect on those he met. He didn’t look like other people, didn’t talk or act like them. “It’s all so meaningless,” he liked to say, “we may as well be extraordinary.” His paintings continue to have an effect on those who see them. They have the capacity to move us, without it being possible to say why. They convey something of how it feels to be human — King Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal.”

[But] Bacon realized he walked a tightrope of success and failure with every brushstroke, and with every work. He destroyed a lot of paintings. He was aiming high, after all… “My work will either end up in the National Gallery or the dustbin,” he used to say.

The choice to tell the story of Bacon’s life in illustration is an interesting one: In his legendary conversations with David Sylvester — some of the greatest interviews in the history of creative culture — Bacon frequently asserted that his art shouldn’t be explained, because putting words to it would reduce it to illustration, a medium he saw as vastly inferior. But it is also an implicit homage to the contradictions of which Bacon’s character was woven — brilliant and broken, full of idealism disguised as nihilism, in constant oscillation between the public and the private, a man Allen Ginsberg once described in a letter to Jack Kerouac as having the appearance of an English schoolboy but the soul of a satyr.

Even his relationship to drawing and illustration was a contradictory one — all his life, Bacon vehemently denied that he drew sketches before painting and insisted that he only ever painted straight on the canvas, but a wealth of sketches surfaced after his death. Like the famous grandfather of the subject of his most prized painting — Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, sold for $142,405,000 — Bacon was a master of engineering his own myth. An illustrated biography, then, makes many layers of sense.

Bacon never received a formal education in art, which lent him a kind of beginner’s mind that, as Hauser puts it, rendered him immune to “the usual kinds of distinctions between life and art, or between high culture and low.” Instead, he made an art of the art of looking as he amassed a vast bank of images from a wide range of sources — medical illustration, film, art, everyday life — and let them cross-pollinate in his unconscious as a living testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity:

I look at everything. And everything I see gets ground up very fine. In the end one never knows, certainly I myself never know, what the images in my paintings are made up of.

For Bacon, Hauser notes, painting was a struggle that relied in large part on chance — he believed successful paintings “open up the valves of sensation” and bypass the intellect to penetrate “the nervous system” directly, which requires an active surrender to the uncertainty of the painting process.

Bacon was born to a strict and often cruel ex-military father and a steel business heiress mother. As a child, he suffered from severe asthma — a much more serious affliction, Hauser points out, in an era prior to the mass-market availability of proper medication — and grew up in an atmosphere of violence, both at home and amid the cultural context of WWI. When he was sixteen, his father walked in on him dressed in his mother’s underwear and kicked him out — the fate of lamentably many LGBT youth even today. In an effort to straighten out the boy, his father placed him in the uncaring care of a cruel “uncle,” a rough horse-breeder unrelated by blood, who took young Francis to Berlin — a city that had emerged as Europe’s capital of wild abandon, once described by the novelist Stefan Zweig as the “Babylon of the modern world.” Hauser writes:

There were cross-dressing cabarets and transvestite shows whose flamboyance and inventiveness have never been matched.

Eventually, young Bacon made his way to Paris, where he first became exposed to the art of the Old Masters and other cultural influences, ranging from surrealist cinema to postmodernist literary magazines. But it was in the work of Picasso — who famously championed the courage of the creative life — that he first felt the assuring possibility of becoming a professional painter himself.

After a brief bill-paying stint in interior design, Bacon finally got his big break as an artist when his painting Crucifixion — owned today by Damien Hirst, who cites Bacon as a great influence — was included in Herbert Read’s momentous 1933 book Art Now.

'Crucifixion,' 1933

Heartened by the recognition, Bacon mounted a one-man show the following year, but it became his first painful lesson in the fickleness of the art world — a dismissive review in The Times so upset him that he destroyed all the work in the exhibition and abandoned painting for nearly a decade.

Among the perplexities of Bacon’s character is one particularly curious biographical detail: He moved around a great deal, but his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, continued to live with him until her death in 1951; she would vet the many replies to Bacon’s gay personals, which he published on the front page of The Times, and when times got especially rough, she’d go shoplifting for the duo’s dinner.

When Bacon returned to painting, one image from his voraciously amassed visual bank held exceptional mesmerism for him — Diego Velásquez’s 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, which Bacon said triggered “all sorts of feelings” for him. Mashing it up with a visual from another influence that had impacted him greatly — the screaming face from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin — Bacon embarked upon his haunting series of screaming pope paintings.

'Pope Innocent X' by Diego Velásquez, 1650 (left) and 'Study After Velásquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X' by Francis Bacon, 1953 (right)

Despite Bacon’s resistance to any interpretation of his paintings as cultural commentary, it’s hard not to observe the resonance of this particular depiction. Bacon had come of age in an era when homosexuality was not only considered a sin by the Catholic Church but was also illegal in Britain — so illegal that computing pioneer Alan Turing paid for it with is life, as did Oscar Wilde, whose imprisonment for being gay contributed to his untimely death. Bacon was in his late fifties when the right to love a person of one’s own sex was finally “made legal.”

For Bacon, however, the law was not the greatest source of his misfortune in love — his own self-destructive tendencies were. In 1952, he embarked on a long and toxic love affair with a former war pilot named Peter Lacy — an explosive, often sadistic man, and an alcoholic with no intention of recovery. Even though Lacy had only contempt for Bacon’s paintings and destroyed many of them during their turbulent fights, Bacon later stated that Lacy was the love of his life.

In the late 1950s, when Bacon followed Lacy to the debaucherous city of Tangiers in North Africa — a city frequented by the era’s gay mafia of creative culture, including Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac — their relationship continued its cycles of violence and escalated into heavy drinking. The British consul-general in Tangier grew so concerned about the frequency with which Bacon was found beaten up on the city’s streets in the wee hours of the morning that he increased the number of patrolling police officers.

It is unsurprising, then, that the man who so believed in the creative value of suffering and readily subjected himself to it would make his idol the man who articulated that suffering more powerfully than anyone and succumbed to it more tragically than any other major artist. In the late 1950s, Bacon became obsessed with Vincent van Gogh, the quintessential tortured-artist testament to the link between creativity and mental illness. Bacon studied Van Gogh’s paintings fanatically and devoured his letters to his brother.

'Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh VI,' 1957

Once Bacon made his way to London in 1961, where he would live until the end of his life, his self-destructive pathology manifested a silver lining — he became what is possibly the world’s first professional drinker: he was paid £10 a week to drink at The Colony Room, Muriel Belcher’s private drinking club, in a campaign to drive business. Among his drinking buddies there was Lucian Freud, from whom Bacon was inseparable for years.

It was around that time that Bacon met George Dyer — a petty criminal from London’s East End, who would become Bacon’s lover and the subject of his best-known paintings. Like Bacon himself, Dyer was a man woven of contradictions — as Hauser puts it, a weak character with a fit physique, combining “vulnerability with a gangsterish demeanor.” Bacon had a number of photographs taken of Dyer, which he used as springboards for his sexually charged paintings. Hauser quotes the artist himself:

Even if you’re in love with somebody, everything escapes you. You want to be nearer to that person, but how can you cut your flesh open and join with the other person? … So it is with art.

In 1971, the day before Bacon’s landmark exhibit at the Grand Palais was about to open — “To be taken seriously by the French was a rare thing for a British artist,” Hauser writes, “and Bacon was elated.” — Dyer was found dead from an overdose in their hotel room in Paris. In a supreme twist of fate that would become the grandest of Bacon’s contradictions, the show would become his greatest success, but Dyer’s death would come to haunt him for the remainder of his life. Hauser writes:

There’s an ancient story about the origins of painting in which a young woman traces around the outline of the shadow of her beloved’s profile as it is cast on the wall. The image will be there when he has gone; it will still exist after his death. It’s hard not to think of the story when considering the use Bacon made of [the] photograph of Dyer’s head in profile, of which he had a number of copies. At one point he made a cut-out of his head and used it as a template, apparently pinning it to his canvas and painting around it.

But in his grief and his obsession with mortality, Bacon found the subject of his final and most memorable paintings, perhaps living up to his famous proclamation.

Complement This is Bacon with the painter on the role of suffering and self-knowledge in creative expression, then revisit the illustrated biographies of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs.

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Voltaire on How to Write Well and Stay True to Your Creative Vision

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“Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose.”

Centuries before Ezra Pound’s rules for how to write poetry and Edward Hirsch’s treatise on how to read it, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), who invented social networking, set down some invaluable advice on how to write verse in a letter to his then-protégé — a gallant young man-about-town named Claude Adrien Helvétius. Two decades later, Helvétius would come to write the book De l’esprit; or, Essays on the Mind, the stark materialism of which would greatly put off Voltaire. But in his youth, he aspired to make a living as a poet. Having just published a book of poems on happiness and love, titled Epistles, which received rather unfavorable critical reception, Helvétius reached out to Voltaire for feedback and assurance, which his mentor readily supplied.

The letter, found in the 1919 volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection from His Correspondence (public library | IndieBound), is a masterwork of advice not only on how to write verse, or how to write well in general, but also, as Ursula K. Le Guin admonished three centuries later, on the perils of writing for commercial gain and to please an audience rather than out of true creative vision.

Cirey, February 25, 1739
.
My dear friend — the friend of Truth and the Muses — your “Epistle” is full of bold reasoning in advance of your age, and still more in advance of those craven writers who rhyme for the book-sellers and restrict themselves within the compass of a royal censor, who is either jealous of them, or more cowardly than they are themselves.

What are they but miserable birds, with their wings close clipped, who, longing to soar, are for ever falling back to earth, breaking their legs! You have a fearless genius, and your work sparkles with imagination. I much prefer your generous faults to the mediocre prettinesses with which we are cloyed. If you will allow me to tell you where I think you can improve yourself in your art, I should say: Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word.

Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose: and if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many — if there is the least defect in the construction — if a conjunction is forgotten — if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one re-reads and remembers, in spite of oneself. There are many of this kind in your “Epistle” — lines which no one else in this generation can write at your age such as were written fifty years ago.

Do not be afraid, then, to bring your talents to a Parnassus; they will undoubtedly redound to your credit because you never neglect your duties; for them: they are themselves very pleasant duties. Surely, those your position demand of you must be very uncongenial to such a nature as yours. They are as much routine as looking after a house, or the housebook of one’s steward. Why should you be deprived of liberty of thought because you happen to be a farmer-general? Atticus was a farmer-general, the old Romans were farmers-general, and they thought — as Romans. Go ahead, Atticus.

But Helvétius was ultimately unwilling, or perhaps unable, to take his mentor’s advice and soon abandoned poetry for prose and profit. Twenty years later, On the Mind was burned by the public hangman, alongside Voltaire’s poem “On Natural Law.” Although Voltaire privately loathed and publicly denounced Helvétius’s book, he — a vocal opponent of censorship and proponent of the freedom of speech — immediately leapt to its defense. In doing so, he lived up to the famous paraphrasing of his philosophy that his official biographer and the editor of his letters, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, would later memorably write — a sentiment so evocative of Voltaire’s spirit that it is often misattributed to the philosopher himself:

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

Complement with the story of how Voltaire fell in love with a remarkable female mathematician and his spirited case for the rewards of reading.

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