Brain Pickings

The World Is Round: A Tiny 1938 Children’s Book by Gertrude Stein

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“A rose is a rose is a rose.”

It’s no secret I have an obsession with little- known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups. Among them is The World Is Round by writer, poet and art collector Gertrude Stein, one of the most beloved — and quoted — luminaries of the early 20th century. Its story is an unlikely but wonderful one: In 1938, author Margaret Wise Brown of the freshly founded Young Scott Books became obsessed with convincing leading adult authors to try their hands at a children’s book. She sent letters to Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Gertrude Stein. Hemingway and Steinbeck expressed no interest, but Stein surprised Brown by saying she already had a near-complete children’s manuscript titled The World Is Round, and would be happy to have Young Scott bring it to life. Which they did, though not without drama.

Stein demanded that the pages be pink, the ink blue, and the artwork by illustrator Francis Rose. Young Scott were able to meet the first two demands despite the technical difficulties, but they didn’t want Rose to illustrate the book and asked Stein to instead choose from several Young Scott illustrators. Reluctantly, she settle don Clement Hurd, whose first illustrated book had appeared just that year. The book was at last published, featuring a mix of unpunctuated prose and poetry, with a single illustration for each chapter.

Though Hurd’s original illustrations remain most familiar, Oxford-based Barefoot Books published one last edition of the book in 1993, illustrated by artist Roberta Arenson. It’s a tiny gem of a book, small enough to fit in a pocket, with beautifully minimalist blue-and-white pictogram illustrations reminiscent of Indian Mandana tribal art.

Though out-of-print and fairly hard to find in bookstores, you might be able to grab a copy with some patient sifting through Amazon.

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