Brain Pickings

The Best Illustrated Children’s Books and Picturebooks of 2012

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From Indian folk art to neuroscience, by way of Saul Bass, James Joyce, and die-cut Cold War allegories.

On the heels of this year’s best science books, art books, design books, and philosophy and psychology books, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s ten-or-so most delightful children’s and picturebooks. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)

HENRI’S WALK TO PARIS

Saul Bass (1920-1996) is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. This year, exactly half a century later, Rizzoli reprinted Henri’s Walk to Paris — an absolute gem like only Bass can deliver, at once boldly minimalist and incredibly rich, telling the sweet, aspirational, colorful story of a boy who lives in rural France and dreams of going to Paris.

In his wonderful essay on Bass’s talent, Martin Scorsese observed, as if thinking of this book in particular:

Saul’s designs…speak so eloquently that they address all of us, no matter when, or where, you were born.”

For a related treat, don’t miss the excellent recent Saul Bass monograph, one of the 11 best art and design books of 2011.

Originally featured in February.

BIG QUESTIONS FROM LITTLE PEOPLE

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,” Carl Sagan famously observed in Cosmos, “you must first invent the universe.” The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library) — a compendium of fascinating explanations of deceptively simple everyday phenomena, featuring such modern-day icons as Mary Roach, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, and many more, with a good chunk of the proceeds being donated to Save the Children, and also one of the best science books of 2012.

Alain de Botton explores why we have dreams:

Most of the time, you feel in charge of your own mind. You want to play with some Lego? Your brain is there to make it happen. You fancy reading a book? You can put the letters together and watch characters emerge in your imagination.

But at night, strange stuff happens. While you’re in bed, your mind puts on the weirdest, most amazing and sometimes scariest shows.

[…]

In the olden days, people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future. Nowadays, we tend to think that dreams are a way for the mind to rearrange and tidy itself up after the activities of the day.

Why are dreams sometimes scary? During the day, things may happen that frighten us, but we are so busy we don’t have time to think properly about them. At night, while we are sleeping safely, we can give those fears a run around. Or maybe something you did during the day was lovely but you were in a hurry and didn’t give it time. It may pop up in a dream. In dreams, you go back over things you missed, repair what got damaged, make up stories about what you’d love, and explore the fears you normally put to the back of your mind.

Dreams are both more exciting and more frightening than daily life. They’re a sign that our brains are marvellous machines — and that they have powers we don’t often give them credit for, when we’re just using them to do our homework or play a computer game. Dreams show us that we’re not quite the bosses of our own selves.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins breaks down the math of evolution and cousin marriages to demonstrate that we are all related:

Yes, we are all related. You are a (probably distant) cousin of the Queen, and of the president of the United States, and of me. You and I are cousins of each other. You can prove it to yourself.

Everybody has two parents. That means, since each parent had two parents of their own, that we all have four grandparents. Then, since each grandparent had to have two parents, everyone has eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great- great-grandparents and thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents and so on.

You can go back any number of generations and work out the number of ancestors you must have had that same number of generations ago. All you have to do is multiply two by itself that number of times.

Suppose we go back ten centuries, that is to Anglo-Saxon times in England, just before the Norman Conquest, and work out how many ancestors you must have had alive at that time.

If we allow four generations per century, that’s about forty generations ago.

Two multiplied by itself forty times comes to more than a thousand trillion. Yet the total population of the world at that time was only around three hundred million. Even today the population is seven billion, yet we have just worked out that a thousand years ago your ancestors alone were more than 150 times as numerous.

[…]

The real population of the world at the time of Julius Caesar was only a few million, and all of us, all seven billion of us, are descended from them. We are indeed all related. Every marriage is between more or less distant cousins, who already share lots and lots of ancestors before they have children of their own.
By the same kind of argument, we are distant cousins not only of all human beings but of all animals and plants. You are a cousin of my dog and of the lettuce you had for lunch, and of the next bird that you see fly past the window. You and I share ancestors with all of them. But that is another story.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains why we can’t tickle ourselves:

To understand why, you need to know more about how your brain works. One of its main tasks is to try to make good guesses about what’s going to happen next. While you’re busy getting on with your life, walking downstairs or eating your breakfast, parts of your brain are always trying to predict the future.

Remember when you first learned how to ride a bicycle? At first, it took a lot of concentration to keep the handlebars steady and push the pedals. But after a while, cycling became easy. Now you’re not aware of the movements you make to keep the bike going. From experience, your brain knows exactly what to expect so your body rides the bike automatically. Your brain is predicting all the movements you need to make.

You only have to think consciously about cycling if something changes — like if there’s a strong wind or you get a flat tyre. When something unexpected happens like this, your brain is forced to change its predictions about what will happen next. If it does its job well, you’ll adjust to the strong wind, leaning your body so you don’t fall.

Why is it so important for our brains to predict what will happen next? It helps us make fewer mistakes and can even save our lives.

[…]

Because your brain is always predicting your own actions, and how your body will feel as a result, you cannot tickle yourself. Other people can tickle you because they can surprise you. You can’t predict what their tickling actions will be.

And this knowledge leads to an interesting truth: if you build a machine that allows you to move a feather, but the feather moves only after a delay of a second, then you can tickle your- self. The results of your own actions will now surprise you.

Particle physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss explains why we’re all made of stardust:

Everything in your body, and everything you can see around you, is made up of tiny objects called atoms. Atoms come in different types called elements. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon are three of the most important elements in your body.

[…]

How did those elements get into our bodies? The only way they could have got there, to make up all the material on our Earth, is if some of those stars exploded a long time ago, spew- ing all the elements from their cores into space. Then, about four and a half billion years ago, in our part of our galaxy, the material in space began to collapse. This is how the Sun was formed, and the solar system around it, as well as the material that forms all life on earth.

So, most of the atoms that now make up your body were created inside stars! The atoms in your left hand might have come from a different star from those in your right hand. You are really a child of the stars.

But my favorite answers are to the all-engulfing question, How do we fall in love?. Author Jeanette Winterson offers this breathlessly poetic response:

You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)

And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.

PS You have to be brave.

Evolutionary psychologist and sociologist Robin Dunbar balances out the poetics with a scientific look at what goes on inside the brain when we love:

What happens when we fall in love is probably one of the most difficult things in the whole universe to explain. It’s something we do without thinking. In fact, if we think about it too much, we usually end up doing it all wrong and get in a terrible muddle. That’s because when you fall in love, the right side of your brain gets very busy. The right side is the bit that seems to be especially important for our emotions. Language, on the other hand, gets done almost completely in the left side of the brain. And this is one reason why we find it so difficult to talk about our feelings and emotions: the language areas on the left side can’t send messages to the emotional areas on the right side very well. So we get stuck for words, unable to describe our feelings.

But science does allow us to say a little bit about what happens when we fall in love. First of all, we know that love sets off really big changes in how we feel. We feel all light-headed and emotional. We can be happy and cry with happiness at the same time. Suddenly, some things don’t matter any more and the only thing we are interested in is being close to the person we have fallen in love with.

These days we have scanner machines that let us watch a person’s brain at work. Different parts of the brain light up on the screen, depending on what the brain is doing. When people are in love, the emotional bits of their brains are very active, lighting up. But other bits of the brain that are in charge of more sensible thinking are much less active than normal. So the bits that normally say ‘Don’t do that because it would be crazy!’ are switched off, and the bits that say ‘Oh, that would be lovely!’ are switched on.

Why does this happen? One reason is that love releases certain chemicals in our brains. One is called dopamine, and this gives us a feeling of excitement. Another is called oxytocin and seems to be responsible for the light-headedness and cosiness we feel when we are with the person we love. When these are released in large quantities, they go to parts of the brain that are especially responsive to them.

But all this doesn’t explain why you fall in love with a particular person. And that is a bit of a mystery, since there seems to be no good reason for our choices. In fact, it seems to be just as easy to fall in love with someone after you’ve married them as before, which seems the wrong way round. And here’s another odd thing. When we are in love, we can trick ourselves into thinking the other person is perfect. Of course, no one is really perfect. But the more perfect we find each other, the longer our love will last.

Big Questions from Little People is a wonderful complement to The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and is certain to give you pause about much of what you thought you knew, or at the very least rekindle that childlike curiosity about and awe at the basic fabric of the world we live in.

Originally featured in November.

WATERLIFE

I’ve been a longtime fan of independent Indian publisher Tara Books, who for the past 16 years has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books, including I Like Cats, Do!, and Tara’s crown jewel, The Night Life of Trees. But now comes what’s positively the most exquisite book I’ve ever held in my hands: Waterlife by artist Rambharos Jha, who explores the marine wonderland through vibrant Mithila art, a form of folk painting from Bihar in eastern India.

'The Lobster's Secret'

'Crocodile Smile'

'Snake Festival'

Jha writes:

I was born in the culture-rich district of Darbanga, in the Mithila region. But my father moved along with all of us to Madhubani, where he started work in a government-supported art and cultural project. This project sought to breathe new life into local art traditions and also to help artists earn a living. Since women had traditionally decorated walls and courtyards, they participated in this project in large numbers…

Living as we did in Madhubani, I had a chance to look at what they were painting. I would spend hours watching them work. I had not known of this art earlier and wondered why I was drawn to it, and what purpose there could be in my being attracted to these lines and shapes? Mixing colours and ideas, the women drew pictures that took hold of my mind.

Jha eventually learned to draw himself, initially drawing on stories from Hindu mythology and eventually moving on to more secular subjects, pursuing his own creative impulse but remaining deeply inspired by tradition.

Mithila art was originally painted on the walls of houses during festival season, but in the late 1970s, it migrated from walls to paper.

The book comes in a limited edition of 3,000 hand-numbered copies and, like all handmade Tara gems, is screen-printed by local artisans in Chennai using traditional Indian dyes, whose earthy scent you can smell as you leaf through the thick, textured pages.

Originally featured in April and part of my 2012 TED Bookstore selections.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Two more gems from Tara Books, The Great Race and Drawing from the City, also among the best art books of the year.

BEAR DESPAIR

From my friends at Enchanted Lion Books, who previously brought us such gems as Blexbolex’s People and Albertine’s Little Bird, comes Bear Despair (public library) by French illustrator Gaëtan Dorémus — an utterly lovely wordless story about what happens when you take a bear’s teddy bear.

Beneath the exquisite cross-hatched line drawings for young readers lies a familiar twinge of the all-consuming obsession we’ve all experienced, at one time or another, while grasping after a fixation.

Bear Despair is the final installment in ELB’s wonderful Stories Without Words series, which also includes Ice and The Giant Seed by Arthur Geisert and The Chicken Thief, Rooster’s Revenge and Fox and Hen Together by Béatrice Rodriguez.

Originally featured in August.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

VIRGINIA WOLF

Virginia Wolf (public library) by creative duo Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault is loosely based on the relationship between beloved author Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. The tenderly illustrated and hand-lettered little gem tells the story of Virginia, who finds herself in a “wolfish” mood, restlessly growling and howling around the house. Vanessa industriously tries to cheer her up, but to no avail, until Virginia mentions an imaginary utopia called Bloomsberry. Inspired, Vanessa sets out to paint Bloomsberry on the bedroom walls, transforming the house into a whimsical garden. Soon, Virginia finds herself wrapped up in the drawing and a curious metamorphosis fills her world.

WATERLOO & TRAFALGAR

Waterloo & Trafalgar (public library) by French illustrator extraordinaire Olivier Tallec, also from my ceaselessly wonderful neighbor Enchanted Lion Books, is a thoughtful, minimalist Cold War allegory that tells the story of two characters who watch each other observantly through the seasons across the narrow walls that separate them. As they move between day and night, glued to their binoculars and brimming with suspicion over even the most mundane of activities, they stubbornly refuse to bridge the gap between them — until, one day, a snail shows up, followed by a bird and then, suddenly, they find themselves face to face, realizing that having differences doesn’t mean they have to be foes.

Tallec’s stunning, expressive duotone illustrations capture the intricate frictions of passive-aggressive conflict with equal parts wit, poignancy, and contained eloquence. A thick, beautiful die-cut cover and cleverly placed interior die-cuts add Waterloo & Trafalgar to the kinds of books that make ebooks pale in comparison.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

THOUGHTFUL ALPHABETS

Having a soft spot for all things Edward Gorey and unusual alphabet books, I was thrilled by Pomegranate’s new edition of Thoughtful Alphabets: The Just Dessert and The Deadly Blotter (public library) — a collection of two cryptic 26-word stories, in which the word begin with the letters of the alphabet in order and the story progresses as the alphabet does in parallel.

The stories belong to a mid-90s “Thoughtful Alphabets” series, the first six volumes of which were released as hand-lettered posters illustrated with clip-art. Then, several years ago, stories numbers XI and XVII emerged as signed limited-edition books featuring Gorey’s original drawings — but the books quickly went out of print. In this beautiful resurrection, Gorey’s signature blend of wit and dark whimsy shines in each of the micro-vignettes — a fine complement to his beloved alphabet classic, The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

HONORABLE MENTION: Also from Pomegranate, Gorey’s fantastic Donald box set.

Originally featured in September.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, courtesy Pomegranate. All rights reserved.

HIPPOPPOSITES

In Hippopposites (public library), her children’s book debut, French graphic designer Janik Coat teaches the progeny of the design-inclined about opposites and basic spatial, dimensional, and aesthetic vocabulary through a minimalist red hippo-hero, who remains charmingly catatonic throughout the book. Blending Blexbolex’s unexpected parallels and contrasts with Paul Rand’s simple semiotic sensibility, Coat explores fundamental concepts in simple yet refreshing ways.

For a touch of tactile whimsy, Coat adds a delightful show-rather-than-just-tell element:

Originally featured, with more images, in May.

LITTLE BIRD

The finest picturebooks have this magical quality of speaking to young hearts with expressive simplicity, but also engaging grown-up minds with subtle reflections on what it means to be human. Such is the case of Little Bird (public library) by Swiss author-illustrator duo Germano Zullo and Albertine, published by the wonderful Enchanted Lion Books. Illustrated in Albertine’s signature style of soft, colorful minimalism, this little gem is like a beautiful silent film, only in vibrant hues and on paper.

It tells the tender story of a big-hearted man who halts his truck at a cliff’s edge. Unable to go any further, he opens the back door of his truck and a flock of birds spills out into the air, leaving behind a tiny, timid black bird. Surprised and delighted by the little loyalist, the man befriends the bird.

The two have lunch together and, eventually, the man tries to encourage the bird to fly off and join the others by attempting a comic demonstration of flight himself.

The humorous situation deepens the tenderness between the two creatures and soon the bird departs, the man drives away, and the story seems to end — but! — just as the truck trails off into the distance, we see the little black bird come back after it, followed by his colorful friends in a lyrical moment of belonging lost and found. “The small things are treasures,” writes Zullo. “True treasures.”

There are no greater treasures than the little things.

The entire story unfolds with few words and primary colors, but mesmerizes with its evocative honesty and gentle sophistication, inviting readers of all ages to look again and again as we rediscover our inner child’s gift for finding infinite beauty and curiosity in the little things.

A lovely quote from an e. e. cummings poem graces the first page:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living

Korean designer Young-jun Kim created this charming animation based on the book:

UPDATE: Sadly, the Swiss publisher of the book (not Enchanted Lion Books, the U.S. publisher) has had the video removed. Remix culture still fares poorly in the old world…

Little Bird was originally written in French and translated by my brilliant friend Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books.

Originally featured in May.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books / Albertine

THE CATS OF COPENHAGEN

As a connoisseur of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, I already knew that James Joyce had penned the charming 1965 picture-book The Cat and the Devil, based on a 1936 letter to his most beloved audience, his grandson Stephen. So imagine my delight at the news of a posthumous Joyce children’s release, The Cats of Copenhagen (public library) — a never-before-published short story also based on a letter to Stephen.

In August 1936, Joyce mailed his grandson “a little cat filled with sweets” — a sort of candy mule designed to outwit Stephen’s parents. “Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen,” Joyce wrote Stephen from Denmark a month later in a wonderfully playful, mischievous letter that unfolded into a whimsical tale. The short story, illustrated by Casey Sorrow in a style reminiscent of Edward Gorey and beautifully typeset by book artist Michael Caine, was only recently rediscovered and makes an offbeat but characteristically masterful addition to Joyce’s well-known body of work.

The preface speaks to Joyce’s love of cats, a kind of bonding agent for him and his grandson — because, after all, what great writer doesn’t know the creative power of a cat:

Exquisite, minuscule, and with strong, almost anarchic subtext, The Cats of Copenhagen is a slightly younger twin sister to The Cat and the Devil, the only other known example of James Joyce’s writing a story for young children. Both works, written within a few weeks of each other, are in letters posted to stephen James Joyce, his only grandchild. Clearly, cats were a common currency between them: cats, and their common need to have somebody around to help them cross the road.

[…]

Like many otherwise sensible people, James Joyce detested, even loathed, dogs; but he thought the world of cats. In the first chapter of Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom appears, the very first conversation is between a hungry feline and a kind-hearted Bloom.

Originally featured in November.

BONUS: KUSAMA’S ALICE

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass endure as some of history’s most beloved children’s storytelling, full of timeless philosophy for grown-ups and inspiration for computing pioneers. The illustrations that have accompanied Lewis Carroll’s classics over the ages have become iconic in their own right, from Leonard Weisgard’s stunning artwork for the first color edition of the book to Salvador Dali’s little-known but breathtaking version. Now, from Penguin UK and Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, comes a striking contender for the most visually captivating take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland yet — and one of the year’s best art books.

Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.

Originally featured, with more photos and a trailer, in April.

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