Brain Pickings

Inside the Rainbow: Gorgeous Vintage Russian Children’s Book Illustrations from the 1920s-1930s

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“A lovely primary-colored geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun.”

Since the golden age of children’s literature in mid-century America and Europe, we’ve seen children’s books used for purveying everything from philosophy to propaganda to science. But two decades before this Western surge of design innovation and conceptual experimentation in children’s books, a thriving scene of literature and art for young readers was taking root on the other side of the soon-to-be Iron Curtain. Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times (public library), edited by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, collects the most vibrant masterpieces of Russian children’s literature from the short but pivotal period between 1920 and 1935 — a time-capsule of the ambitious aesthetic and imaginative ideology that burned bright for a few brief moments before the onset of communism cast down its uniform grayness.

Philip Pullman, who knows a thing or two about the permeating power of children’s storytelling, writes in the foreword:

The world of Russian children’s illustrated books in the first twenty years or so of Soviet rule is almost incomparably rich. What were they doing, these commissars and party secretaries, to allow this wonderland of modern art to grow under their very noses? I expect the rule that applies to children’s books was just as deeply interiorized in the Soviet Union as it has been in the rest of the world: they don’t matter. They can be ignored. They’re not serious.

(Coincidentally, Neil Gaiman recently lamented that “there is [no] such a thing as a bad book for children. … Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading.”)

Pullman contrasts the distinctive, indigenous style of this Russian book art with its Western counterparts from the same era:

The kind of modern art that lives so vigorously and joyously in these pages is, of course, one with a Russian ancestry. There is no Cubism here … no Post-Impressionism … no Dada. What there is is Constructivism, and plenty of it, and of its metaphysical parent, Suprematism. Basic geometrical shapes, the square, the circle, the rectangle, are everywhere; flat primary colors dominate.

And yet, conceptually, many of these illustrations find — and often presage — certain Western counterparts. Take, for instance, these spreads from Boris Ermolenko’s 1930 visual taxonomy of occupations, Special Clothing, which call to mind beloved French illustrator Blebolex’s book People, one of the best children’s books of 2011:

Among the visual ephemera are also some instructional manuals on child-rearing and child-care, like this list of tips on upbringing found in the reception rooms of Crèches and the Museums of Mother and Child — a curious mix of practical common sense, questionable advice, and timeless, remarkably timely wisdom:

HINTS ON UPBRINGING

It is very hard to give due education to a single child, for a child needs the company of others his own age. Never take a child to motion pictures or the theatre.

Do not carry a child in your arms for any length of time; he must move.

Do not help a child who is in a difficult situation unless it be dangerous; he must learn to care for himself. If you are ill, upset or unhappy, do not let the child feel it.

Never whip, kick, or spit on a child.

Parents and elders should agree on what is allowed to and forbidden to children. It is bad to have one parent allow what the other forbids

A well-balanced routine makes a child grow healthy and accustoms him to organized social life.

Teach a child to work for others.

Understand and take part in a child’s happiness and sorrow, and he will come to you when he needs you. Do not disturb a child while he plays, or he will disturb you while you work.

If a child is annoyed with a toy, take it away and give it to him after he has forgotten his grievance.

Be careful of any trifle which a child considers a toy, even though it may only be a piece of wood or a stone.

Not everything you see in the toyshop is a good toy. Before buying a toy, see if you have anything in the house which will serve the same purpose.

Never forbid a child to play with other healthy children.

Do not tell stories to a child before he goes to sleep, for you will disturb him with new impressions.

Do not awaken a child without need when he should be sleeping.

Fresh air is as necessary in a child’s room in winter as in summer.

A child should be given a chance to urinate before and after sleeping.

Do not allow a child to stay up later than eight o’clock in the evening.

Sleep for a child under three years of age is as necessary during the day as during the night.

Each child must sleep in an individual bed; and each bed must consist of a hair mattress, an oilcloth, a pillow, blankets and sheets.

A child must spend between three and four hours outdoors each day, and, if he is old enough, he should walk during that time.

Some of the most charming pieces explore the burgeoning world of transportation:

Then there are the sheer, unmediated delights, such as Kornei Chukovsky’s playful 1927 poetry book The Telephone.

It begins:

Ting-a-ling-a-ling… A telephone ring! “Hallo! Hallo!”
“Who are you?” “Jumbo Joe,
“I live at the zoo!” “What can I do?” “Send me some jam For my little Sam.” “Do you want a lot?” “A five-ton pot,
And send me some cake — The poor little boy
Has swallowed a toy
And his tummy will ache If he gets no cake.”
“How many tons of cake will you take?” “Only a score.
He won’t be able to eat any more –
My little Sam is only four!”
And after a while
A crocodile rang from the Nile:
“I will be ever so jolly
If you send us a pile
Of rubber galoshes –
The kind that one washes –
For me and my wife and for Molly!”
“You’re talking too fast! Why, the week before last I posted ten pair
Of galoshes by air.”
“Now, doctor, be steady!
We’ve eaten already
The pile that you posted!
We ate them all roasted,
And the dish it was simply delicious, So everyone wishes
You would send to the Nile
A still bigger pile
That would do for a dozen more dishes.”

What’s most striking about these vibrant, colorful, exuberant images and verses, however, is their stark contrast to the cultural context in which they were born — alongside them we find grim photographs of desolate little faces in shabby schoolrooms, the faces of a generation that would be soon engulfed by communism’s dark descend. And yet these children’s books, Pullman marvels, emanate “a lovely primary-colored geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun” — a light at once heartening as a glimmer of generational hope and bittersweet against the historical backdrop of the oppressive regime that would eventually extinguish it as communism sought to purge the collective conscience of whimsy and imaginative sentimentality.

Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times is an absolute treasure trove, both as a portable museum of magnificent graphic design and as a time-capsule of a pivotal moment in world history. Complement it with these vintage Soviet art and propaganda posters from the same era.

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