Brain Pickings

Little Boy Brown: The Loveliest Ode to Childhood and Loneliness Ever Written, Illustrated by Legendary Graphic Designer André François

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A timeless story of humanity and belonging, wrapped in a charming time-capsule of a bygone era.

“I didn’t feel alone in the Lonely Crowd,” young Italo Calvino wrote of his visit to America, and it is frequently argued that hardly any place embodies the “Lonely Crowd” better than New York, city of “avoid-eye-contact indifference of the crowded subways.” That, perhaps, is what children’s book writer Isobel Harris set out to both affirm and decondition in Little Boy Brown (public library) — a magnificent ode to childhood and loneliness, easily the greatest ode to childhood and loneliness ever written, illustrated by the famed Hungarian-born French cartoonist and graphic designer André François. Originally published in 1949, this timeless story that stirred the hearts of generations has been newly resurrected by the wonderful Claudia Zoe Bedrick, whose Brooklyn-based indie picture-book publisher Enchanted Lion has given us such heartening gems as Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Blexbolex’s Ballad, Seasons, and People, the breathtaking My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, and the boundlessly soul-stirring Little Bird.

This is the tale of a four-year-old boy living with his well-to-do mother and father in a Manhattan hotel, in which the elevator connects straight to the subway tunnel below the building and plugs right into the heart of the city. And yet Little Boy Brown, whose sole friends are the doormen and elevator operators, feels woefully lonely — until, one day, his hotel chambermaid Hilda invites him to visit her house outside the city, where he blossoms into a new sense of belonging.

Underpinning the charming tale of innocence and children’s inborn benevolence is a heart-warming message about connection across the lines of social class and bridging the gaps of privilege with simple human kindness.

Hilda’s mother kissed me before she even knew who I was!

[…]

Hilda’s family is smarter than we are. They can all speak two different languages, and they can close their eyes and think about two different countries. They’ve been on the Ocean, and they’ve climbed high mountains. They haven’t got quite enough of anything. It makes it exciting when a little more comes!

The story itself, at once a romantic time-capsule of a bygone New York and a timeless meditation on what it’s like feel so lonesome in a crowd of millions, invites us to explore the tender intersection of loneliness and loveliness. François, who studied with Picasso, illustrated a number of iconic New Yorker covers, and belongs to the same coterie of influential mid-century creative legends as Sir Quentin Blake, Tomi Ungerer, and his close friend and collaborator of Ronald Searle, brings all this wonderful dimensionality to life in his singular illustrations, all the more special given this was his first children’s book.

Immeasurably wonderful, Little Boy Brown is without exaggeration one of the loveliest picture-books of all time, with layers upon layers of meaning rediscovered with every read and each new look at François’s infinitely expressive illustrated vignettes, to which the screen does absolutely no justice.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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