Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

20 OCTOBER, 2014

Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical: A Minimalist Picture-Book about How We Become Who We Are

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A brilliant conceptual graphic story about how we get our stripes of character and identity.

It is said that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” But it depends perhaps even more on who loved each other before they came to love us — parenting shapes not only our psychological constitution, from our capacity for fertile solitude to our relationship with achievement, but perhaps most palpably our physical. Genetics bestows its blessings and curses upon us with more uncompromising despotism than any of the other cards we’re dealt in life.

How parents shape our own becoming is the premise, explored with remarkable subtlety and ingenuity, behind Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical (public library) by French writer Noémie Révah and Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli — a conceptual, minimalist, maximally delightful graphic book that calls to mind Norton Juster’s vintage classic The Dot and the Line in its geometric metaphors for temperament, yet is completely original in both substance and style.

It is also a beautiful celebration of art and science — the idea was inspired by French poet and photographer René Maltête’s iconic image of a boardwalk-strolling family’s visual metaphor for genetics:

We meet Mister Horizontal, who “loves everything that glides” and “a warm soak in a big bathtub” and “walking in the desert, with sand as far as the eye can see.”

We meet Miss Vertical, who loves “looping through the air” and “is crazy about rockets” and “can often be found on staircases.”

Zagnoli — who also illustrated a recent exquisite edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — uses flat primary colors to bring bewitching dimension to Révah’s words.

After listing all of Mister Horizontal and Miss Vertical’s varied likes, the final pages ask:

Now what do you think…

…their child would love?

On a subtler level, the book is also a reminder that we are the combinatorial product not only of our parents but of what William Gibson so memorably called our “personal micro-culture” — that we become who we are in large part based on whom we surround ourselves with.

Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical is an immeasurable delight to have and to hold. It comes from the wonderful Brooklyn-based indie picture-book publisher Enchanted Lion Books, an unending source of treasures like the immeasurably tender The Lion and the Bird, the lyrical Fox’s Garden, the vintage gem Little Boy Brown, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, and the imaginative geometric allegory Wednesday.

For a very different perspective on the metaphorical geometry of parenting, see Andrew Solomon on “horizontal” vs. “vertical” identity.

Illustrations courtesy of Olimpia Zagnoli / Enchanted Lion Books; photographs my own

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17 OCTOBER, 2014

A Stocking for a Kitten: Beautiful Vintage Children’s Book Illustrations of Domestic Life in Eastern Europe

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Entitlement, empathy, and ethics, with a large helping of grandmotherly love.

Every summer during my childhood, my parents would ship me off to my maternal grandmother in rural Bulgaria — a land of colorful rugs and handcrafted pottery and grandmothers constantly knitting mittens and stockings and scarves. It seems like a different lifetime now, but those memories were brought back with vitalizing vividness when I chanced upon the 1965 gem A Stocking for a Kitten (public library) — a sweet out-of-print children’s book by Helen Kay, featuring exquisite illustrations of Eastern European domestic life by New York City-born artist Yaroslava.

The story follows little Tanya, who watches her Babushka sit knitting stockings for the grandchildren all day long. As Christmas approaches, one of Tanya’s sisters, Olga, grows impatient — entitled, even — and demands that Babushka hurry up with the knitting so her new stockings would be done already. Babushka takes this as a good opportunity to teach the little girl about patience — a recurring theme in children’s books from that era, it seems — by refusing to complete the stockings until Olga has learned some forbearance and humility. (And as anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe can tell you, negative reinforcement is the name of the game in disciplining there — whether by grandparents or by the government.)

Meanwhile, Tanya puts Babushka’s strike to constructive use and convinces the grandmother to teach her to knit, so that the little girl could make a pair of stockings for her kitten.

In the end, Tanya is overcome with compassion for her sister and stays up all night, finishing Olga’s stockings herself. But in the meantime, the kitten does what kittens do, producing a series of entertaining domestic misadventures.

While the story is decidedly heartwarming — there is entitlement and empathy and even ethics, alongside a large helping of grandmotherly love — it is Yaroslava’s striking art, shaped by her lifelong interest in Slavic folklore, that makes the book so captivating. It is also a gentle reminder that so much of human culture has historically taken place in the domestic sphere, where women make things in rooms, with selflessness, with passion, with quiet integrity.

A Stocking for a Kitten is out of print but well worth the hunt. Complement it with the delightful Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book.

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16 OCTOBER, 2014

Umbrella: A Tender Illustrated Love Letter to Time, Anticipation, and the Art of Waiting by Mid-Century Japanese Artist Taro Yashima

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A beautiful and subtle ode to the fleeting moment between a bird and a balloon.

Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu (1908–1994) was already a successful artist in Japan when he and his wife, Tamao, also an artist, arrived in New York City in 1939 to study at the esteemed Art Students League. Shortly after their arrival, the United States declared war on Japan. Iwamatsu enlisted in the American Army and joined the Office of War Information and in the Office of Strategic Services as an artist. He adopted the pseudonym Taro Yashima in order to protect his remaining family in Japan — notably, his young son Mako, who had remained with his grandparents. When the war ended, the family retrieved Mako from Japan, welcomed a new baby girl named Momo, and was granted permanent residence thanks to a new bill enacted by Congress. But Iwamatsu kept his pseudonym and it was under it that he created some of the most lyrical and imaginative mid-century children’s books. The loveliest among them is the 1958 gem Umbrella (public library) — the story of a young Japanese girl born in New York City, modeled and named after Yashima’s own daughter, who receives a riveting pair of red rain boots and a blue umbrella for her birthday and grows restless for a rainy day on which to strut the gifts.

Behind Yashima’s immeasurably tender illustrations and crisp words is a subtler symbolic narrative about patience, the art of delay, what happens when we bring active attention to everyday life, and time’s remarkable tendency to slow down when we most want it to speed up.

When the coveted rainy day finally arrives amid New York’s Indian summer, Momo is so excited that she slips the boots onto her bare feet and rushes out the door, seeing afresh the familiar raindrops bouncing on the pavement.

On the umbrella,
raindrops made a wonderful music
she never had heard before —

Bon polo
bon polo
ponpolo ponpolo
ponpolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo

Though the story ends with Momo as “a big girl now,” a grown woman who has forgotten the story of the umbrella and that rainy day, Yashima leaves us with a subtle, ingenious wink at the small, imperceptible changes that make up the continuity of our lives — the bird and the balloon depicted on the book’s front endpapers have switched places by the back endpapers, bookending a fleeting slice of life amid the urban landscape. A brief moment has come and gone, just like all the micro-moments of which the totality of a life is woven, moments that begin to count only when we learn to live with presence.

Umbrella is immeasurably wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with Little Boy Brown, a very different yet equally rewarding mid-century ode to loneliness and childhood in New York City.

Thanks, Daneet

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