Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

03 MARCH, 2015

Special Delivery: A Sweet Children’s Book Starring a Heroine Partway Between Eloise and Amelia Earhart

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A mischievous reminder that nothing is insurmountable in the conveyance of a loving gesture.

Virginia Woolf called letter writing “the humane art” and Lewis Carroll saw in it an invitation to be more civil to one another. There is, indeed, something deeply humanizing and civilizing not only about the act of setting contemplative thought down to paper for another mind to contemplate in turn, but also about the chain of human touch relaying that message, heart to hand to heart, from sender to receiver via postal worker. And yet we live in an age where such correspondence has fallen out of favor as we co-react with the click of a Send button — so much so, that the very prospect of sending a real letter seems like a gargantuan task that few care to undertake.

In Special Delivery (public library), Caldecott-winning author Philip C. Stead and illustrator Matthew Cordell wink at our relationship with correspondence by making that seemingly gargantuan task literally so. They tell the story of little Sadie — a brave, single-minded, will-do-whatever-it-takes heroine partway between Eloise and Amelia Earhart — who decides to mail her beloved Great-Aunt Josephine an elephant, because Josephine “lives almost completely alone” and “could really use the company.”

When Sadie discovers that stuffing the elephant in a mailbox wouldn’t work, she heads to the post office to mail him as an oversized package.

“Please be gentle with him. So do not bend him, or drop him, or shake him much at all. He is fragile and very easily might break,” she instructs the postmaster, who proceeds to inform her that she’d need to buy an impossible number of stamps to mail such a large package.

Determined to get the elephant to her Great-Aunt, Sadie decides to borrow her neighbor Mary’s plane. (In a culture where only 31% of children’s books feature female protagonists, one can’t help but be heartened by Stead’s cast of courageous women.)

But the plan crashes as the plane does, and Sadie and her elephant land in the middle of the jungle.

Unperturbed, Sadie asks the Alligator for a ride down the river, promising to someday mail him a real letter with “a giant stick of bubble gum” inside, as a token of gratitude.

With her large friend in tow, Sadie hops on a train and imagines braving bandits.

A train will get us there quickly, and anyway it’s nice to see new things.

Finally, she gets a lift from the ice cream truck and makes it to Josephine, who awaits her surrounded by other mysterious packages and fanciful wild animals.

As the two embrace, Josephine offers her great-niece a cup of restorative hot chocolate, but Sadie insists on getting one urgent matter out of the way first. Squatting on the ground, with a box of gum by her side, she pens a “real letter” — a young woman of her word.

Special Delivery is an absolute delight, emanating Charlotte Zolotow’s quietly mischievous storytelling and Jules Feiffer’s expressive sensibility, and yet entirely original. Complement it with a very different but at least as touching tale of bravery and friendship starring alligators.

Illustrations courtesy of Macmillan; photographs my own

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23 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Velveteen Rabbit, Reimagined with Uncommon Tenderness by Beloved Japanese Illustrator Komako Sakai

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A tender tale of how the soft bonds of love confer realness upon our existence.

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in his exquisite 1950s meditation on becoming who you are. But as is the case with life’s most enduring perplexities, this wisdom was best delivered three decades earlier, not by a philosopher but by a children’s book author. “Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you,” Margery Williams wrote in 1922 in what would become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, part of the canon that contains such masterworks as The Little Prince, Winnie the Pooh, and Where the Wild Things Are.

This quiet aliveness of truth and tenderness is what Japanese illustrator Komako Sakai brings to a bewitching and unusual adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit (public library) nearly a century later — the loveliest take on the Williams classic since Maurice Sendak’s little-known 1960 illustrations.

Timeless as the book may be, it is also one of extraordinary timeliness today — a story that speaks to our deepest anxieties about the effects of technological progress on our humanity.

A soft stuffed rabbit is given to a little boy at Christmas, enjoyed for a fleeting moment, then quickly ignored in favor of other gifts far more modern and mechanical — wind-up toys that move like the real-life objects they miniaturize.

And yet when the wise old Skin Horse — the oldest toy in the nursery — assures the rabbit that toys are made real by children’s love, and the rabbit is emboldened by this notion despite feeling at a grave disadvantage compared to the modern toys, we too are reminded that however the cultural odds are stacked, our imperfect humanity is not merely the thing that makes life livable but the only thing that makes it worth living.

After the little boy’s Nana gives him the humble toy one restless night, the Velveteen Rabbit grows to be his most beloved companion.

They become inseparable — the boy even brings his soft friend into the woods behind the house, where one day the Velveteen Rabbit meets a pair of wild rabbits. Perplexed by his stiffness, they tease him about not being “Real” — he can’t even hop! — but although the taunting hurts him, the Velveteen Rabbit takes comfort in knowing that the little boy thinks he is Real, and loves him, and that’s realness enough.

Ever so gently, another subtle and profound undercurrent emerges — the finitude of childhood and the impermanence of life itself.

When the boy falls ill, the Velveteen Rabbit is by his side as doctors and parents hover anxiously. And when the boy recovers, the doctor instructs the boy’s mother to burn all of his belongings — books, toys, and especially that bedraggled stuffed rabbit — that may have been infected during his illness.

As the Velveteen Rabbit awaits his heartbreaking fate in a sack at the end of the garden, drowned in wistful reminiscence about all the joyful moments he and the little boy shared over the years, one very real tear rolls down his cheek and drops to the ground.

Why should it all end like this for someone who had been loved so much and become Real?

And then something magical happens — a flower emerges from the ground where the tear had fallen, and it blossoms to reveal the beautiful nursery fairy, who takes care of the most beloved toys after their children outgrow them.

With one kiss on the nose, the fairy transforms the Velveteen Rabbit into a Real rabbit — real not only to the boy who loved him, but real to the world, to all who judge the realness of others.

The seasons turn and when spring arrives again, the little boy treks back into the woods, where he has a strange and wonderful encounter with a wild rabbit that looks remarkably like his beloved lost toy. The rabbit looks at the boy, and the boy at the rabbit, they are elevated in a quiet moment of recognition — the mutual beholding of another’s realness of which all love is made.

Sakai’s take on The Velveteen Rabbit comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion, maker of some of the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books of our time — including such endlessly rewarding treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, The Jacket, and Wednesday.

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18 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Magic Boat: Brilliant Vintage “Interactive” Children’s Book by Freud’s Eccentric Niece Named Tom

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Visionary interactive storytelling designed to “delight and surprise,” with human tragedy on the side.

As a lover of vintage children’s books and analog “interactive” treasures, I was delighted to discover the unusual 1929 gem The Magic Boat: A Book to Turn and Move (public library) — a collection of poems, stories, puzzles, and interactive games designed to “delight and surprise” by Austrian illustrator, Art Nouveau artist, and children’s book author Tom Seidmann-Freud (November 17, 1892–February 7, 1930).

The book is remarkable for a number of reasons, including the author’s last name — while it’s reasonable to guess that Tom was related to the Freud, it’s rather surprising to find out that Tom was indeed the legendary psychoanalyst’s eccentric niece Martha, born Gertrud Martha Freud, who adopted a male first name and began wearing men’s clothing at the age of 15. In her late twenties, Tom met and fell in love with the writer Jacob (Jankew) Seidmann, and the two had a daughter. In 1929, Jacob’s publishing venture failed and he committed suicide. Several months later, Tom too took her own life. She wrote and illustrated The Magic Boat during that final year. A new edition was released in 1981 but the book is, sadly, no longer in print.

From a series of inventive word games to an unusual take on Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare to a promiscuous punching face-off, here is a woman whose ingenious interactive storytelling and paper engineering predated Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes by more than eight decades and Bruno Munari’s pioneering masterworks by three.

As I tend to do on occasion with such interactive vintage treasures, I’ve adapted the book’s movable magic in animated GIFs — which, of course, are not a substitute for its analog whimsy but, in lieu of surviving copies, a fun friendly ghost.

A pull-tab game of “Punch Judy” pits eight opponents — a sultan, a devil, a grandmother, a rich man, a Turk, a crocodile, a jester, and Judy — in sixteen possible punch-pairings.

The story after which the book is titled is a fable about a Chinese man who catches fish that magically transform into other things as soon as he pulls them onto his boat. But as soon as he takes his boat ashore, the magic disappears and all the wild characters transmogrify back into fish. To preserve this irresistible excitement, the old fisherman decides to live the rest of his life on the boat. Passers-by gather every day on the bridge to watch, bemarveled, as he catches fish that turn into “all kinds of wonderful things.” One can’t help but see a parallel to Tom’s own life in this story — a tale of transforming one’s assigned version of reality and choosing to live in that magical new version despite the real world’s disenchanted demands.

Complement The Magic Boat, which is hard but not impossible to find, with a graphic biography of the author’s famous uncle and this delightful vintage pop-up book about Leonardo’s life.

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