Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

26 JANUARY, 2015

The Quiet Book: An Illustrated Love Letter to Life’s Meaningful Pauses

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A sweet celebration of the nuanced stillnesses that comprise aliveness.

“There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos,” wrote Paul Goodman in his sublime taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence.

If silence’s sister faculty — solitude — is partway between apathetic extinction and deliberate eradication because we’re failing to cultivate childhood’s essential capacity for “fertile solitude,” then it follows that the survival of silence depends in large part on cultivating a healthy relationship with it, as well as a deep appreciation of its many gifts, in childhood.

That’s precisely what writer Deborah Underwood and illustrator Renata Liwska set out to do, with great subtlety and sensitivity, in The Quiet Book (public library) — a gentle reminder that, despite what our culture of compulsive stimulation may have led us to believe, silence is itself the stuff of substance; the moments it fills are not the inbetweenery of life but life itself — rich and nuanced and irrepressibly, if quietly, alive.

There is the wistful (“last one to get picked up from school quiet”), the mischievous (“thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet”), the tender (“sleeping sister quiet”), the enraptured (“first snowfall quiet”), and all kinds of other quietudes that call to mind Maira Kalman’s beautiful and evocative phrase “the moments inside the moments inside the moments.” Liwska’s delicate illustrations, inspired by vintage Polish poster art and yet unmistakably, singularly her own, deepen and make more dimensional Underwood’s already bewitching words.

What emerges is at once a Goodnight Moon for a new generation and a modern celebration of adulthood’s increasingly endangered art of seeking out those pockets of stillness where, as Wendell Berry memorably put it, “one’s inner voices become audible.”

Complement The Quiet Book with Christopher Ricks’s bewitching reading of Goodman’s nine silences, then revisit Bertrand Russell on why happiness is contingent on our capacity for “fruitful monotony” — for what is quietude if not a supreme monotony of sound that enlivens the soul?

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23 JANUARY, 2015

Little Tree: An Uncommonly Beautiful and Subtle Japanese Pop-Up Book about the Cycle of Life

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“No one notices such a small presence…”

Pop-up books have a singular magic, but even the pioneering vintage “interactive” picture-books of Italian graphic designer Bruno Munari can’t compare to the beauty, subtlety, and exquisite elegance of those by Japanese graphic designer and book artist Katsumi Komagata.

When his daughter was born in 1990, Komagata expanded his graphic design studio, One Stroke, into publishing and began making extraordinary picture-books — including some particularly thoughtful and beguiling masterpieces for children with disabilities, from tactile pop-up gems to sign-language stories.

In 2008, Komagata released Little Tree (public library) — a most unusual and immeasurably wonderful story tracing the life-cycle of a single tree as it explores, with great subtlety and sensitivity, deeper themes of impermanence and the cycle of all life.

I received this delicate treasure as a gift from a dear friend, who had met Komagata at the Guadalajara International Book Fair. The book, she said, was inspired by a young child struggling with making sense of life and death after the loss of a beloved father, one of Komagata’s own dear friends.

On each spread of this whimsical trilingual story — told in Japanese, French, and English — a different stage of the tree’s growth unfolds, beginning with the tiny promise of a seedling poking through the snow.

No one notices such a small presence … be still here in the snow

Slowly, it grows into the recognizable shape of a tree and makes its way through the season — shy leaves greet the world in spring, a lush crown bathes in summer’s sunshine and turns a warm yellow, then a glowing red, as autumn embraces it.

A family of birds packs its nest, preparing to fly away for the winter.

When winter descends — that philosophical staple of intelligent children’s books — the mood darkens.

Clouds cover the sky
The wind blows hard, almost breaking the branches
Sheets of rain fill the darkness … be still here in the dark

But spring eventually returns, and the whole cycle repeats and repeats, until the tree grows “tall enough to look around when at the beginning it was too small and everything was big.”

Indeed, the book is very much a study in perspective — the existential through the spatial — as the tree’s height increases and its shadow shifts. With his gentle genius, Komagata casts the shadows of all peripheral characters and objects — a street lamp, a man walking his dog, a bird — not from the perspective of the reader but from that of the tree, appearing upside-down on the page. (To capture Komagata’s intended vignettes, I photographed the book from the top of the page facing down, following the tree’s viewpoint.)

And so the cycle of life continues — a new crow takes the nest built by last year’s bird, and as it observes these rhythms, the tree’s “point of view keeps changing.”

The man who lost a friend lays a flower down
It can’t be helped … be still here

But as wistful as the story is, the book is ultimately optimistic — a beautiful allegory for the same notion found in Rilke’s philosophy of befriending death in order to live more fully. At the end, the seed spurs a new turn of the cycle of life, going back to the beginning.

The seed was carried somewhere unknown
Surely it will exist for someone even though no one notices such a small presence at the beginning

Couple Little Tree — which, sadly, is almost impossible to find outside Japan — with an exploration of what the world’s oldest trees teach us about life and death, then revisit Thea’s Tree, an imaginative ode to daydreaming from another part of the world, and The River, a very different but no less bewitching perspective on seasonality and the flow of life.

Update: The book is now available from a French publisher.

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22 JANUARY, 2015

Control, Surrender and the Paradox of Self-Transcendence: Wisdom from a Vintage Scandinavian Children’s Book

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“It’s a pity that exciting things always stop happening when you’re not afraid of them anymore and would like to have a little fun.”

“It is the first thing any one has to learn in order to live,” Henry Miller wrote in comparing the art of living to dance, driven by rhythm into which the dancer must relax. “It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender, full surrender.” Surrender, it turns out, is an essential part of testing the limits, which is in turn an essential part of transcending them — in other words, the raw material of creative breakthroughs. But the beautiful term that Jeanette Winterson used to describe the experience of letting art transform us — “the paradox of active surrender” — applies just as aptly to the art of living itself: Paradoxical as it may sound, to stop resisting that which we cannot control is the only choice we have, but it is also one we must actively make in order to transcend our limits.

That’s what beloved Scandinavian children’s book author and artist Tove Jansson (1914–2001) explores with imaginative insight and sensitivity in Moominland Midwinter (public library) — the same deeply delightful and subtly philosophical vintage fable that gave us Jansson’s quiet wisdom on uncertainty, presence, and self-reliance.

Toward the end of the story, Jansson’s iconic Moomintroll protagonist finds himself elevated by the spirit of sauntering amid the wintry wonderland:

He felt more and more unburdened as he walked along. In the end he was nearly exhilarated. He started to whistle and kicked a lump of ice with great skill along his path. And then it slowly started to snow.

But the picturesque snowfall soon transmogrifies into a terrifying tempest:

The sky darkened suddenly again. Moomintroll, who had never seen a blizzard, expected a thunderstorm and braced himself against the first claps of thunder that he thought would soon ring out.

But no thunder came, and no lightning either.

Instead a small whirl of snow rose from the white cap on one of the boulders by the shore.

Worried gusts of wind were rushing to and fro over the ice and whispering in the wood by the shore. The dark-blue wall rose higher, and the gusts became stronger.

Suddenly it was as if a great door had blown wide open, the darkness yawned, and everything was filled with wet, flying snow.

This time it didn’t come from above, it darted along the ground, it was howling and shoving like a living thing… Time and all the world were lost. Everything he could feel and look at had blown away, and only a bewitched whirl of damp and dancing darkness was left. Any sensible person could have told him that this was the very moment when the long spring was born.

But there didn’t happen to be any sensible person on the shore, but only a confused Moomin crawling on all fours against the wind, in a totally wrong direction. He crawled and crawled, and the snow bunged up his eyes and formed a little drift on his nose.

A different kind of storm begins to rage in Moomintroll himself — that great and despairing fury with which we shake our fists at the sky when life doesn’t go our way; that defiant resistance with which we tense against what happens to us, taking it so very personally and refusing to surrender to the impersonal twists of a universe driven by chance and chaos. Jansson captures this inner tumult with exquisite elegance:

Moomintroll became more and more convinced that this was a trick the winter had decided to play on him, with the intention of showing him simply that he couldn’t stand it.

First it had taken him in by its beautiful curtain of slowly falling flakes, and then it threw all the beautiful snow in his face at the very moment he believed that he had started to like winter.

By and by Moomintroll became angry.

He straightened up and tried to shout at the gale. He hit out against the snow and also whimpered a little, as there was nobody to hear him.

And then, when his inner fury reaches its absolute crescendo and yet proves itself absolutely futile in abating the storm, Moomintroll does something radical — something that is always our only option in the face of that which we cannot change or control, not so much a choice as a last reflex: He surrenders. And, in Jansson’s story as in life itself, this becomes his moment of self-transcendence — “the paradox of active surrender”:

He turned his back to the blizzard and stopped fighting it.

Not until then did Moomintroll notice that the wind felt warm. It carried him along into the whirling snow, it made him feel light and almost like flying.

“I’m nothing but air and wind, I’m part of the blizzard,” Moomintroll thought and let himself go. “It’s almost like last summer. You first fight the waves, then you turn around and ride the surf, sailing along like a cork among the little rainbows of the foam, and land laughing and just a little frightened in the sand.”

Moomintroll spread out his arms and flew… And the winter danced him all along the snowy shore, until he stumbled across the snowed-up landing stage and plowed his nose through a snowdrift.

When he looks up, Moomintroll finds himself in the warm safety of his destination, but then mutters wryly, “a little crestfallen”:

It’s a pity that exciting things always stop happening when you’re not afraid of them anymore and would like to have a little fun.

Moominland Midwinter is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, full of countless such subtle yet intensely shrewd insights into the perplexities of the human experience. Complement it with Jansson’s The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My, one of the greatest children’s books of all time, and her philosophical Moomin comics on identity, belonging, and why we join groups, then revisit her rare vintage illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit.

For another beautiful meditation on this most uncooperative of seasons, see Rilke on what winter teaches us about the tenacity of the human spirit.

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19 JANUARY, 2015

How Jane Goodall Turned Her Childhood Dream into Reality: A Sweet Illustrated Story of Purpose and Deep Determination

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A heartening testament to the power of undivided intention.

“One should want only one thing and want it constantly,” young André Gide half-observed, half-resolved in his journal. “Then one is sure of getting it.” More than a century later, Werner Herzog wrote passionately of the “uninvited duty” that a sense of purpose plants in the heart, leaving one with “no choice but to push on.” That combination of desiring something with inextinguishable intensity — which begins with letting your life speak and daring to listen — and pursuing it with steadfast doggedness is perhaps the single common thread in the lives of those we most admire as luminaries of enduring genius. It is also at the heart of what it means to find your purpose and live it.

As a lover of illustrated biographies of cultural icons — such as those of Pablo Neruda, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian — I was thrilled to stumble upon a wonderful take on the early life of one of my greatest heroes, Jane Goodall, and how she came to live the dream that bewitched her at a young age. In Me…Jane (public library), celebrated cartoonist, author, and animal rights advocate Patrick McDonnell tells the story of how the seed planted by a childhood dream blossomed, under the generous beams of deep dedication, into the reality of a purposeful life.

McDonnell’s protagonist is not Jane Goodall the widely influential and wildly revered elder of science and peace — one of a handful of people in history to have both the titles Dame and Doctor, and the subject of a very different illustrated biography — but little Jane, the ten-year-old girl who decided that she was going to work with animals in Africa when she grew up and, despite her family’s poverty, despite living in an era when girls were not encouraged to live the life of science or adventure, despite nearly everyone telling her that it was impossible, turned her dream into reality.

With simple, enormously expressive illustrations and an eloquent economy of words, McDonnell — creator of the beloved MUTTS comic strip — begins at the very beginning: that fateful day when little Jane was given a stuffed monkey named Jubilee.

Jane and Jubilee became inseparable, and she shared with him everything she loved — especially the outdoors. Together, they watched the birds and the spiders and the squirrels fill the backyard with aliveness.

At night, Jane and Jubilee read books to better understand what they saw.

One day, tickled to find out where eggs came from, they snuck into grandma’s chicken coop and observed the miracle of life.

It was a magical world full of joy and wonder, and Jane felt very much a part of it.

Jane liked to climb her beloved beech tree with Jubilee on her back, then sit perched on its branches reading and rereading Tarzan, imagining herself in place of that other Jane, wild and filled with wonder amid the jungles of Africa.

That dream soon became an all-consuming desire not just to go to Africa but to live there, trying to understand the animals and help them.

Every night Jane tucked Jubilee into bed and fell asleep with that dream, until one day — and such is the genius of McDonnell’s elegantly simple message of the dreamer’s doggedness — she awakes in a tent in the Gombe, the seedbed of what would become a remarkable career and an extraordinary life of purpose.

Goodall herself — who founded the heartening youth-led learning and community action initiative Roots & Shoots — writes in the afterword:

We cannot live through a single day without making an impact on the world around us — and we have a choice as to what sort of difference we make… Children are motivated when they can see the positive results their hard work can have.

Me…Jane, which received the prestigious Caldecott Honor and is a spectacular addition to these great children’s books celebrating science and scientists, is an emboldening treasure from cover to cover. Complement it with Goodall on science and spirituality, her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, and her own little-known children’s book, then treat yourself to “Dream Jane Dream” — a magnificent homage to Goodall by jazz singer-songwriter Lori Henriques:

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