Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

24 JANUARY, 2014

Sir Quentin Blake’s Quirky Illustrated Alphabet Book

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“A is for apples, some green and some red, B is for breakfast we’re having in bed.”

As a lover of unusual alphabet books — including ones by Gertrude Stein, Maurice Sendak, and Edward Gorey — I was delighted to come across a new edition of the 1989 gem Quentin Blake’s ABC (public library) by the great Sir Quentin Blake who, besides being famous for illustrating many of Roald Dahl’s stories and the first Dr. Seuss book not illustrated by Geisel himself, also illustrated Sylvia Plath’s little-known, charming children’s book.

Blake’s quirky watercolor-and-ink drawings and zany verses emanate his irreverent humor, enchanting young readers as much as they tickle grown-up imaginations.

Quentin Blake’s ABC is an absolute treat from A-Z. Complement it with advice to kids on becoming an artist from Blake, Sendak, Carle, and other illustrators.

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20 JANUARY, 2014

I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!

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“Boys fix things. Girls need things fixed.”

In 1970, when the second wave of feminism was reaching critical mass and women were raising their voices for equality across the “social media” of the day decades before the internet as we know it, when even Pete Seeger was rallying for a gender-neutral pronoun, an odd children’s book titled I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl! (public library) began appearing in bookstores.

It began innocently enough:

Hmm, okay… (But still.):

And then it straddled the gender-normative continuum between the appalling and the absurd:

At first glance, it appears to be the most sexist book ever printed, made all the worse for the fact that it was aimed at the next generation. In fact, many reviewers at the time took it for just that, and cursory commentary across the web even today treats it as a laughable fossil of a bygone era, handling it with equal parts outraged indignation and how-far-we’ve-come relief.

But what many missed, even in 1970, is that the man who wrote and illustrated the book was Whitney Darrow, Jr., whose father founded Princeton University Press and whose satirical cartoons graced the New Yorker for nearly fifty years between 1933 and 1982. When Darrow died in 1999, a New York Times obituary called him “a witty, gently satiric cartoonist” and “one of the last of the early New Yorker cartoonists,” part of the same milieu as James Thurber, Charles Addams, and Peter Arno.

Which is all to say: It’s highly likely, if not almost certainly the case, that Darrow, a man of keen cultural commentary wrapped in unusual humor, intended the book as satire. It came, after all, at a time when girls were beginning to be rather un-glad to be “girls” in the sense of the word burdened by outdated cultural expectations and boggled in an air of second-class citizenry. It’s entirely possible that Darrow wanted to comment on these outdated gender norms by depicting them in absurd cartoonishness precisely so that their absurdity would shine through.

Of course, we can never be certain, as there is no record of Darrow himself ever discussing his intentions with the book. All we have is speculation — but let’s at least make it of the contextually intelligent kind. Sure, he was born in the first decade of the twentieth century — a time when those absurd gender norms were very much alive and well, a time not too long after it was perfectly acceptable for a wholly non-sarcastic Map of Woman’s Heart to exist and a list of don’ts for female bicyclists could be published in complete seriousness. And he came of age in a culture where those same norms very much mandated the rules of love and gender relations. But that’s perhaps all the more reason for a man who dedicated his creative career to our era’s smartest institution of cultural commentary to poke fun at society’s ebb and flow of values the best way he knew how — through his satirical cartoons.

Sadly, I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl! rests in the cemetery of out-of-print gems — but it might well be worth a trip to the local library.

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13 JANUARY, 2014

Weight and Weightlessness: The Science of Life in Space, in Charming Vintage Illustrations

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An impossibly lovely primer on how gravity works and why we don’t fall to the center of the earth daily.

As a lover of vintage children’s books, especially ones about science and space, I was thrilled to chance upon the 1971 gem Weight and Weightlessness (public library; Abe Books) by science writer and then-director of Hayden Planetarium educational services Franklyn M. Branley — which renders him cultural kin to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Written less than two years after the historic Apollo 8 moon landing and featuring impossibly lovely Gorey-esque illustrations by British-born, Canadian-raised, California-based artist Graham Booth, this out-of-print charmer tackles the scientific puzzle of what weightlessness actually is through examples from both everyday life and the fascinating world of space exploration — a subject at once of enormous cultural importance and suffering tragic political neglect at the moment.

When you weigh yourself, you step on a scale. The gravity of the earth pulls you down onto the scale. Suppose you weigh sixty pounds. That means gravity is pulling you with a force of sixty pounds.

The scale tells how strongly gravity is pulling you down toward the center of earth. If there were a deep hole under the scale, gravity would pull you all the way to the center of the earth.

The scale and the floor beneath you keep you from being pulled to the center of the earth. They push up against gravity as gravity pulls down.

You can feel the pressure on the soles of your feet. That’s what a scale really measures. It tells how much push upward there is against the pull of gravity downward.

Suppose, all of a sudden, there was a deep hole under the scale. And suppose you and the scale fell into the hole. You would not feel any push upward on the soles of your feet. There would be nothing pushing upward against the downward pull of gravity. Now the scale would read zero.

As long as you keep falling you would be weightless.

That’s why astronauts in spaceships are weightless. They are falling. Nothing is pushing back against them. They are falling around the earth. The astronauts are falling, the spaceship is falling, and so is everything inside it.

They do not look as if they are falling. But they are.

If the rocket went up straight and then changed direction, gravity would still pull it back to the earth. But now the rocket would not come straight down. It would move in a curved path.

Astronauts like weightlessness for a while. It’s fun to float in space. And it’s funny to see things floating around you.

But after a while, an astronaut gets tired of being weightless. He likes to feel something solid under his feet when he stands up. And he likes to feel a bed under his back when he lies down. Also, it’s nice to have food served on a plate, instead of squeezing it out of a tube.

Weight and Weightlessness is well worth the hunt for a surviving used copy. Complement it with Isaac Asimov on the value of space programs, an illustrated chronicle of the Space Race, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s moving Senate testimony on the spirit of space exploration.

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