Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

14 MARCH, 2014

Einstein on Fairy Tales and Education

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“How far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.”

Albert Einstein, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” is credited with many things — from era-defining scientific discoveries to great wisdom on everything from creativity to kindness to war to the secret to learning anything. Among them is also a sentiment of admirable insight yet questionable attribution: In Christopher Frayling’s 2005 book Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema, Einstein is credited as having said:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.' Click image for details.

As an enormous lover of fairy tales and a believer in Tolkien’s proposition that they are not written “for children,” I was, of course, instantly gladdened by these words, but also peeved by the broken chain of proper attribution. After diligent digging through various archives, I found the earliest reference to this in an out-of-print volume published by the Montana State Library for Book Week in November of 1958*. The entry, a second-hand account at best, reads:

In the current New Mexico Library Bulletin, Elizabeth Margulis tells a story of a woman who was a personal friend of the late dean of scientists, Dr. Albert Einstein. Motivated partly by her admiration for him, she held hopes that her son might become a scientist. One day she asked Dr. Einstein’s advice about the kind of reading that would best prepare the child for this career. To her surprise, the scientist recommended ‘Fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested that she was really serious about this and she wanted a serious answer; but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

Folklorist and literary scholar Jack Zipes further transforms Einstein’s alleged aphorism in into a charming short fable in the introduction to his 1979 book Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales:

Once upon a time the famous physicist Albert Einstein was confronted by an overly concerned woman who sought advice on how to raise her small son to become a successful scientist. In particular she wanted to know what kinds of books she should read to her son.

“Fairy Tales,” Einstein responded without hesitation.

“Fine, but what else should I read to him after that?” the mother asked.

“More fairy tales,” Einstein stated.

“And after that?”

“Even more fairy tales,” replied the great scientist, and he waved his pipe like a wizard pronouncing a happy end to a long adventure.

While we might never know the full, accurate details for Einstein’s fairy-tale adage, embedded in it is something the celebrated physicist felt very strongly about: the importance of the liberal arts and humanities in education. The preface to Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) — the same impossibly endearing volume that gave us his encouraging advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist and his answer to child who asked whether scientists pray — features the following autobiographical reflection by Einstein:

This school with its liberal spirit and teachers with a simple earnestness that did not rely on any external authority, made an unforgettable impression on me. In comparing it with six years schooling at an authoritarian German Gymnasium, I was made acutely aware how far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.

Complement with Einstein on why we’re alive (in a letter to a Brain Pickings reader’s mother), his remarkable conversation with Indian philosopher Tagore, and his life-story, illustrated.

UPDATE: Library of Congress researcher Stephen Winick has now dug deeper into the origin of Einstein’s alleged aphorism.

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03 MARCH, 2014

An Illustrated Field Guide to Mythic Monsters, from Gremlins to Zombies to the Kraken

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A vibrant dance across the global spectrum of the popular imagination.

“Legendary lands … have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief,” Umberto Eco wrote in his illustrated meditation on imaginary places. But as much as fictional lands might hold enduring allure, what captivates our shared imagination even more are the fictional and mythic creatures of our cultural folklore, both ancient and modern. That’s precisely what writer Davide Cali and illustrator Gabriela Giandelli explore in Monsters and Legends (public library) — a vibrant and whimsical volume from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic expedition. From mermaids and unicorns to Cyclops and giant squid to vampires and zombies, Giandelli’s breathtaking illustrations and Cali’s illuminating stories about the origin of each mythic creature bring to life the beings that haunt our collective conscience, as well as those we secretly fear — or hope — exist in some mystical corner of what we concede is reality.

The Mapiguari

In South America, we meet the stinky Mapiguari, a giant nocturnal animal with long arms and claws, the skin of a reptile, and bright red hair, believed to roam the Amazon jungle. Legend has it, the creature avoids water, which might account for its smell. Some locals and other believers think it’s a giant sloth — a species that disappeared more than 10,000 years ago. Skeptics, meanwhile, consider it the mistaken mashup of a regular sloth and an armadillo, which terrified nighttime travelers in the jungle somehow remixed in their frightful imagination.

The Dragon

But one of the most common species-mashups is the dragon, a mythic being that appears in various incarnations in many cultures, with powers ranging from the destructive to the divine.

In every culture, there is a creature resembling a Dragon. It often appears as a symbol of life and power, a creative or protective spirit closer to a god than an actual animal. That’s certainly true in the case of Huang Long in Chinese mythology, or Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs’ feathered serpent.

Commonly depicted with a snake’s body, lizard’s legs, eagle’s talons, crocodile’s jaws, lion’s teeth and bat-like wings, the Dragon is a combination of several different animals. Among the Dragon’s many portrayals is the Hydra of Greek mythology — a vicious sea monster with seven heads. Two of the most famous Hydras are the Lernaean Hydra, which was killed by Hercules, and Scylla, which was rumored to live in the depths of the strait in Messina.

Gustave

In Africa, we find a legendary 20-foot-long Nile Crocodile that haunted Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, for years. Named Gustave by the locals and alleged to have eaten at least 300 people, the giant croc lived for sixty years and survived countless capture attempts, until hunters managed to slay him in 2005. Once measured, Gustave turned out to be just a regular Nile Crocodile, 13 feet long — not that unusual for a species that can grow up to 16 feet in length.

In the same region, the dinosaur-like Mokele-mbembe awaits us:

The Mokele-Mbembe

800 kilometers north of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, is a vast, swampy area where rumors tell of a frightening creature — the Mokele-mbembe. Described for the first time by a French missionary in the 18th century, he claimed the Mokele-mbembe was as big as an elephant, with a small snake-like head, a 2 to 3 meter long neck, hippopotamus feet and a crocodile tail.

The description sounds remarkably similar to the Sauropods, a group of animals that disappeared 65.5 million years ago! From 1913 onwards, expeditions set out in search of the Mokele-mbembe. But they returned with little more than a few pictures and some vague footage. According to some theories the Mokele-mbembe might be an unknown species of monitor lizard.

Others say it’s a softshell turtle whose long neck, small head and aggressive attitude match the description of the monster. The softshell turtle isn’t as big as the legendary Mokele-mbembe but skeptics still argue that it is possible that Pygmies, terrified of an animal that they didn’t know, got the measurements wrong. They claim that this situation is far more likely to be the case than that a dinosaur is living quietly in Africa without anybody ever having taken its picture.

Then comes a mythic creature that has enjoyed a resurgence as a visual meme of the social-web era:

The Kraken

The Kraken is a gigantic legendary sea monster. Its name comes from the Norwegian word krake, meaning “a twisted or crooked animal.” The origin of the Kraken myth goes back to the 13th century, but it’s not until the 18th and 19th centuries that sailor stories about the Kraken really start multiplying! Stories were told of ships being attacked and destroyed by a creature with tentacles over a kilometer long. Carl Linnaeus … mentioned the Kraken in his first book in 1735, under the scientific name of Microcosmus marinus, but it doesn’t appear in his following books, as he couldn’t prove its existence.

Roald Dahl's Gremlins

One of the most charming entries highlights a tiny mischievous creature from Irish folklore, the Gremlin, brought back into the popular imagination by beloved children’s book author Roald Dahl. In 1942, long before he made a name for himself with this children’s stories, Dahl was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber. A mechanical malfunction on one of his flights resulted in a forced landing, after which Dahl took it upon himself to inform the unsuspecting public that Gremlins had been terrorizing the Royal Air Force for months — pilots had created their own folklore, blaming the legendary creatures for the high rate of breakdowns. The myth, of course, was just a sandbox for Dahl’s imagination as a storyteller — the following year, he published The Gremlins, his first children’s book.

The Chupacabra

As we move closer to the present day, we meet the Chupacabra, a creature that preys on chickens and goats, named after the Spanish for “goat sucker.” Witness accounts from Latin America and Florida describe it as a hairless kangaroo with the head of a dog, which acts like a vampire coyote that sucks its prey dry of blood. Some suspect it was the progeny of genetic experiments, while others abandon all attempts at plausibility and say it came from outer space. The Chupacabra is also believed to possess several paranormal superpowers, such as the ability to change color and hypnotize its prey via telepathy.

Mythic as this sounds, certain species of real animals have recently been found to employ a kind of “mind control” over their prey — perhaps proof that all myth, including religion, for that matter, is a tapestry woven of our greatest immaterial fears and hopes, with a few threats of material reality.

Indeed, Cali takes care to balance the mythology with a healthy dose of myth-busting that would make Carl Sagan proud. Each myth is followed by a “What We Know” section that grounds us with reality-based evidence:

The videos of the Chupacabra, often blurry and hard to follow, and the pictures, usually faked, don’t help much with identifying the creature. But if you trust the descriptions, the Chupacabra looks a lot like a rare species of Mexican hairless dog called Xoloitzcuintle.

DNA tests on dead specimens have proven that it is an ordinary dog with nothing extraterrestrial about it at all.

And of course no taxonomy of modern folklore would be complete without everyone’s favorite pop culture meme:

The Zombie

Zombies, or Walking Dead, [are] regular actors in horror movies… But Zombie stories, like Werewolf stories or Vampire stories, have their roots in reality. Well, almost… In Haiti people practice a religion called Voodoo that holds magic and superstition in high regard. It is thought that a Bokor — a Voodoo sorcerer — can steal someone’s soul, wake him or her from the death and turn them into a slave — a Zombie.

Cali once again contrasts the myth with the empirical evidence:

A study conducted in the 1980s found that the Bokor probably controlled people using a neurotoxin created from the poison of the fugu, a type of pufferfish. The neurotoxin causes a state of apparent death and the supposed complete obedience of the “exhumed corpse.” In reality, Zombies are just drugged slaves forced to work in sugar plantations. Obedient workers that never go on strike!

Monsters and Legends is bound to tickle the imagination and poke a friendly stick at superstition, all while enchanting us with irresistibly gorgeous illustrations. For a different octave of the siren song of the mythic, complement it with Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands and Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most bizarre and beautiful encyclopedia of the imaginary.

Images courtesy of Flying Eye Books

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27 FEBRUARY, 2014

The River: Exploring the Inner Seasonality of Being Human in Gorgeous Watercolors by Italian Artist Alessandro Sanna

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A beautiful reminder that despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and above all ever-flowing.

“Love the earth and sun and the animals….read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,” Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass. In The River (public library) from Enchanted Lion — the wonderful Brooklyn-based independent picture-book publisher that gave us such treasures as Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Blexbolex’s Ballad, Seasons, and People, the existentially profound The Hole, and the boundlessly soul-stirring Little Bird — Italian illustrator Alessandro Sanna exposes with remarkable sensitivity that gossamer connection between the physicality of the land and our transcendent experience of the passage of time, the inner seasonality of being human. Through his soft watercolors shines the immutable light of existence.

In each of the four chapters, a new season unfolds, beginning with autumn and ending with summer, and out of it spring to life vignettes of different experiences along the banks of a shared river, waves of permanence and impermanence washing together. A subtle recurring motif of opposing forces — subjugation and release, celebration and solitude, fear and freedom — reverberates throughout the nearly wordless visual narrative, at once stretching it sideways and pulling it together into a vortex of coherent emotion.

For Sanna, who lives on the banks of the Po River in Northern Italy, this deeply personal project, years in the making, is in many ways a meta-meditation on the passage of time and the unfolding of life, in constant flux even at a seemingly static locale.

Glowing with quiet optimism, Sanna’s vibrant, expressive illustrations whisper to us that, despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and, above all, ever-flowing. As his river flows, one can almost see adrift in it the words of Henry Miller:

It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.

The River is easily the most breathtaking book to come out so far this year. Complement it with more of Enchanted Lion’s heartwarming treasures, such as My Father’s Arms Are a Boat and Little Boy Brown, both of which were among the best picture-books of 2013.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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