Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

17 NOVEMBER, 2014

A Sweet Illustrated Celebration of Our Wild Inner Child

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A tender and mischievous invitation to pause and ask, as Mary Oliver did: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“All good things are wild and free,” Thoreau wrote in his terrific treatise on walking. More than 150 years later, Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes makes an imaginative 21st-century case for this in Wild (public library | IndieBound) — an irreverent, charming, and oh-so-delightfully illustrated story, partway between Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

The story opens with a joyful and carefree little girl native to the woods, raised by the creatures of the whole forest. She is boundlessly, ebulliently wild, and wholly unashamed of her wildness.

Bird taught her to speak.
Bear taught her how to eat.
Fox taught her how to play.
And she understood, and was happy.

One day, two creatures who look an awful lot like her, only bigger, appear out of nowhere, put her in the belly of their metal beast, and hurl her into a wholly different new life — a civilized one.

Off in the big city, a somewhat well-meaning but rather dictatorial elderly couple sets out to de-wild her. “FAMED PSYCHIATRIST TAKES IN FERAL CHILD,” a newspaper headline proclaims.

The little girl is frightened, but mostly perplexed.

They spoke wrong.
They ate wrong.
They played wrong.
And she did not understand, and she was not happy.

One day, she has had enough.

Because you cannot tame something so happily wild…

Emanating from the playful and poetic story is a clarion call to shake off the external should’s that shackle us and stop keeping ourselves small by trying to please others, to celebrate what John Steinbeck called “the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected”. It is an invitation, at once tender and mischievous, to pause and ask, as Mary Oliver memorably did: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Wild is one of the loveliest and most endearing picture-books I’ve seen this side of the century and comes from British indie publisher Flying Eye Books, unending source of treasures like Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds, Monsters & Legends, Shackleton’s Journey, Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, and Hug Me.

Illustrations courtesy of Flying Eye Books / Emily Hughes; photographs my own

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14 NOVEMBER, 2014

Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag: Maira Kalman’s Sweet Design-History Alphabet Book about Embracing Uncertainty and Imperfection

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“Life is not a straight line. Life is a zig-zag.”

As a lover of imaginative and intelligent alphabet books and of absolutely everything Maira Kalman does, I find the letters of the alphabet and the words they make insufficient to express the boundless wonderfulness of Kalman’s Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag (public library | IndieBound) — the children’s-book counterpart of her magnificent My Favorite Things, which began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

In this ABC gem — which doubles as a design-history primer full not of snobbery and self-important art-speak but of a playful celebration of uncertainty and imperfection — Kalman culls thirty-one objects from the museum’s collection and strings them together into a tour of the alphabet, with her characteristic quirk, candor, and exuberant creative curiosity as the loving guide.

Her unusual selections, often of seemingly mundane artifacts, bespeak her extraordinary gift for finding magic in “the moments between the moments between the moments.” The accompanying words emanate from a beautiful wanderer’s mind and a spirit that is so clearly generous and kind.

There is the “itsy-bitsy nail” in I; the beautiful embroidered pocket in P, which offers the pause-giving factlet that “a long time ago, women didn’t have pockets in their clothes”; the clever play on continuity that offers “terrible news” in T as a painting of burnt toast accuses the antique toaster in Q (“Quite the toaster!) of malfunction.

The last letter winks at Kalman’s wonderful Principles of Uncertainty:

The final spread in the story offers a sweet message of embracing imperfection — a gentle reminder for all ages that, as Anne Lamott memorably put it, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”:

But the end is not really the end — perhaps the most touching and empowering part of the book is its postscript of sorts. In the closing pages, Kalman tells the heartening story of Nellie and Sally Hewitt — the two young women who founded the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum:

They loved to sing and dance. They were just a little bit wild. A little bit.

They had sharp eyes. The kind of eyes that really LOOK at things.

One day they decided to collect the things they loved, and create a museum. And they really did it. Which is a lesson to be learned. If you have a good idea — DO IT.

Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag is an absolute delight in its entirety. Complement it with its indispensable grownup counterpart, then revisit Kalman’s children’s-book collaboration with Lemony Snicket and this fantastic short documentary about Kalman’s work and spirit.

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13 NOVEMBER, 2014

Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds: An Unusual Counting Book about the Power of Small Kindnesses

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“A library is no place for three lost mice.”

However anguishing the art of asking for help may be, little is more gladdening than the act of giving it. That’s the premise behind Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds (public library | IndieBound) — a most unusual and gorgeously illustrated counting book by Jim Stoten, using Mr. Tweed’s small acts of kindness to teach kids the numbers and sneak in a subtle lesson on the power of grace.

On his daily walk into town, Mr. Tweed encounters various friends and neighbors, each having misplaced something valuable or dear. The search for these missing items becomes as much a counting game as it does a portal into Mr. Tweed’s whimsical, psychedelic world.

Little Colin Rocodile is missing his one kite and Mrs. Fluffycuddle her two kittens.

Mr. Tweed crawls up the numbers as he lends each a helping hand — there he is at the library, looking for Mr. McMeow’s three lost mice, for “a library is no place for three lost mice”; there he is on the bridge, consoling Little Penny Paws, who has dropped the seven flowers for mother into the river. There is a “Where’s Waldo” feel as a busy, vibrant scene of thoughtfully organized colorful chaos invites a visual scavenger hunt for the missing items.

After a long day of small kindnesses for his friends and neighbors, Mr. Tweed is summoned to a surprise party they have thrown to thank him, where he is presented with exactly ten gifts.

Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds comes from independent British picture-book press Flying Eye Books, whose roster of heartening gems includes a sweet celebration of connection and inner softness, the delightful field guide of mythic monsters, a visual chronicle of Shackleton’s historic polar expedition, and some illustrated rocket fuel for the souls of budding Sagans.

For sending young ones off into a different stage of life with the same message, see George Saunders’s fantastic commencement address on the power of kindness. For another take on numbers, see Paul Rand’s wonderful vintage children’s book Little 1.

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