Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

23 OCTOBER, 2014

Once Upon an Alphabet: Oliver Jeffers’s Imaginative Illustrated Stories for the Letters

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A warm and wonderful celebration of the paradoxes and perplexities that make us human.

In the 1990s, three decades after the debut of his now-iconic grim alphabet book, the great Edward Gorey reimagined the letters in a series of 26-word cryptic stories. Now comes a worthy modern counterpart by one of the most original and imaginative children’s book storytellers and artists of our time: Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (public library) by Oliver Jeffers — an unusual and utterly wonderful tour of the familiar letters that takes a whimsical detour via quirky, lyrical, delightfully alliterative tales for each, and makes a fine addition to the canon of offbeat alphabet books.

Jeffers’s art is subtle yet immeasurably expressive. His stories brim with the fallible and heartening humanity that makes up our vastly imperfect but mostly noble selves — our paradoxes (A is for “astronaut,” and Edmund the astronaut is afraid of heights), the silly stubbornnesses (B is for “burning a bridge” and we meet neighbors Bernard and Bob, who have spent years “battling each other for reasons neither could remember”), the playful flights of curiosity (E is for “enigma,” like the question of how many elephants can fit inside an envelope), the existential perplexities (in P, a “puzzled parsnip” spirals into anguish over realizing that he is neither a carrot nor a potato), the self-defeating control tactics we employ in attempting to assuage our fear of impermanence (the robots in R are so terrified of rusting that they steal the rainclouds from the sky and lug them around in carts).

There are touches of loveliness and thoughtfulness: The budding scientist (M is for “made of matter”) is a little girl and the manly lumberjack (L) lucubrates by lamplight, reading a copy of Once Upon an Alphabet.

There are also charming winks at continuity: The nun in N flips the enigma from E and posits that “nearly nine thousand” envelopes can fit inside an elephant; the fearless owl and octopus duo in O, who roam the ocean searching for problems to solve, come to the rescue when a regular cucumber plunges into the ocean in S (for “sink or swim”) because he “watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him,” only to realize he didn’t know how to swim; when Xavier in X wakes up one morning and is devastated to find out that his prized X-ray spectacles have been stolen, he rings the owl and the octopus for help.

There is, too, a sprinkle of Goreyesque darkness alongside the delight, speaking to Maurice Sendak’s conviction that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark: In T, a writer sits in front of his “terrible typewriter,” which has the uncanny ability to make his stories come true, until one day he is eaten by a monster he wrote. (The creature, coincidentally, is reminiscent of Sendak’s Wild Things.) In H, Helen lives in a half house, the other half having been swept into the sea by a hurricane; “being lazy, and not owning a hammer,” she hadn’t quite got around to fixing it yet” — so one day, she rolls out the wrong side of the bed and plummets into the ocean.

Once Upon an Alphabet is immeasurably wonderful in its totality, both sensitive and irreverent, kind and quirky. Complement it with Jeffers’s Stuck, then revisit a few other marvelous alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Quentin Blake, and Maurice Sendak.

Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers; photographs my own

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20 OCTOBER, 2014

Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical: A Minimalist Picture-Book about How We Become Who We Are

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A brilliant conceptual graphic story about how we get our stripes of character and identity.

It is said that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” But it depends perhaps even more on who loved each other before they came to love us — parenting shapes not only our psychological constitution, from our capacity for fertile solitude to our relationship with achievement, but perhaps most palpably our physical. Genetics bestows its blessings and curses upon us with more uncompromising despotism than any of the other cards we’re dealt in life.

How parents shape our own becoming is the premise, explored with remarkable subtlety and ingenuity, behind Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical (public library) by French writer Noémie Révah and Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli — a conceptual, minimalist, maximally delightful graphic book that calls to mind Norton Juster’s vintage classic The Dot and the Line in its geometric metaphors for temperament, yet is completely original in both substance and style.

It is also a beautiful celebration of art and science — the idea was inspired by French poet and photographer René Maltête’s iconic image of a boardwalk-strolling family’s visual metaphor for genetics:

We meet Mister Horizontal, who “loves everything that glides” and “a warm soak in a big bathtub” and “walking in the desert, with sand as far as the eye can see.”

We meet Miss Vertical, who loves “looping through the air” and “is crazy about rockets” and “can often be found on staircases.”

Zagnoli — who also illustrated a recent exquisite edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — uses flat primary colors to bring bewitching dimension to Révah’s words.

After listing all of Mister Horizontal and Miss Vertical’s varied likes, the final pages ask:

Now what do you think…

…their child would love?

On a subtler level, the book is also a reminder that we are the combinatorial product not only of our parents but of what William Gibson so memorably called our “personal micro-culture” — that we become who we are in large part based on whom we surround ourselves with.

Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical is an immeasurable delight to have and to hold. It comes from the wonderful Brooklyn-based indie picture-book publisher Enchanted Lion Books, an unending source of treasures like the immeasurably tender The Lion and the Bird, the lyrical Fox’s Garden, the vintage gem Little Boy Brown, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, and the imaginative geometric allegory Wednesday.

For a very different perspective on the metaphorical geometry of parenting, see Andrew Solomon on “horizontal” vs. “vertical” identity.

Illustrations courtesy of Olimpia Zagnoli / Enchanted Lion Books; photographs my own

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17 OCTOBER, 2014

A Stocking for a Kitten: Beautiful Vintage Children’s Book Illustrations of Domestic Life in Eastern Europe

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Entitlement, empathy, and ethics, with a large helping of grandmotherly love.

Every summer during my childhood, my parents would ship me off to my maternal grandmother in rural Bulgaria — a land of colorful rugs and handcrafted pottery and grandmothers constantly knitting mittens and stockings and scarves. It seems like a different lifetime now, but those memories were brought back with vitalizing vividness when I chanced upon the 1965 gem A Stocking for a Kitten (public library) — a sweet out-of-print children’s book by Helen Kay, featuring exquisite illustrations of Eastern European domestic life by New York City-born artist Yaroslava.

The story follows little Tanya, who watches her Babushka sit knitting stockings for the grandchildren all day long. As Christmas approaches, one of Tanya’s sisters, Olga, grows impatient — entitled, even — and demands that Babushka hurry up with the knitting so her new stockings would be done already. Babushka takes this as a good opportunity to teach the little girl about patience — a recurring theme in children’s books from that era, it seems — by refusing to complete the stockings until Olga has learned some forbearance and humility. (And as anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe can tell you, negative reinforcement is the name of the game in disciplining there — whether by grandparents or by the government.)

Meanwhile, Tanya puts Babushka’s strike to constructive use and convinces the grandmother to teach her to knit, so that the little girl could make a pair of stockings for her kitten.

In the end, Tanya is overcome with compassion for her sister and stays up all night, finishing Olga’s stockings herself. But in the meantime, the kitten does what kittens do, producing a series of entertaining domestic misadventures.

While the story is decidedly heartwarming — there is entitlement and empathy and even ethics, alongside a large helping of grandmotherly love — it is Yaroslava’s striking art, shaped by her lifelong interest in Slavic folklore, that makes the book so captivating. It is also a gentle reminder that so much of human culture has historically taken place in the domestic sphere, where women make things in rooms, with selflessness, with passion, with quiet integrity.

A Stocking for a Kitten is out of print but well worth the hunt. Complement it with the delightful Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book.

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