Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

11 DECEMBER, 2014

The Farmer and the Clown: A Warm Wordless Story about an Unlikely Friendship and How We Ennoble Each Other with Kindness

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A sweet celebration of the mutual elevation made possible by dropping our assumptions about ourselves, others, and who is welcome in our world.

“One never notices what has been done,” Marie Curie wrote in a letter to her brother upon receiving her second graduate degree, “one can only see what remains to be done.” She could have easily been talking about the endless world of discovery that is children’s literature. Here comes a woefully belated, wonderfully apt addition to this year’s best children’s books: The Farmer and the Clown (public library | IndieBound) — a sweet, immeasurably warm wordless story by author and illustrator Marla Frazee.

Reminiscent of The Lion and the Bird — still my favorite picture-book this side of the millennium — the tale follows the accidental, unlikely friendship that develops between a kindly old farmer and a child-clown after the little boy falls out of the circus train amid the farmer’s patch of the prairie.

The farmer makes an endearing effort to include this wholly alien new friend into daily life, while trying to address the little boy’s wholly alien needs as best as he can imagine them. From the generosity of his intention springs a celebration of the mutual elevation made possible by dropping our assumptions about ourselves, others, and who is welcome in our world.

By choosing such a gentle and innocent embodiment of the clown character — the frightening clown is, after all, a common trope in horror that feeds on a common fear many people share — Frazee also reminds us, just as gently, that the strangenesses we fear can become our most deeply rewarding experiences, if we bring to them a warm curiosity and a generous quality of presence.

It could be, too, that by amplifying the strangeness of the child to the point of clownish caricature, Frazee is poking gentle fun at the hallmark of mediocrity in children’s literature — the idea that the child is somehow a different species to be addressed in some inauthentic other language, which C.S. Lewis so spiritedly rebuked.

The story’s ending emanates an assuring reminder that even though life is ever-flowing and we live in a universe of constant change — that, as Henry Miller observed, “all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis” — even brief encounters can imprint us with their affectionate grace, the warmth of which burns in the hearth of the soul forever.

The Farmer and the Clown is absolutely luminous in its entirety — the kind of deeply, universally human story Tolkien must have had in mind when he insisted that there is no such thing as writing for children. Complement it with Winston and George, a very different but no less delightful tale of another unlikely friendship.

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09 DECEMBER, 2014

Henri Rousseau’s Heartening Story of Success after a Lifetime of Rejection, Illustrated

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How a kind old man who spent his life in poverty, worked as a toll collector, and was entirely self-taught became one of the world’s greatest artists.

“People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her fantastic manifesto for the creative life, one of the best books of the year, “because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized.” Few artists in history have lived through this street combat with more dignity and resilience of spirit than French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (May 21, 1844–September 2, 1910). Long before history came to celebrate him as one of the greatest artists of his era, long before he was honored by major retrospectives by such iconic institutions as the MoMA and the Tate Museum, long before Sylvia Plath began weaving homages to him into her poetry, he spent a lifetime being not merely dismissed but ridiculed. And yet Rousseau — who was born into poverty, began working alongside his plumber father as a young boy, still worked as a toll collector by the age of forty, and was entirely self-taught in painting — withstood the unending barrage of harsh criticism with which his art was met during his entire life, and continued to paint from a deep place of creative conviction, with an irrepressible impulse to make art anyway.

I was instantly taken with The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (public library | IndieBound) by writer Michelle Markel and illustrator Amanda Hall not only because I have a soft spot for beautifully illustrated biographies that introduce young readers to inspiring cultural icons — such as those of Pablo Neruda, Julia Child, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Maria Merian, and Jane Goodall — but also because it tells an emboldening real-life story, and a stunningly illustrated one, of remarkable resilience and optimism in the face of public criticism, of cultivating a center so solid and a creative vision so unflinching that no outside attack can demolish it and obstruct its transmutation into greatness.

Henri Rousseau wants to be an artist.
Not a single person has ever told him he is talented.
He’s a toll collector.
He’s forty years old.

But he buys some canvas, paint, and brushes, and starts painting anyway.

Rousseau’s impulse for art sprang from his deep love of nature — a manifestation of the very thing that seventeen-year-old Virginia Woolf intuited when she wrote in her diary that the arts “imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see”.

Unable to afford art lessons, Rousseau educated himself by going to the Louvre to study the paintings of his favorite artists and examining photographs, magazines, and catalogs to learn about the anatomy of the human body.

At the age of forty-one, he showed his work as part of a big art exhibition, but his art — vibrant, flat, seemingly childish — was met, as Markel writes, with “only mean things.” Even so, Rousseau saved the reviews and pasted them into his scrapbook.

With his voracious appetite for inspiration, Rousseau visited the World’s Fair, where he was especially enchanted by the exhibits of exotic lands. “They remind him of adventure stories he loved when he was a boy,” Markel writes. The vivid images haunted him for days, until he finally turned to the easel to exorcise his restless imagination.

He holds his paintbrush to the canvas. A tiger crawls out. Lightning strikes, and wind whips the jungle grass.

Sometimes Henri is so startled by what he paints that he has to open the window to let in some air.

But for all his earnest creative exuberance, he is met with derision.

Every year Henri goes back to the art exhibition to show new paintings. He fusses over the canvases and retouches them until the last minute.

And every year the art experts make fun of him. They say it looks like he closed his eyes and painted with his feet.

And yet Rousseau manages to embody Georgia O’Keeffe’s credo that “whether you succeed or not is irrelevant… making your unknown known is the important thing” — he continues to paint, to study nature, and to rejoice in the process itself.

One night, he dreams up a painting of which he is especially proud, depicting a lion looking over a sleeping gypsy with friendly curiosity.

Once again he takes his work to the art show. This time, perhaps, he’ll please the experts. His pulse races.

The experts say he paints like a child. “If you want to have a good laugh,” one of them writes, “go see the paintings by Henri Rousseau.”

By now Henry is used to the nasty critics. He knows his shapes are simpler and flatter than everyone else’s, but he thinks that makes them lovely.

Everything he earns by giving music lessons, he spends on art supplies. But he lives by Thoreau’s definition of success.

His home is a shabby little studio, where one pot of stew must last the whole week. But every morning he wakes up and smiles at his pictures.

At sixty-one, Rousseau is still living in poverty, but happily paints his jubilant junglescapes. He continues to hope for critical acclaim and continues to be denied it, cruelly, by the “experts,” one of whom even says that “only cavemen would be impressed by his art.”

At last, Rousseau, already an old man, gets a break — but the recognition comes from a new generation of younger artists, who befriend him and come to admire his work. More than his talent and his stomach for criticism, however, one comes to admire his immensely kind and generous heart.

Whenever Henri has money to spare, and stages a concert in his little studio, all the artists come. Along with the grocer, locksmith, and other folks from the neighborhood, they listen to Henri’s students and friends play their musical instruments. Henri gives the shiniest, reddest apples to the children.

Eventually, even Picasso pays heed and throws old Henri a banquet, at which “the old man sits upon a makeshift throne” playing his violin as people dance and celebrate around him, his heart floating “like a hot-air balloon above the fields.”

At the end of his life, Rousseau paints his masterwork “The Dream” and finally becomes successful by a public standard as the critics, at last, grant him acclaim. But the beautiful irony and the ennobling message of the story is that he was successful all along, for he had found his purpose — a feat with which even Van Gogh struggled for years — and filled each day with the invigorating joy of making his unknown known.

A hundred years later, the flowers still blossom, the monkeys still frolic, and the snakes keep slithering through Henri’s hot jungles. His paintings now hang in museums all over the world. And do you think experts call them “foolish,” “clumsy,” or “monstrous”? Mais non! They call them works of art.

By an old man,
by a onetime toll collector,
by one of the most gifted self-taught artists in history:
Henri Rousseau

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau is absolutely wonderful from cover to cover. Complement it with Ray Bradbury on weathering the storm of rejection and Picasso on why you should never compromise in your art.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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04 DECEMBER, 2014

The Watcher: A Children’s Book about How Jane Goodall Became Jane Goodall

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How a quiet little English girl became the world’s greatest advocate for animals.

Great children’s books celebrating science are few and far between, and in a general publishing landscape where only 31% of books for young readers feature female protagonists, great children’s books celebrating female pioneers of science are especially rare. How refreshing, then, to come upon The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps (public library | IndieBound) by writer and artist Jeanette Winter — the illustrated story of how the legendary primatologist, who once authored a little-known children’s book herself, became the icon that she is and forever changed not only her field but also the course of cultural attitudes toward animals.

From cultivating the powers of observation as a little girl, obsessively tracking the family’s hens as they lay eggs and quietly watching the robin outside her window for weeks on end, to reading voraciously the stories of Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle as she aspired to go to Africa and live with the apes, to the realization of her dream as she buys a one-way boat ticket to Kenya upon graduation and soon meets the pioneering paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey, the story captures in plain words and simple drawings Goodall’s remarkable determination, tenacity and clarity of conviction.

We see young Jane set up camp in Gombe, at last feeling a deep sense of homecoming — “This is where I belong,” she would later write in her memoir. “This is what I came into this world to do.” We follow her to the top of the forested hills as she looks for the chimps, and between the trees as she anticipates the timid creatures. Befallen with malaria and still alone, she lurches on the brink of losing hope.

And then, one fateful day, she makes contact with the chimps — all the patience pays off when one trusting male, whom she names David Greybeard, takes a banana from her hand and, by displaying his own trust, encourages the other chimps to admit her into their lives. There she is, at last observing them as they play, hold hands, kiss, and fight, confirming empirically her deep intuition that we share a great deal more than previously thought with our misunderstood evolutionary relatives.

We see her sitting in her tent at night, recording the day’s observations as she listens to Mozart and Bach on an old turntable.

But after she leaves Gombe, poachers and intruders begin cutting down the trees, shooting grownup chimps, and kidnapping their babies to sell to circuses, labs, and as pets.

We see Goodall at a lectern — devastated by the prospect of her beloved chimps becoming extinct, she becomes a spokesperson and educator. Even as she travels the world advocating for conservation, Goodall returns to Gombe every chance she gets and, reunited with David Greybeard, sits atop the familiar beloved hills once again, listening for her friends.

For a grownup complement to The Watcher, see Goodall on science and spirituality and her answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire.

For more wonderful illustrated biographies, see those of Julia Child, Pablo Neruda, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian, another grand dame of science.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.