Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

05 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Flat Rabbit: A Minimalist Scandinavian Children’s Book about Making Sense of Death and the Mysteries of Life

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A gentle and assuring reminder that we don’t have all the answers.

Neil Gaiman, in discussing his gorgeous new adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, asserted that we shouldn’t protect ourselves and children from the dark. But when the thickest darkness comes, in childhood as much as in adulthood, it brings with it not the monsters and witches of fairy tales but the tragedies of life itself — nowhere more acutely than in confronting death and its ghouls of grief. And when it does come, as Joan Didion memorably put it, it’s “nothing like we expect it to be.” What we need isn’t so much protection as the shaky comfort of understanding — a sensemaking mechanism for the messiness of loss.

That’s precisely what Faroese children’s book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson does in The Flat Rabbit (public library | IndieBound) — a masterwork of minimalist storytelling that speaks volumes about our eternal tussle with our own impermanence.

The book, translated by Faroese language-lover Marita Thomsen, comes from a long tradition of Scandinavian children’s books with singular sensitivity to such difficult subjects — from Tove Jansson’s vintage parables of uncertainty to Stein Erik Lunde’s Norwegian tale of grief to Øyvind Torseter’s existential meditation on the meaning of something and nothing.

The story, full of quiet wit and wistful wonder, begins with a carefree dog walking down the street. Suddenly, he comes upon a rabbit, lying silently flattened on the road. As the dog, saddened by the sight, wonders what to do, his friend the rat comes by.

“She is totally flat,” said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her.

“Do you know her?”

“Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”

The two agree that “lying there can’t be any fun” and decide to move her, but don’t know where to take her and head to the park to think.

The dog was now so deep in thought that, had you put your ear to his skull, you would have actually heard him racking his brain.

Embedded in the story is a subtle reminder that ideas don’t come to us by force of will but by the power of incubation as everything we’ve unconsciously absorbed clicks together into new combinations in our minds. As the dog sits straining his neurons, we see someone flying a kite behind him — a seeming aside noted only in the visual narrative, but one that becomes the seed for the rabbit solution.

Exclaiming that he has a plan, the dog returns to the scene with the rat. They take the rabbit from the road and work all night on the plan, hammering away in the doghouse.

In the next scene, we see the rabbit lovingly taped to the frame of a kite, which takes the dog and the rat forty-two attempts to fly.

With great simplicity and sensitivity, the story lifts off into a subtle meditation on the spiritual question of an afterlife — there is even the spatial alignment of a proverbial heaven “above.” It suggests — to my mind, at least — that all such notions exist solely for the comfort of the living, for those who survive the dead and who confront their own mortality in that survival, and yet there is peace to be found in such illusory consolations anyway, which alone is reason enough to have them.

Mostly, the story serves as a gentle reminder that we simply don’t have all the answers and that, as John Updike put it, “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery.”

Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time.

“Do you think she is having a good time?” the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog.

The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there.

“I don’t know…” he replied slowly. “I don’t know.”

Complement The Flat Rabbit with Love Is Forever, a more literal but no less lovely take on helping young hearts deal with loss, then revisit Meghan O’Rourke’s magnificent grownup memoir of navigating mourning.

Illustrations courtesy of Owlkids Books

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04 NOVEMBER, 2014

Pablo Neruda’s Extraordinary Life, in an Illustrated Love Letter to Language

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A swirling celebration of one of the greatest creative icons of the twentieth century.

Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda was not only one of the greatest poets in human history, but also a man of extraordinary insight into the human spirit — take, for instance, his remarkable reflection on what a childhood encounter taught him about why we make art, quite possibly the most beautiful metaphor for the creative impulse ever committed to paper.

As a lover both of Neruda’s enduring genius and of intelligent children’s books, especially ones celebrating the lives of luminaries — such as the wonderful illustrated life-stories of Albert Einstein and Julia Child — I was instantly smitten with Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (public library | IndieBound) by Monica Brown, with absolutely stunning illustrations and hand-lettering by artist Julie Paschkis.

The story begins with the poet’s birth in Chile in 1904 with the given name of Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto — to evade his father’s disapproval of his poetry, he came up with the pen name “Pablo Neruda” at the age of sixteen when he first began publishing his work — and traces his evolution as a writer, his political awakening as an activist, his deep love of people and language and the luminosity of life.

Neftalí wasn’t very good at soccer or at throwing acorns like his friends, but he loved to read and discovered magic between the pages.

Embedded in the story is a sweet reminder of what books do for the soul and a heartening assurance that creative genius isn’t the product of conforming to common standards of excellence but of finding one’s element.

In fact, the book is as much a celebration of Neruda as it is a love letter to language itself — swirling through Paschkis’s vibrant illustrations are words both English and Spanish, beautiful words like “fathom” and “plummet” and “flicker” and “sigh” and “azul.”

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People is exuberant and enchanting in its entirety. Complement it with Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland, and On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky, then treat yourself to this bewitching reading of Neruda’s “Ode to the Book.”

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29 OCTOBER, 2014

Evolution: A Coloring Book

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A die-cut history of how the dinosaurs became birds and humans rose from the sea.

We were once amoebae, and here we are today, singing opera and typing on iPhones with opposable thumbs. That alone is enough marvel to put the petty nuisances of everyday life in perspective and fill our human hearts with humility.

As a lover of unusual coloring books and of science-oriented children’s books, especially ones that replace myth with science, I was instantly smitten with Evolution: A Coloring Book (public library | IndieBound) by London-based Finnish illustrator Annu Kilpeläinen — the best thing since Darwin’s graphic biography.

This simple yet imaginative primer on science via art explores natural selection, continental drift, what killed the dinosaurs, how birds descended from them, and all the other processes and phenomena that took us to where we are today. Die-cut delights add an element of interactive playfulness to the classic coloring-book experience.

One particularly apt application of the die-cut technique is a series of pages which, through strategically placed cuts, invite an exploration of how human facial features evolved.

Complement Evolution: A Coloring Book with Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality, then revisit the wonderful science primers You Are Stardust and Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space.

For a fascinating grownup take on evolution, see the science of how bees gave Earth its colors.

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29 OCTOBER, 2014

25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy: Andy Warhol’s Little-Known Collaborations with His Mother

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The cat listicle goes pop art half a century before cat listicles existed.

In the 1950s, long before he had invented himself as pop art’s pioneer, Andy Warhol was making ends meet by working as a freelance children’s book illustrator for Doubleday. Still, he was unable to escape poverty. When his mother, Julia Warhola — an artist herself and one of history’s unsung champions behind creative icons — found out about her son’s destitute conditions in 1952, she boarded a bus from Pittsburgh to New York and moved into Andy’s tiny apartment on East 75th Street, intent on taking care of him and helping him get by. The two shared a love of cats so strong that their squalid home was populated by a multitude of felines, all but one named Sam; the sole outlier, Julia’s most beloved companion, was named Hester. But in addition to cat-rearing, the mother-son cohabitation inevitably led to a series of creative collaborations and an adventure of self-publishing.

In 1954, Andy and Julia released a limited-edition artist’s book ungrammatically titled 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy (public library), featuring Andy’s signature blotted-line watercolor drawings in vibrant pop-art colors and calligraphy by Julia. Oddly enough, there were only sixteen rather than twenty-five cats portrayed and Julia had accidentally missed the letter “d” from “Named,” but Andy decided to keep the title and fold the idiosyncratic wording into the already quirky yet strangely contemporary concept — not only was it a book solely about cats half a century before the cat meme of the modern web, but it was also practically an illustrated listicle.

The book was conceived as an edition of 190 signed and numbered copies, most of which Warhol gave away to friends and clients as gifts.

But perhaps even more intriguing was the sequel, another self-published book unambiguously titled Holy Cats by Andy Warhol’s Mother (public library) — a playful and irreverent eulogy for Julia’s beloved Hester, which she wrote and illustrated herself.

Warhol would later remark of his mother’s peculiar labor-of-love project: “It featured what she loved to draw most, angels and cats.”

The two books were eventually reproduced and published as a boxed set a few months after Warhol’s death in 1987.

The two books were followed by the duo’s final collaboration, the little-known cookbook Wild Strawberries. Shortly after that, Warhol underwent what Lou Reed called the “PHOOM!” moment when he stopped being Andy Warhol and became Andy Warhol.

Complement this illustrated love letter to felines with a similar concept from Indian folklore and Gay Talese’s field guide to the social order of New York City cats, then revisit Warhol’s graphic biography and his musings on the joys of virtual relationships.

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