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Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

21 NOVEMBER, 2013

To Live Long, Write for Children: RIP Charlotte Zolotow, 98

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Honoring one of the biggest hearts and most brilliant minds in children’s literature.

For those who hold children’s books dear, a little piece of the soul dies every time another beloved children’s book author or artist leaves us. It helps a little to know that the great Charlotte Zolotow (June 26, 1915–November 19, 2013) lived to be 98. (On a semi-serious aside: It seems that writing for children holds an especial promise of longevity, with many authors and illustrators outliving the average life expectancy of their homeland by years, often decades — Maurice Sendak lived to be 84, E. B. White 86, Ruth Krauss 92, Alice Provensen reportedly continues to draw well into her nineties, and Eric Carle just released his latest book at 84. There must be something uniquely soul-nourishing about the warmth and kindness that writing for children both requires and stimulates.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

Although she authored and edited more than seventy books, Zolotow remains best-known for Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, published in 1962 and illustrated by none other than Sendak. But the most influential relationship of her career was with the great Ursula Nordstrom, fairy godmother of modern children’s literature, who steered Zolotow’s collaboration with Sendak and with whom Zolotow worked closely for many years thereafter. From Leonard Marcus’s altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — which also gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing and the infinitely heartwarming story of how she cultivated young Sendak’s genius — comes the wonderful record of Zolotow’s formative relationship with Nordstrom.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

In August of 1961, when Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present was coming together, Nordstrom assured Sendak of Zolotow’s commitment to the project:

She is so glad you’re illustrating it, and so are we, that nothing can cloud our pleasure.

A few months later, on October 30, she sent a heartwarming letter to Zolotow herself:

Dear Charlotte—

Sendak’s pictures are so lovely for your (untitled) book! Utterly different from anything he’s ever done — with a timeless, classic quality: You’ll be happy, I know. The little girl is so lovely, and the rabbit is funny, a good combination, I think.

After thanking Zolotow for recommending a play Nordstrom had just seen and loved, and for Zolotow’s kind words about the only children’s book Nordstrom herself ever wrote, The Secret Language, she holds up a mirror of warm mutuality:

I can never tell you how grateful I am to you, dear friend and author. I’ve never had anyone — well, — be so generous and kind, certainly no AUTHOR — as you’ve been.

The longtime collaboration and lifelong friendship between the two began when Zolotow became Nordstrom’s editorial assistant at Harper & Row — a position that, under the influence of Nordstrom’s enormous generosity of spirit and creative bravery, no doubt helped Zolotow cultivate her own. In fact, she soon became Nordstrom’s right-hand-woman and was even the one to bring in Louise Fitzhugh’s hugely popular 1964 classic, Harriet the Spy, which queer women continue to celebrate for its trailblazing use of an apparently queer protagonist.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)

In a 2009 interview, Zolotow spoke of the interplay between being a writer and being an editor:

Being both a writer and editor affects different expressions of the same personality. Writers must shut out everyone else while they write. They must forget outside suggestions, or the temptation to follow suggestions separate from their own visions.

Editors must resist the desire to insert their own idea of how and where the story goes. They must resist the temptation to offer their own words as a solution when something is weak; instead they should alert the writer to this weakness, so that if the writer agrees, she may solve the problem in her own words and way.

When Nordstrom was ready to leave Harper, she bequeath her department to Zolotow. In a 1980 letter to another one of her authors, Mary Stolz, Nordstrom wrote:

I told Charlotte Zolotow many months ago that I wanted to slope off my job with Harper, and not be an editor any more. There are good things about it, always have been, but no more working with authors, dealing with contracts, worrying about the lack of reviews, or when there are bad ones, for “my” authors. Charlotte, as head of the department, is a brilliant and sensitive creative person. She will see that your work get the good attention I think you have always had from the dept.

Illustration by William Pène du Bois from William's Doll (1972)

And see to it she did — Zolotow went on to bring to life dozens of books for young readers, from her very first, The Park Book, published in 1944 and illustrated by H. A. Ray, to such delights as William’s Doll (1972) illustrated by William Pène du Bois and I Know a Lady (1984) illustrated by James Stevenson to her final book, The Beautiful Christmas Tree, published in 1999 and illustrated by the inimitable Yan Nascimbene, whom we also lost this year.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

Thank you for the many lovely presents, Charlotte.

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19 NOVEMBER, 2013

Iconic Illustrator Eric Carle’s Vibrant Ode to Friendship

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A heartwarming tale of affection and determination, told by one of our time’s greatest visual storytellers.

Eric Carle (b. June 25, 1929) is arguably the most celebrated — and prolific — children’s book author-illustrator alive and a tireless champion of art for young humans. Almost half a century after his beloved classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which has delighted generations of children, Carle returns with Friends (public library) — the heart-warming story of an inseparable boy and girl, and the boy’s quest to reunite with his dear friend after she moves away. The tale was inspired by a photograph of 3-year-old Carle embracing a girl in a white dress in his hometown of Syracuse. Though he never learned her name, he remained enchanted by the mystery and innocence of that early friendship.

Illustrated in Carle’s signature technique of colorful hand-painted tissue paper collages, the story exudes the joyful warmth of Maurice Sendak and Ruth Krauss’s vintage ode to friendship, I’ll Be You and You Be Me, the vibrant adventurousness of Alone in the Forest, and, above all, Carle’s own singular touch.

Friends comes two years after Carle’s most recent book, The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse, and forty-eight after the very first book he ever illustrated, a 1965 edition of Aesop’s fables. Perhaps poetically, the second book Carle illustrated as a young artist was a small collection of quotes about friendship.

Images courtesy of Philomel / Penguin Group

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18 NOVEMBER, 2013

How Hans Christian Andersen Revolutionized Storytelling, Plus the Best Illustrations from 150 Years of His Beloved Fairy Tales

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“Andersen had the ability to articulate desires petty and profound and make them into transcendent tales.”

“When people talk listen completely,” Hemingway counseled in his advice on how to be a writer. More than a century earlier, a little boy in Denmark, born into poverty to a shoemaker father and an illiterate washerwoman mother, was spending his days listening to the old women in the local insane asylum as they spun their yarn and spun their tales to pass the time. This unusual hub of peasant storytelling in the oral tradition of folklore became his laboratory for listening, out of which he would later concoct his own stories — stories beloved the world over, which have raised generations of children into a whimsical world of imaginative play. Hans Christian Andersen thus used that singular talent of listening to lift himself out of poverty and into international celebrity, becoming one of history’s greatest storytellers and the patron saint of the fairy tale genre.

Two years after Taschen’s visual treasure celebrating The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, one of the best picturebooks of 2011, comes The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) — a handsome fabric-bound tome culling twenty-three of Andersen’s most beloved fairy tales, including “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Snow Queen,” and “The Princess and the Pea.” Accompanying the tales are some of history’s most beautiful illustrations of Andersen by artists of various nationalities, featuring such masters as Kay Nielsen, whose vintage illustrations of Scandinavian fairy tales are some of the most striking art you’ll ever see, Harry Clarke, whose drawings for Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination remain timelessly haunting, and young Maurice Sendak in his formative years as an artist.

My favorite illustrations come from a duo of female artists, Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, working together in the 1920s and 1930s — the sort of work that incorporates, even pioneers, elements of graphic design just as the discipline was being coined — the influence of which can even be seen in contemporary art such as Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations of Irish myths and legends:

Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, 1929

Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, 1929

Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, 1929

Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, 1929

Beyond the beautiful art, however, what made — and keeps — Andersen a singular force of storytelling is something else: Unlike the Grimms — literary scholars and linguists who, rather than traveling the countryside to gather first-hand oral folktales, relied on a handful of trusted sources — Andersen came of age as a peasant amidst a highly superstitious society, in a small town of 8,000 more akin to a medieval city than a European hub of culture, in which tales were used as both entertainment and moral education. Not only were his stories authentic culturally, they were also largely his own — also unlike the Grimms, who retold existing tales, historians estimate that only seven of Andersen’s 200 tales were borrowed.

Illustration for 'The Darning Needle' by Maurice Sendak, 1959

From a young age, Hans felt a deep sense of loneliness and inadequacy, finding refuge in the asylum’s spinning room while his peers took to the playground. Luckily, his father, poor as he was, loved literature and owned a cupboard of books — rare luxury given both the family’s income and their cultural environment. Though he died when Hans was only eleven, he would read the little boy stories and plays constantly, providing him with a makeshift education at once uncommon and unlikely. Later, writing in his diary, Hans described reading as his “sole and most beloved pastime.” It was this confluence of reading and listening that made him the great storyteller he became. Editor Noel Daniel writes in the introduction:

Reading suited Andersen’s temperament and powers of imagination to a T. But Andersen was also a great listener — in the spinning room of the asylum, to his father’s story time, to the actors of the theater he adored. He listened acutely to the characters and voices around him, and it trained his ear. He developed an inner ear for the sights and sounds of whole imaginary worlds, like the haughty tone of the deluded sewing needle in “The Darning Needle,” or the emperor’s comical inner monologue of self-doubt in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” or the little silver bells in the palace that “tinkled so that no one could pass by without noticing them” in “The Nightingale.”

Illustration for 'The Nightingale' by Ukrainian artist Georgi Ivanovich Narbut, 1912

Illustration for 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' by Kay Nielsen, Danish, 1924

Illustration for 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' by Kay Nielsen, Danish, 1924

Most compelling of all his tales, however, is Andersen’s own rags-to-riches story: Poor commonfolk as he was by birth, he was relentlessly determined to be a success. Daniel writes:

‘I will become famous,’ Andersen wrote in his diary, underscoring that his professional drive to greatness was not the polite narcissism of the restrained and well educated. His drive to greatness ran deep in the troubled psychic waters of his soul. Rarly on, his patrons recognized a powerful self-confidence in Andersen. He possessed a gritty drive to perform, a marvelous soprano voice (before it cracked), a gift for telling stories, and, along with all of this, an irritating ego.

[…]

Part of Andersen’s genius lay in his ability to somehow perceive, while growing up in the poorest corner of Odense, that high society was mobile enough that if he cracked it, he would go far. He armored himself with steely ambition, an electric imagination, and not an ounce of stage fright. . . .

Illustration for 'The Little Mermaid' by Czech artist Josef Palecek, 1981

Modern psychology could easily reverse-engineer the two things that made Andersen live up to his aspiration: On the one hand, the creative power of “positive constructive daydreaming” as he escaped into the spinning room and learned to listen, and his unrelenting grit on the other. Even so, to break into high society, he still had to endure the humiliating ghost of his socioeconomic caste and to cultivate that vital capacity for courage in the face of rejection. Daniel explains:

Royal patronage dependent on good breeding and connections was way out of Andersen’s league, and his path to success was fraught with deprivation and repeated rejection. But incredibly, he persisted. Ultimately, he was noticed by the director of the Royal Theater, Jonas Collin, who helped secure a royal stipend for the teenager. What followed was a painful five-year period of being schooled with eleven-year-olds when Andersen was seventeen at the insistence of his sponsors. They had demanded that he either get a proper education before advancing as a writer, or go home and learn a trade. The latter had been the fate of his father and was absolutely out of the question for Andersen.

One of the earliest illustrations of Andersen's fairy tales, by British artist Eleanor Vere Boyle for an 1872 edition of 'Thumbelina'

Illustration for 'The Swineherd' by Swedish artist Einar Nerman, 1923

And yet despite the humiliation, Andersen found in the experience just enough positive reinforcement to plow forward. Thanks to Denmark’s monarchic rule, the country — unlike its European peers, intensely focused on politic and economic development — was in the midst of a Golden Age of creative culture and the arts, so with Collin’s help, Andersen was able to secure an artist’s allowance, which gave him some freedom to hone his writing. But even when he did eventually break into the upper ranks of society through his tireless efforts — in his lifetime, he would become Denmark’s most renowned author and would frequently keep the company of kings — Andersen remained weighed down by his uneasy sense of insufficiency, the same feeling of un-belonging that drove him to the spinning room while his friends played outside. Daniel puts it beautifully, if heartbreakingly:

Andersen was forever dancing between self-assuredness and feelings of inferiority and emotional vulnerability. He never escaped feeling unequal to the royals, celebrities, and dignitaries he socialized with as his fame grew, writing in his diary, “I had and still have a feeling as though I were a poor peasant lad over whom a royal mantle is thrown.”

Illustration for 'The Ugly Duckling' by Dutch artist Theo van Hoytema, 1893

Illustration for 'The Ugly Duckling' by Dutch artist Theo van Hoytema, 1893

So when he wrote in The Ugly Duckling that “being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg,” Andersen was making an oblique, melancholy comment about his own journey. Perhaps it was out of this feeling, coupled with his ability to “listen completely” and remain in touch with his own childlike openness to the experience of the world, that he invented a whole new sensibility of children’s storytelling, which Daniel so aptly terms “children’s stories for children’s sake” — a radical shift from the tradition of morality tales that preceded Andersen, and far removed from the Grimms’ academic interest in language and imagery. Instead, Andersen crafted tales that were both dreamy and warmly relatable to children, building worlds at once emotionally complex and driven by an intuitive logic. Daniel captures the uniqueness of Andersen’s microcosm:

Contemporary readers might find it hard to imagine just how different Andersen’s tales were from those before him. They were beautifully paced and passionate, at times sorrowful and full of pathos, and at other times wickedly funny. Simply put, they were a pleasure to read, and they spoke directly to children’s sensibilities rather than condescending to them.

[…]

While his introspection and sensitivity were imperfectly calibrated to the demands of his own life, Andersen had the ability to articulate desires petty and profound and make them into transcendent tales.

Illustrations by Japanese artist Takeo Takei, 1928

Illustrations by Japanese artist Takeo Takei, 1928

Illustrations by Japanese artist Takeo Takei, 1928

Andersen is even credited with exploring the unconscious long before Freud’s seminal studies and presaging the sensibilities of twentieth-century Surrealism. Though Daniel doesn’t draw the connection, it’s easy to see even the seedlings of New Journalism in Andersen’s focus on the subjective, which Daniel does note:

Andersen imbues a simple inkstand, a toy soldier, a bird, a pea, a spinning top with their own drives, blind spots, desires, arrogances, and courage. Andersen’s characters are humanlike in their passions as well as their frailties, and often have a slightly kinked perspective, unable to see their real fate or position, as if Andersen was shining a light on the limitations of our own human subjectivity. In this way, perhaps the real subject of his tales is the inescapable condition of subjectivity as the essence of human experience.

Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, 1929

Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, 1929

Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, 1929

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen is absolutely exquisite, both as a typical Taschen masterwork of visual craftsmanship and as a timeless cultural treasure of storytelling by and meta-storytelling about one of history’s greatest creative heroes.

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