Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

13 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Henry Builds a Cabin: Thoreau’s Joyfully Minimalist Life at Walden, Illustrated for Kids and Full of Wisdom for All

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“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a one as their neighbors have.”

In September of 1992, a young man by the name of Chris McCandless perished in the wilderness after resolving to live outside of consumer culture, as close to nature as possible. His story, still the source of ongoing controversy, became the book Into the Wild, which then became the movie of the same title, which gave us one of the best film soundtracks ever. Despite its tragic ending, McCandless’s tale is infused with the ideas and ideals of another man who left the city for the woods to attempt a simple life more than a century earlier: Henry David Thoreau. In the forest around the shores of Walden Pond, he built himself a tiny cabin 10 feet wide and 15 feet long, snugly containing only his bed, a writing desk, and a table with three chairs. He built it himself, with the help of a few friends, using old boards and bricks. The total cost was only $28.12½ — a masterpiece of material minimalism in every sense.

Henry Builds a Cabin (public library), the sequel to artist and author D. B. Johnson’s infinitely delightful Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, adapts the tale of Thoreau and his cabin in vibrant illustrations, once again casting the beloved transcendentalist as a lovable bear named Henry. The story is inspired by this famous passage from Thoreau’s Walden, presaging the notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” by a century:

Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a one as their neighbors have.

Johnson’s vibrant, distinctive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations invite us to spy on Henry while he builds his cabin as his friends, one by one, question his modest choices.

First, his friend Emerson, who helps Henry raise the beams, questions the size of his dining area:

“Henry,” he said, “your cabin looks too small to eat in!”
“It’s bigger than it looks,” said Henry.

Henry leads Emerson to a bean patch he has planted behind the cabin and proclaims:

When it’s finished, this will be my dining room.

Then, as Henry is nailing the boards on the roof, his friend Alcott arrives and brings his own skepticism.

“Henry,” he said, “your cabin looks too dark to read in!”
“It’s brighter than it looks,” said Henry.

Henry leads him to a sunny spot next to the cabin and exalts:

When it’s finished, this will be my library.

With more visitors come more questions about the comfort and practicality of the cabin, but Henry refutes each with his cheerful resourcefulness. Finally, on July 4, 1845, he moves into his cabin and blissfully munches on beans in his “dining room,” enjoys a good book in his “library,” and takes pride in his tiny cabin built with heart and humility.

The end of the book features this endearing breakdown of Thoreau’s cabin construction budget:

  • Boards $8.03½
  • Used shingles $4.00
  • Laths $1.25
  • Two second-hand windows $2.43
  • One thousand old bricks $4.00
  • Two casks of Lime* $2.40
  • Hair* $0.31
  • Mantle-tree iron $0.15
  • Nails $3.90
  • Hinges and screws $0.14
  • Latch $0.10
  • Chalk $0.01
  • Transportation $1.40
    • TOTAL: $28.12½

      *lime and hair were used to make plaster

Complement Henry Builds a Cabin with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, then revisit some of Thoreau’s timeless philosophy for grown-ups.

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11 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Beneath the Rainbow: Enchanting Stories and Poems from Kenya, Illustrated by African Artists

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Lovely modern-day fables based on African mythology.

Although some of the world’s most influential storytelling was created in eras before “the West” as we know it even existed — from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey set in Ancient Greece to Arabian Nights representing the Middle East — the vast majority of modern storytelling permeating popular culture today, especially when it comes to children’s books, has a decidedly Western bias.

Enter Beneath the Rainbow — an enchanting collection of mystical children’s stories and poems from Kenya, published by Kenya’s Jacaranda Design and distributed by global literacy nonprofit Worldreader as the first in an ongoing series, featuring motifs and characters from traditional African myths reimagined by modern-day writers and brought to life with expressive illustrations by African artists.

Sun, Wind, and Cloud, written by Kariuki Gakuo and illustrated by Phyllis Koinange and John Okello, tells the story of an ancient quarrel the Sun and the Wind had over who was stronger, which only a tiny white Cloud floating overhead is able to settle.

When each element tries to prove its supremacy, fire and drought ensue — the Sun burns the land and the Wind blows the smoke into the little Cloud’s eyes. But as she begins to cry, she restores balance and safety to the animals, who had begun to flee in horror, and helps the Sun and Wind realize that strength only matters if it is a life-giving force, not a destructive one.

In the sky, Sun and Wind agreed that Cloud was stronger than either of them.

Even to this day, when the animals see the clouds growing dark and heavy with rain, they stop what they are doing to give thanks and praise to Ngai, the god of all living things, who saved them from both drought and fire.

It is a parable about ego and selflessness, construction and destruction, vanity and valor — an African version of the familiar Aesop’s Fables.

In “Run,” poet Sam Mbure and illustrator Pat Keay explore the gentler face of the elements with a beautiful celebration of private everyday happiness:

Come down sweet rain;
Come rain on me
Like you rain on the tree,
The maize and the grass;
And they grow and grow.

Come down sweet rain,
End famine and thirst.
Soon the market will overflow;
Vegetables and fruits, maize and beans;
And I’ll grow and grow and grow.

Come down sweet rain
Wash away dust and dirt
Fill our drum with sweet rain water
So that tomorrow I can sleep till nine.
And I’ll be happy, happy to rest.

Come down sweet rain
Shut out drought and heat
Swell rivers, ponds and seas
Then as I swim naked in the pool
I’ll join the frogs singing for you.

The Ostrich and the Wizard, written by Kariuki Gakuo and illustrated by Sironka Averdung and John Okello, tells the prehistoric tale of young Earth and creatures first began to populate it. The Ostrich, unsure of whether she was a bird or an animal, struggles with her quest for identity — heartened by laying a large white egg, she decides she’s a bird; but when the other birds realize she can’t fly, they ostracize her with scorn. She runs and runs, unable to find where she belongs.

The ostrich ran faster and faster and the cloud of dust whirled thicker and thicker. The giant eyes of the crocodile were red and swollen with the dust, while the salty tears of the elephants and hippos formed great pools around their feet. In the hot sun the pools of tears dried up and formed deep salt licks.

But the ostrich did not stop running. Faster and faster she ran while behind her the cloud of dust whirled thicker and thicker.

Gorgeously illustrated and beautifully written, like all the stories and poems in the collection, it’s an allegory about the essence of home and belonging.

Complement Beneath the Rainbow with The Night Life of Trees and Waterlife — two equally wonderful children’s stories from another part of the world, based on traditional Indian mythology.

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10 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Nurse Lugton’s Curtain: Virginia Woolf’s Little-Known Children’s Story, in Gorgeous Watercolors

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A lovely allegory about the whimsical wonderland we enter as we slip into sleep.

In 1923, with her literary fame still ahead of her, beloved author and reconstructionist Virginia Woolf collaborated with her two teenage nephews, one of whom went on to become an intellectual tour de force in his own right, on a witty and wonderful family bulletin. It was there that Woolf’s first little-known children’s story, The Widow and the Parrot, made its debut. A year later, in 1924, Woolf penned another children’s tale but, like Gertrude Stein’s alphabet book, it only entered the world posthumously, in 1965. Nearly three decades later still, Nurse Lugton’s Curtain (public library) — the story of a whimsical world that lurks inside the pattern of the drawing-room curtain Nurse Lugton is quietly sewing, then comes alive as she falls asleep — was published in 1991 with expressive and enchanting watercolors illustrations by Julie Vivas.

This long-lost gem, alas out-of-print but still findable used, comes as a fine addition to other little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, including previously uncovered treasures by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, John Updike, and Jane Goodall.

Complement Nurse Lugton’s Curtain with Woolf’s first children’s story, then revisit the beloved author’s meditation on how to read a book and the only surviving recording of her voice.

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