Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

25 JULY, 2013

Open House for Butterflies: Ruth Krauss’s Final and Loveliest Collaboration with Maurice Sendak

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“Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child.”

Beloved children’s author Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993) penned more than thirty books for little ones over the course of her forty-year career, but remains best-known as half of one of the most celebrated author-illustrator duos of all time, the other half being none other than Maurice Sendak. Their eight-year partnership, masterminded by the great Ursula Nordstrom who also nursed Sendak into genius, produced such soul-stirring, heart-warming delights as the hopelessly wonderful ode to friendship I’ll Be You and You Be Me. But Krauss’s eighth and final* collaboration with Sendak, Open House for Butterflies (public library), was arguably their loveliest. Originally published in 1960 and thankfully, unlike what happens to a tragic many out-of-print gems, reprinted in 2001, this tiny treasure is a timeless smile-inducer for children and grown-ups alike.

Open House for Butterflies is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, an epitome of the Krauss-Sendak magic that nurtured generations of children to blossom into creative, thoughtful, just-the-right-amount-of-irreverent adults.

But no one captured the spirit of the Krauss kid more wonderfully than Nordstrom herself: In a letter from January 29, 1952, found in the altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library), Nordstrom writes to her author months before the first Krauss-Sendak book was released:

Last week-end I saw a television program (yes, I have a tv set and the other children’s book editors think I’m horrible to have one but I just toss my lovely head and act defiant) and on it was the most attractive 4 year old boy I’ve ever seen. very close, manly hair cut, and a darling face with dimples. The repulsive master of ceremonies said to him: “Tell me, Craig, when did you get those dimples?” and the m.c. grinned a baby-talk sort of grin, and the audience of adults giggled lovingly. And the kid looked at him and said: “When I got my face.” His tone of voice was reasonable and courteous and trying not to indicate what a silly question that one was. . . . Doesn’t look so wonderful written down, but it was wonderful. A Krauss Kid, I thought happily to myself.

In another letter from February of 1954, Nordstrom tells one of Harper & Row’s West Coast representatives:

Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child. But of course that only will work if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit he doesn’t know the answer to everything. Krauss books will not charm those sinful adults who sift their reactions to children’s books through their own messy adult maladjustments. That is a sin and I meet it all the time. But there are some adults who don’t sift their reactions to children’s books through their own messy adult maladjustments and I guess those are the ones who will love and buy Krauss.

* In 2005, Sendak re-illustrated a new edition of Krauss’s 1948 gem Bears, originally illustrated by Phyllis Rowand, thus producing a sort of posthumous ninth collaboration.

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19 JULY, 2013

If Gorey and Sendak Had Illustrated Kafka for Kids

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A hauntingly beautiful black-and-white adaptation of the beloved author in children’s verses.

Sylvia Plath believed it was never too early to dip children’s toes in the vast body of literature. But to plunge straight into Kafka? Why not, which is precisely what Brooklyn-based writer and videogame designer Matthue Roth has done in My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs (public library) — a magnificent adaptation of Kafka for kids. With stunning black-and-white illustrations by London-based fine artist Rohan Daniel Eason, this gem falls — rises, rather — somewhere between Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and the Graphic Canon series.

The idea came to Roth after he accidentally started reading Kafka to his two little girls, who grew enchanted with the stories. As for the choice to adapt Kafka’s characteristically dark sensibility for children, Roth clearly subscribes to the Sendakian belief that grown-ups project their own fears onto kids, who welcome rather than dread the dark. Indeed, it’s hard not to see Sendak’s fatherly echo in Eason’s beautifully haunting black-and-white drawings.

Much like Jonathan Safran Foer used Street of Crocodiles to create his brilliant Tree of Codes literary remix and Darwin’s great-granddaughter adapted the legendary naturalist’s biography into verse, Roth scoured public domain texts and various translations of Kafka to find the perfect works for his singsong transformations: the short prose poem “Excursion into the Mountains,” the novella “The Metamorphosis,” which endures as Kafka’s best-known masterpiece, and “Josefine the Singer,” his final story.

“I don’t know!”
I cried without being heard.

“I do not know.”

If nobody comes,
then nobody comes.

I’ve done nobody any harm.
Nobody’s done me any harm.
But nobody will help me.

A pack of nobodies
would be rather fine,
on the other hand.

I’d love to go on a trip — why not? –
with a pack of nobodies.

Into the mountains, of course.
Where else?

In a way, the book — like most of Kafka’s writing — also bears the odd mesmerism of literary history’s letters and diaries, the semi-forbidden pleasure of which swells under the awareness that their writers never meant for us to read the very words we’re reading, never sought to invite us into their private worlds. Kafka wished for his entire world to remain private — he never finished any of his novels and burned the majority of his manuscripts; the rest he left with his closest friend and literary executor, Max Brod, whom he instructed to burn the remaining diaries, sketches, manuscripts, and letters. It was out of love that Brod chose not to, possibly displeasing his friend but eternally pleasing the literary public.

Though Kafka never wrote for children (in fact, one might argue, he never wrote for anyone but himself), My First Kafka transforms his surviving work into a fine addition to other notable children’s book by famous authors of “adult” literature, including Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

Thanks, Sharon

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17 JULY, 2013

I Got Two Dogs: A Charming Children’s Book-and-Song by John Lithgow

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“They’re not too smart, but they’re loyal and true.”

Joining the ranks of other famous creators who have penned lesser-known but lovely books for children — including Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike — is actor and humanities-lover John Lithgow, who has actually authored a number of children’s books. But among his most delightful is I Got Two Dogs (public library), a charming book-and-song based on his own family’s two pooches, Fanny and Blue, illustrated by the prolific Robert Neubecker — a primer of sorts for the future readers of such high-brow canine celebrations as The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.

(Psst, John, perchance you should revisit the genius of dogs.)

Accompanying the book is a sing-along CD. Here is Lithgow’s terrifically goofy performance of the song:

For an equal-species-opportunity treat, pair I Got Two Dogs with the wonderful Indian folk art treasure I Like Cats, then peruse some grown-up Lithgow gold with his live-illustrated reading of Mark Twain’s taxonomy of the fourteen types of readers.

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