Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

04 OCTOBER, 2013

Secrets of The Phantom Tollbooth: Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer on Creativity, Anxiety, and Failure

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“Failure is a process … you have to fail over and over and over again to get anything that’s worthwhile.”

In 1961, a young architect by the name of Norton Juster received a grant for a book on urban perception and settled down at his house in Brooklyn Heights to write it. Struggling with the process, however, he began toying with a playful story about a boy named Milo in an effort to distract himself from the burden of his workload, and showed his drafts to his neighbor, an emerging political cartoonist named Jules Feiffer. Juster never wrote the urbanism book — instead, he teamed up with Feiffer and together they dreamt up The Phantom Tollbooth, which went on to become one of the most celebrated children’s books of all time, brimming with timeless philosophy for grown-ups — its map of The Kingdom of Wisdom alone is a profound metaphor for curiosity and the human condition.

Map of The Kingdom of Wisdom from ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’

In 2011, to mark the 50th anniversary of the beloved classic, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Hannah Jayanti set out to capture the book’s remarkable legacy by offering a rare glimpse of its creative process in a documentary that follows Feiffer and Juster, both 82 at the time, as they reminisce about their historic collaboration and the lesser-known challenges of the project. The documentary, funded on Kickstarter, has now come to life. Hannah has kindly offered two exclusive clips from The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations — one of Juster and one of Feiffer, each reflecting on the core of his creative philosophy — for our collective enjoyment. In the first clip, Juster explores the reverse bell curve of pleasure that stretches across what he considers to be the three stages of writing — a notion that maps almost perfectly onto Malcolm Cowley’s four-step model, only fusing the first two steps into one — as he looks back on writing The Phantom Tollbooth:

It was a wonderful experience — wonderful in an odd sense, in that I always felt there were three steps in writing:

The first step, which is the anticipation of writing — wonderful, because there you are with an abstract idea, and you’re quite sure that you can do it, and it’s going to be quite wonderful, and you can visualize all the wonderful sales, the interviews, the reviews; you start to write your Nobel acceptance speech. And so that’s great, because there’s nothing real there, in the anticipation of writing.

Number three is the other end of that, having finished — and that’s a wonderful feeling, because number two is an agony all the way.

Juster echoes Kierkegaard on anxiety as an essential part of creativity, reminding us of John Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — the uncomfortable skill of tolerating uncertainty and the prospect of failure, so very crucial to all good art — and harking back to Tolstoy’s notion of “infectiousness” as the ultimate litmus test for creative success:

I find that writing … it’s so anxiety-making, it’s so tense, it’s so scary, it’s so full of danger of failure, that you wake up every morning and you’re not sure what’s going to happen, and you don’t know whether you’re going to be able to do it… You can feel what you want in the back of your head but can you and are you going to get it down on paper so someone else can feel the same.

Juster’s closing remark, however — the revelation that someone as magnificent as Maurice Sendak experienced the same cauldron of creative anxiety — is strangely yet immutably comforting.

In the second clip, Feiffer reflects on his experience as an art educator and the importance of teaching his students the art of making mistakes — and reminds us that the fear of failure so core to the creative experience, while toxic, is also our greatest chance for transcendence:

Failure is a process … you have to fail over and over and over again to get anything that’s worthwhile, and to try everything.

The full film premieres at the 2013 New Yorker Festival and is available for pre-order online. Complement it with the magnificent The Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition, which features reflections from such beloved authors and artists as Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, and Maurice Sendak.

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03 OCTOBER, 2013

Alone in the Forest: Exploring Fear & Courage in Stunning Illustrations Based on Indian Folk Art

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Exquisite visual storytelling that speaks both to our crippling fear of the unfamiliar and our ability to transcend it, emerging enriched by the experience.

For nearly two decades, Indian independent publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautiful books based on Indian folk art traditions, including some extraordinary handmade gems that made it into my recent collaboration with the New York Public Library. Now comes Alone in the Forest (public library), illustrated by the celebrated Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam. It tells the tale of Musa, a young Indian boy, and his frightening foray into the dark forest to fetch firewood after his mother falls sick. Somewhere between Lemony Snicket’s The Dark and Tara’s magnificent The Night Life of Trees — in which Shyam’s expressive illustrations also appear — this exquisite piece of storytelling speaks both to our crippling fear of the unfamiliar and our ability to transcend it and emerge somehow enriched by that experience.

The Gonds of central India, among whom Shyam came of age, are a community of exceptionally visual people with a heritage of forest-dwellers. Though their art tradition originates from the decorative patterns painted on the mud floors and walls of their homes — a medium widely used across rural India and also employed by the Warli and Meena tribes — it has blossomed over the centuries into a visual language of extraordinary richness and storytelling capacity.

Complement Alone in the Forest with more of Tara’s treasures, including their two crown jewels, The Night Life of Trees and Waterlife, their homage to cats, and my personal favorite, the ever-empowering Drawing from the City.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2013

T.S. Eliot Reads “The Naming of Cats,” 1947

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“A cat must have three different names.”

Unlike other famous authors who, unbeknownst to many, also wrote for kids — including Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison, and John Updike — the children’s verses T.S. Eliot (September 26, 1888–January 4, 1965) penned in the early 1930s in a series of letters to his godchildren went on to become a cultural classic. Published in 1939 as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the collection inspired the Broadway musical Cats in 1981 and was famously illustrated by the great Edward Gorey the following year.

In this recording from 1947, remastered in 1992 and found in T.S. Eliot reads T.S. Eliot, the author himself reads the utterly delightful first poem of the collection, “The Naming of Cats,” which brings to mind its modern-day prose counterpart, Lost Cat.

THE NAMING OF CATS

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey –
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter –
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover –
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

This particular cat is named Lucy. But she herself knows, though would never confess, that it's short for Lucifer.

T.S. Eliot reads T.S. Eliot is an absolute treat in its entirety. Complement it with Edward Gorey’s fantastic illustrations of Eliot’s beloved verses and Eliot on idea-incubation.

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