Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

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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16 JULY, 2013

Alice and Martin Provensen’s Stunning Vintage Illustrations for Twelve Classic Fairy Tales

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From “The Happy Prince” to “The Beauty and the Beast,” by way of feminism and art history.

As a hopeless fan of Alice and Martin Provensen and a lover of fairy tales, especially ones featuring exquisite illustrations and beautiful reimaginings of the classics, I was delighted to come across The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales (public library) — an out-of-print gem published in 1971, in which the creative duo bring their singular whimsy to twelve beloved fairy tales. From classics like “The Beauty and the Beast” to literary tales like Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” to a recasting of Grimm’s goose girl as a heroine driven by the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, it is at once a timeless treasure trove of storytelling and a subtle time-capsule of cultural history.

'The Swan Maiden' by Howard Pyle

'The Swan Maiden' by Howard Pyle

'The Forrest Bride' by Parker Fillmore

'The Forrest Bride' by Parker Fillmore

'Feather O' My Wing' by Seamus MacManus

'Feather O' My Wing' by Seamus MacManus

In the foreword, Joan Bodger makes an important distinction, which Philip Pullman would come to echo in his retelling of The Brothers Grimm:

The stories in this book are literary fairy tales and thus may seem both familiar and unfamiliar. They are literary fairy tales because they are consciously created pieces of literature. The folk fairy tale is much more ancient, handed along through time (inheritance) and space (diffusion). Folk tales are so transformed by many tellings that no one knows for sure where they began, or how, or why. Certain it is that men and women in every time and every place have tried to impart what is most powerful or complicated or downright funny about the human condition by making up stories to explain the inexplicable.

The literary tale borrows shamelessly from the folk tale but gives it a new twist or dimension… Literary tales are filched from the seething cauldron of folklore, but the best bits and pieces of them are thrown back into the pot to be used again and again.

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince and the Goose Girl' by Elinor Mordaunt

'The Happy Prince' by Oscar Wilde

'The Lost Half-Hour' by Henry Beston

'The Nightingale' by Hans Christian Andersen

'The Seven Simons' by Ruth Manning-Sanders

'The Beauty and the Beast' by Arthur Rackham

Martin Provensen died of a heart attack in 1987, but Alice has continued to write and illustrate well into her nineties. Their artwork has inspired generations of children and its influence quietly reverberates through styles of some of today’s most celebrated artists and illustrators like Vladimir Radunsky. (That their Wikipedia page is so incomplete and out-of-date is truly a shame.)

Complement The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales with Edward Gorey’s take on three classic fairy tales and Kay Nielsen’s stunning 1914 illustrations for Scandinavian fairy tales.

Thanks, Gjela

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