Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

04 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau: Cultural Stereotypes Subverted in a Subtle Celebration of Diversity

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A sweet reminder that however different the hats we wear may be, we are united by a common thread of goodwill.

The loveliest children’s books have a way of distilling the complexities of our most universal emotions into simple, symbolic stories that invite us to restore our faith in the human spirit. Such is the gift of Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau (public library), written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts — the story of an unusual day in the otherwise routine life of “the world’s finest hatmaker,” who spends her days crafting exquisite one-of-a-kind hats for “the hatless but hopeful” that show up at her atelier. Ordinarily, once the bustle of her busy day is done, Madame Chapeau returns to her quarters and dines alone, with only her dog and her cat to keep company.

One night a year, on her birthday, she takes out her most elegant dress and chooses a special birthday bonnet, then walks to the town’s finest restaurant to dine alone in her festive outfit.

But on this particular birthday stroll, something unexpected happens — Madame Chateau trips and feels her birthday bonnet fly off as a crow snatches it mid-air. (Sound familiar?) Outraged and devastated, she runs through the town chasing after the crow as various townspeople — a chef, a mime, a cowboy, a police officer — try to console her by offering their respective hats.

None of them will do — Madame Chapeau yearns for her singular birthday bonnet. Meanwhile, a quiet little girl, the daughter of one of Madame Chapeau’s clients, witnesses the commotion with equal parts curiosity and compassion.

Resigned to the bonnet’s fate, the disheartened hatmaker feels like retreating home to despair in private — but she suddenly remembers that her restaurant reservation awaits, with a birthday cake already ordered. Reluctantly, she sits at her fancy table with a sigh, holding back tears.

Just then, the little girl politely approaches and presents her with a colorfully quirky knit cap that she herself had crafted with her tiny little-girl hands.

The girl held a brightly knit cap in her hand,
with thin purple stripes and a wide orange band.
Its earflaps were yellow. Its pom-pom was green.
A freakier headpiece has never been seen.

“It looks rather odd,” said the Lady Chapeau.
“This hat has no baubles. No beads. And no bow!
It’s stretchy… it’s cozy… it’s easy to squish.
It’s knitted with love and your best birthday wish!”

“How wonderfully perfect! The right hat for me!
A true birthday bonnet, I’m sure you’ll agree!”

And, just like that, the day is saved by a sweet and simple gesture of generosity. The townspeople join Madame Chapeau and her new little friend in a joyous birthday celebration, feasting on chocolate cake and dancing into the night — a grand finale made all the merrier by Roberts’s vibrant vintage-inspired illustrations and Beaty’s Dr. Seussean verses.

But there is something else that makes this gem so magical — a subtle yet enormously empowering subversion of limiting cultural stereotypes.

Because the golden age of modern children’s books took place in the middle of the twentieth century, on the cusp of the civil rights movement and decades before the second wave of feminism, it is unsurprising that the genre, even today, is burdened by the cultural baggage of inequality — only 31 percent of contemporary children’s books feature female heroines, many of which purvey limiting gender expectations, and of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 only 93 featured people of color.

And yet here is a book about an independent middle-aged woman who defies the still-prevalent stigma against singletons and is financially self-sufficient by her own creative labor, who is white and services a wealthy black client, and who is helped into the dénouement of her challenge not by a patronizing Prince Charming but by a little black girl dressed in preppy plaid. There is, too, the many-hatted citizenry of wildly diverse backgrounds and callings, joined together in a common cause of goodwill.

More than a mere treat of storytelling and illustration, Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau offers a subtle but profound deconditioning of our most toxic cultural tropes. There are no stereotypes in this charming book, only the diversity of human experience in its real dimensions.

Illustrations courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers; photographs my own

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book: Grown-up Advice on Modern Life from Vintage Children’s Books

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A charming compendium of little reminders about what it takes to live a happy and fulfilling life today.

As an enormous lover of vintage children’s books, I was instantly smitten with Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book (public library) — a semi-serious, playful and practical guide to life culling wisdom for modern grown-ups from the iconic Little Golden Books series of mid-century children’s books. From mental and physical health to money to relationships, this charming compendium captions and reframes vibrant vintage illustrations — many by artists whose talent was cultivated under legendary children’s book champion Ursula Nordstrom’s magnanimous wing — as little reminders about what it takes to live a happy and fulfilling life today.

The project is in many ways an organic extension of the Little Golden Book ethos, which has sustained generations through troubled times with creative nourishment for young souls. This compendium offers heartening solace for those weary of the hardships our world is currently facing. Diane Muldrow, longtime editor of the beloved children’s series, writes in the introduction:

We’ve been forced to look at ourselves and how we’re living our lives. Ironically, in this health-conscious, ecologically aware age of information, many of us have overborrowed, overspent, overeaten, and generally overdosed on habits or ways of life that aren’t good for us — or for our world. The chickens have come home to roost, and their names are Debt, Depression, and Diabetes.

How did we get here? How, like Tootle the Train, did we get so off track? Perhaps it’s time to revisit these beloved stories and start all over again. Trying to figure out where you belong, like Scuffy the Tugboat? Maybe, as time marches on, you’re beginning to feel that you resemble the Saggy Baggy Elephant.

Or perhaps your problems are more sweeping. Like the Poky Little Puppy, do you seem to be getting into trouble rather often and missing out on the strawberry shortcake in life? Maybe this book can help you! After all, Little Golden Books were first published during the dark days of World War II, and they’ve been comforting people during trying times ever since — while gently teaching us a thing or two. And they remind us that we’ve had the potential to be wise and content all along.

From 'Circus Time' by Marion Conger, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, 1948

From 'The Seven Sneezes' by Olga Cabral, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, 1948

From 'Duck and His Friends' by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, illustrated by Richard Scarry, 1949

From 'Animal Gym' by Beth Greiner Hoffman, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, 1956

From 'I Can Fly' by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Mary Blair, 1951

From 'The Friendly Book' by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Garth Williams, 1954

From 'The Three Bears,' illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky, 1948

From 'The Color Kittens' by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, 1949

From 'Tawny Scrawny Lion' by Kathryn Jackson, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, 1952

From 'The Little Red Hen,' illustrated by J. P. Miller, 1954

From 'The Musicians of Bremen,' adapted from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, illustrated by J. P. Miller, 1954

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book is an absolute delight. Complement it with some actual Golden Books, including I Can Fly by the great Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Disney’s Mary Blair, a lovely adaptation of Homer for young readers by creative power duo Alice and Martin Provensen, and perhaps the best of the bunch, The Little Golden Book of Words.

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Fox’s Garden: A Tender Wordless Story About the Gift of Grace and the Transformative Power of Kindness to Those Kicked Away

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A gentle reminder that life can be a cold wasteland of cruelty or a whimsical wonderland of grace, depending on the generosity of spirit with which we approach it.

The question of human nature — whether we are born full of goodness or spend our lives concealing our inherently rotten souls — is perhaps the most timeless and most significant of humanity’s inquiries. A subtle and infinitely heartening answer comes in Fox’s Garden (public library) — a breathtaking wordless picture-book by French artist Princesse Camcam, born Camille Garoche, whose lyrical cut-paper illustrations tell a story of cruelty redeemed by kindness, of coldness melted away by the warmth of compassion that is our true nature.

One cold winter night, the fox loses her way in the forest and stumbles into a village. Kicked away by the grownups — those strange beings chronically paralyzed by their fear of the unfamiliar — she finds refuge in a shut-down greenhouse, where she gives birth to a litter of baby foxes.

A curious and warmhearted little boy, full of children’s inherent openness to experience, follows her and offers a small gift — a beautiful gesture bespeaking the transformative power of acknowledging the rejected and making mindful room in one’s heart for those outcast by the mindless majority.

Reminiscent of Norwegian artist Øyvind Torseter’s handcrafted dioramas for My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, Camcam’s refreshingly analog cut-paper vignettes, meticulously lit and photographed, exude a towering tenderness that only amplifies the story’s overwhelming purity of emotion.

The wordlessness mirrors the silence of the snowy winter, a backdrop against which we are reminded that, like winter, life can be a cold and barren wasteland or a whimsical wonderland of grace, depending on the eyes we bring to it and the generosity of spirit with which we approach it.

Fox’s Garden comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion, champion of quietly moving masterworks of extraordinary emotional intelligence and sensitivity — lyrical treasures like The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, among others.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion

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