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Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

30 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Hopeful Dispatches on Love, Sex, Work, Friendship, Death, and Life’s In-Betweenery from Lena Dunham

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“It’s a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it.”

“I always say what’s in my head,” proclaims six-year-old Eloise in the movie adaptation of Kay Thompson’s iconic 1955 children’s books, which came at the precipice of monumental cultural change and envisioned a precocious proto-feminist with an ancient soul and an impressive vocabulary. Eloise’s freedom of expression was more than a storytelling trope — her bold willingness to externalize her inner life, in its full spectrum of darkness and light, was emblematic of the changes to which Thompson (1909–1998) was bearing witness and the directions in which she herself sought to ever so gently, ever so subtly shift the cultural current with her Eloise books. (Like Tolkien famously asserted and Sendak subsequently echoed, Thompson didn’t believe that there is such a thing as writing “for children” and thus never considered her iconic series to be “children’s books.”)

It is no coincidence that Thompson’s beloved protagonist appears as one of several classic picture-book illustrations tattooed on Lena Dunham’s body. Dunham is in many ways a modern-day Eloise of her own making, always saying what’s in her head — stuff of extraordinary insight, emotional intelligence, and unflinching vulnerability — as another generation of women and the men who seek to understand and love them leaps across another precipice. The substance of that abyss — love, work, sex, friendship, body, therapy, and all the messy in-betweenery of life — is what Dunham explores with equal parts wit, warmth, and wisdom in Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” (public library).

Lena Dunham (photograph via Instagram / @lenadunham)

In one particularly neo-Eloisian passage in the introduction, Dunham recalls buying a used copy of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 book Having It All and argues that despite how questionable much of Gurley Brown’s advice might be, there is something to be said — something ought to be said — for the sheer courage of saying what’s in one’s head, especially when one happens to be a woman in a culture where, despite our best intentions, the expectation is otherwise:

There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.

Dunham parlays this into her own motives for writing the book:

I want to tell my stories and, more than that, I have to in order to stay sane… And if I could take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile… No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a dietitian. I am not a mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.

Dunham pens these dispatches with ebbing honesty, both inner and outward, of which few of us are capable, always delivered with a yin-yang of imperfection and idealism, both her own and our culture’s. She explores, for instance, the particularly pervasive epidemic of people-pleasing from an angle we rarely dare consider:

I’m not jealous in traditional ways — of boyfriends or babies or bank accounts — but I do covet other women’s styles of being.

[…]

I have been envious of male characteristics, if not the men themselves. I’m jealous of the ease with which they seem to inhabit their professional pursuits: the lack of apologizing, of bending over backward to make sure the people around them are comfortable with what they’re trying to do. The fact that they are so often free of the people-pleasing instincts I have considered to be a curse of my female existence. I have watched men order at dinner, ask for shitty wine and extra bread with a confidence I could never muster, and thought, What a treat that must be. But I also consider being female such a unique gift, such a sacred joy, in ways that run so deep I can’t articulate them. It’s a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it.

I know that when I am dying, looking back, it will be women that I regret having argued with, women I sought to impress, to understand, was tortured by. Women I wish to see again, to see them smile and laugh and say, It was all as it should have been.

She addresses this particular question of jealousy with great eloquence and generosity in her Ask Lena series of video teasers for the book:

If I weren’t so wary of how consistently the word “sensitive” has been used to describe women’s writing and politely tuck it away from the world of Real Writing, I’d speak to Dunham’s extraordinary sensitivity — for it abounds throughout the book, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the chapter where she recalls her little sister Grace’s coming out:

Twenty-three and sponging mightily, I forked some noodles into my mouth as Grace described a terrible date with a “dorky” boy from an uptown school.

“He’s too tall,” she moaned. “And nice. And he was trying too hard to be witty. He put a napkin on his hand and said, ‘Look, I have a hand cape.’ ” She paused. “And he draws cartoons. And he has diabetes.”

“He sounds awesome!” I said. And then, before I considered it: “What are you, gay?”

“Actually, yes,” she said, with a laugh, maintaining the composure that has been her trademark since birth.

I began to sob. Not because I didn’t want her to be gay… No, I was crying because I was suddenly flooded with an understanding of how little I really knew: about her pains, her secrets, the fantasies that played in her head when she lay in bed at night. Her inner life.

In another chapter, Dunham exercises her remarkable gift for taking the memes of our era — in this case, the listicle — and using them, irreverently but somehow without the self-defeating burden of irony, to demonstrate that it is not the medium that defines the message but the substance and the substance need not be humorless to be serious. Under the heading 17 Things I Learned from My Father, she offers:

  1. Death is coming for us all.
  2. There are no bad thoughts, only bad actions.
  3. “Men, watch out: the ladies are coming for your toys.”
  4. Confidence lets you pull anything off, even Tevas with socks.
  5. All children are amazing artists. It’s the grown-ups you have to worry about.
  6. Unhappy at a party? Say you’re going to check on your car, then exit swiftly. Make eye contact with no one.
  7. Drunk emotions aren’t real emotions.
  8. A sweet potato prepared in the microwave, then slathered with flaxseed oil, makes for an exceptional snack.
  9. It’s never too late to learn.
  10. “The Volvo is bad enough. I’m not putting a coat on the fucking dog.”
  11. A rising tide lifts all boats.
  12. That being said, it’s horrible when people you hate get things you want.
  13. Hitting a creative wall? Take a break from work to watch a procedural. They always solve the case, and so will you.
  14. You don’t need to be flamboyant in your life to be flamboyant in your work.
  15. Wear a suit to the DMV to speed things along a bit.
  16. Do not make jokes about concealing drugs, weapons, or currency in front of police officers or TSA workers. There is nothing funny about being detained.
  17. It’s all about tailoring.

Dunham dedicates an entire chapter to the first of these fatherly lessons — our complex relationship with mortality and the immutable human unease with our own impermanence:

I think a fair amount about the fact that we’re all going to die. It occurs to me at incredibly inopportune moments — I’ll be standing in a bar, having managed to get an attractive guy to laugh, and I’ll be laughing, too, and maybe dancing a little bit, and then everything goes slo-mo for a second and I’ll think: Are these people aware that we’re all going to the same place in the end? I can slip back into conversation and tell myself that the flash of mortality awareness has enriched my experience, reminded me to just go for it in the giggling and hair-flipping and speaking-my-mind departments because . . . why the hell not? But occasionally the feeling stays with me, and it reminds me of being a child — feeling full of fear but lacking the language to calm yourself down. I guess, when it comes to death, none of us really has the words.

I wish I could be one of those young people who seems totally unaware of the fact that her gleaming nubile body is, in fact, fallible. (Maybe you have to have a gleaming nubile body to feel that way.) Beautiful self-delusion: Isn’t that what being young is all about? You think you’re immortal until one day when you’re around sixty, it hits you: you see an Ingmar Bergman-y specter of death and you do some soul searching and possibly adopt a kid in need. You resolve to live the rest of your life in a way you can be proud of.

But I am not one of those young people. I’ve been obsessed with death since I was born.

[...]

The fact is I had been circling the topic of death, subconsciously, for some time. Growing up in Soho in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was aware of AIDS and the toll it was taking on the creative community. Illness, loss, who would handle the art and the real estate and the medical bills — these topics hovered over every dinner party. As many of my parents’ friends became sick, I learned to recognize the look of someone suffering — sunken cheeks, odd facial spotting, a sweater that no longer fit. And I knew what it meant: that person would soon become a memorial, the name on a prize given to visiting students, a distant memory.

In another short video, Dunham addresses a reader’s question on the subject, echoing the notion that “thinking about death clarifies your life”:

Not That Kind of Girl is wonderful in its entirety, doubly so because it gleams an elegant sidewise beam of destruction at the various forms of lazy criticism Dunham has faced over the years, mostly for, well, being too damned good — particularly the kind of laziness that dismisses her intelligent introspection, with all the inevitable acknowledgement of imperfection it engenders, as mere self-abasement. Most of us live our lives desperately trying to conceal the anguishing gap between our polished, aspirational, representational selves and our real, human, deeply flawed selves. Dunham lives hers in that gap, welcomes the rest of the world into it with boundless openheartedness, and writes about it with the kind of profound self-awareness and self-compassion that invite us to inhabit our own gaps and maybe even embrace them a little bit more, anguish over them a little bit less.

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29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Too-ticky’s Guide to Life: Wisdom on Uncertainty, Presence, and Self-Reliance from Beloved Children’s Book Author Tove Jansson

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“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is among the most imaginative, important, and influential children’s book creators of all time, an artist and writer of unparalleled creative vision and great sensitivity to life’s ineffable nuances. A recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, she had the courage to turn down Walt Disney and build her own creative empire. From her beloved Moomins characters to her spectacular vintage illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit, her stories exude the metaphorical magic of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh tales, the fanciful whimsy of Baum’s Oz world, the contemplative introspection of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and the enchanting symbolism of Carroll’s Wonderland. Philip Pullman has aptly called her “a genius of a very subtle kind” and Neil Gaiman considers her work “a surrealist masterpiece.”

Tove Jansson in 1967 (photograph by Hans Gedda)

Jansson’s singular sensibility springs from her own unusual life. Born to an artistic and rather eccentric family from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, young Tove was raised by wildly creative parents — her father was one of Finland’s greatest sculptors and her mother designed books and postage stamps, illustrated book jackets, and created punchy political cartoons. Jansson completed her formal training in art and graphic design in various institutions across Sweden, Finland, and France, but the origin of her iconic Moomin characters was rooted in an affectionate family joke rather than in her formal training — while studying in Stockholm in her late teens and living with relatives there, Jansson would regularly sneak into the kitchen for treats; her uncle would tease her that a “Moomintroll” lived in the kitchen pantry, ready to breathe cold air down stealthy snackers’ necks.

Tove Jansson: self-portrait © Moomin Characters™

Moominvalley’s main protagonist, Moomintroll, is thus a self-portrait of sorts, but perhaps Jansson’s most interesting character is also the one based on the most intimate part of her life. Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley who solves even the most existential of problems with equal parts practicality and wisdom, was inspired by the love of Jansson’s life — the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, Jansson’s spouse. The two women met in art school during their twenties and remained together until Jansson’s death more than six decades later, collaborating on a lifetime of creative projects — all at a time when queer couples were straddling the impossible line between anguishing invisibility and dangerous visibility.

Jansson and Pietilä crafting characters for the television adaptation of the Moomin series.

Although Too-ticky, clad in her signature red-and-white sweater, appears in a number of the Moomin books, her spirit blossoms most vibrantly in the 1957 gem Moominland Midwinter (public library), where “her common sense often restores order in the valley.” More than mere common sense, however, Too-ticky’s laconic sagacity and aphoristic reflections are full of invaluable wisdom on life.

The book tells the story of Moomintroll who, unlike his family that hibernated from November to April every year, wakes up early and decides to stay up through the harsh Scandinavian winter. He grows angry at the sun’s absence, angry at the raging blizzards, angry at those who seem able to enjoy rather than resent the season of snow and ice. It is a tale of learning to live with the vital discomfort of uncertainty, to get lost in order to find oneself, to surrender to the rhythms of life rather than agonizing in resistance.

Lost in the forest, Moomintroll comes upon a warm light emanating from a cozy hole someone had dug for shelter — “someone who lay looking up at the serene winter sky and whistling very softly to herself.” It is, of course, Too-ticky. When Moomintroll inquires about the song she is whistling, she replies, Whitman-like, with a wonderfully metaphorical answer:

It’s a song of myself… The refrain is about the things one can’t understand. I’m thinking about the aurora borealis. You can’t tell if it really does exist or if it just looks like existing. All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.

This theme of uncertainty and of finding joy in questioning reality is a recurring one for Too-ticky. Echoing the first of Bertrand Russell’s ten famous commandments of teaching, learning, and life“Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” — she offers comforting solidarity in Moomintroll’s lament that he doesn’t understand the snow:

I don’t either… You believe it’s cold, but if you build yourself a snowhouse it’s warm. You think it’s white, but at times it looks pink, and another time it’s blue. It can be softer than anything, and then again harder than stone. Nothing is certain.

In many ways, Too-ticky’s wisdom seems almost Zen Buddhist in nature. In addition to championing the ability to be at peace with uncertainty, she also advocates a minimalist approach to material possessions — when Moomintroll discovers, distraught and indignant, that someone is secretly smuggling things out of his sleeping family’s house, Too-ticky responds:

That’s nice, isn’t it? You’ve got too many things about you. As well as things you remember, and things you’re dreaming about.

Too-ticky is also a sage of the “slow churn” and wise champion of the idea that “anything worthwhile takes a long time.” (Janssen would certainly know — she wrote her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, in 1939 and published it in 1945, but it was not a success; her first critical acclaim arrived in 1946, nearly a decade after she had created the Moomins, with the publication of Comet in Moominland.) When Moomintroll grows angry and impatient with the sun’s refusal to rise, Too-ticky reminds him that hurrying is a toxic way of trying to resist the present:

Don’t be in such a hurry… Soon now. Sit down and wait.

When the sun does appear, it flits across the horizon for a fleeting moment, only to set back down. Moomintroll is even more frustrated, but Too-ticky assures him that the sun, like the myth of the overnight success, follows an incremental rise to brilliance:

He’ll return tomorrow… And then he’ll be a tiny bit bigger, about like a piece of cheese rind. Take it easy.

The story is also a gentle primer on evolution. When Moomintroll, against Too-ticky’s instruction, opens her secret cabinet and finds a strange creature living there, he tells her it was “only a sort of old rat,” but she corrects him:

That was no rat. It was a troll. A troll of the kind you were yourself before you became a Moomin. That was how you looked a thousand years ago.

Moomintroll is so unsettled by the notion that he is related to a mere rat — an elegant allegory for why some people are drawn to such defensive fancies as Young Earth creationism — he storms into the attic to look for an old family album. Janssen writes:

Page after page of dignified Moomins, most often reproduced standing in front of porcelain stoves, or on fret-worked verandahs. Not a single one of them resembled the cupboard troll. “Must be a mistake,” Moomintroll thought. “He can’t be any relation of mine.”

Slowly, Moomintroll makes peace with Too-ticky’s knowledge:

He went down and looked at his sleeping Pappa. Only the nose bore some resemblance to the troll’s. But possibly, a thousand years ago.

There is almost a cosmology element to this undercurrent — a reminder that, however discomfiting this too may be to most humans, we are indeed a cosmic accident. Janssen traces the evolution of Moomintroll’s understanding:

Suddenly he felt very proud of having an ancestor. And it cheered him no little to think that Little My [Moomintroll's sister] had no pedigree at all, but rather had come into the world by chance.

But perhaps her most profound wisdom deals with our quintessential struggle to make peace with death, which stems from an inability to recognize the comforting interconnectedness of life. When the Lady of the Cold — the beautiful but formidable priestess of the Great Cold, capable of turning into an icicle any fool so bewitched as to look straight into her eyes — freezes the cheerful little squirrel Moomintroll had befriended, Too-ticky sighs:

It’s very hard to tell if people take any pleasure in their tails when they’re dead.

Death, too, is part of nature’s necessary cycles of growth and decay. When Moomintroll and Little My remonstrate the very mention of death, Too-ticky responds:

When one’s dead, then one’s dead. This squirrel will become earth all in his time. And later on still there’ll grow trees from him, with new squirrels skipping about in them. Do you think that’s so very sad?

Too-ticky’s greatest gift, it appears, is a certain quality of presence — the kind she cultivated in “her own private winter world that had followed its own strange rules year after year” — that allows her to feel one with the world. It is from that standpoint that, when spring finally arrives, she responds to Moomintroll’s accusation that she hadn’t comforted him during the long winter by offering assurance that spring will come, but instead focused on what the world had to offer right there and then. Too-ticky’s answer, emanating a kind of Emerson-like ideal of self-reliance, rings with extraordinary, if uncomfortable, poignancy:

One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.

Moomintroll imbibes Too-ticky’s existential lesson. Soon, when his friend the Snork Maiden comes across “the first brave nose-tip of a crocus” shyly trying to push through snow, she suggests they put a glass over it to protect it from the frost at night. But Moomintroll objects:

No, don’t do that. Let it fight it out. I believe it’s going to do still better if things aren’t so easy.

Decades before the groundbreaking research on why cultivating grit is the greatest key to success, Jansson made the same point with great subtlety and wisdom.

Moominland Midwinter is an immeasurably wonderful read in its entirety, as are all of Jansson’s Moomin books. For another taste, see my favorite one.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2014

What There Is Before There Is Anything There: Celebrated Cartoonist Liniers Confronts Childhood Nightmares

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An imaginative graphic novel about the quintessential childhood fear.

Children often wonder about why we dream, as do some dedicated researchers, but the question of why we have nightmares is as perplexing to scientists — some of humanity’s most intelligent grownups — as it is exasperating to kids. Indeed, nightmares, along with its sister fear of the dark, are among childhood’s most anguishing and common experiences, as exasperating to the child experiencing them as to his or her parents in their helplessness of assuaging them.

That’s precisely what award-winning Argentinian cartoonist and New Yorker cover artist Liniers (whose beloved Macanudo series was just released in English for the first time) explores in What There Is Before There Is Anything There: A Scary Story (public library) — a wonderful picture-book that brings dark humor to those familiar nighttime fears while taking them seriously, at once spooky and sweet in its solidarity of acknowledging that they are very much real, even if their objects are not true. One of the great injustices of childhood, after all, is the recurring experience of not being believed by grownups, not being validated in one’s fears and fancies and subjective truths simply because one is a child. Liniers refuses to negate the realness of those childhood fears and instead meets them with equal parts reassurance, imagination, and gentle wit, in a style reminiscent of Edward Gorey yet distinctively his own.

What There Is Before There Is Anything There, a treat in its delightfully spooky yet assuring totality, is translated by Elisa Amado and comes from Canadian independent picture-book publisher Groundwood Books, who also gave us the enormously heartening Migrant, a kind of Alice in Wonderland for the modern immigrant experience. Complement it with a very different take on the same subject in Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, illustrated by Jon Klassen.

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