Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

12 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Jacket: A Sweet Illustrated Meta-Story about How We Fall in Love With Books

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A gentle reminder that to be somebody’s favorite thing in the world requires a certain quality of thingness.

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her sublime meditation on reading. But how that transplant happens is a matter wholly subjective and deeply mysterious. In the unusual, wonderful, and magically meta picture-book The Jacket (public library | IndieBound), writer Kirsten Hall and illustrator Dasha Tolstikova explore the beauty and terror of falling in love with a book from the perspective of the book itself.

It is also a story about the aching disconnect between merit and confidence, and the way in which love both transforms us and brings us closer to ourselves.

“Book was a book that had just about everything,” the story begins. “He was solid and strong. His words were smart and playful. The problem was, Book didn’t feel special.”

True though it may be that “there’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen,” Book does want to be noticed — so that he can be truly seen as a child disappears into his pages and falls in love with his story.

And then, one day, it happens. A little girl walks into the bookstore and falls in love with Book.

Book fit perfectly into the girl’s hands.

She took him everywhere, and Book thought he must be the girl’s favorite thing in the whole wide world?

Who doesn’t long to be someone’s favorite thing in the whole wide world?

But Book soon discovers that he must compete for the girl’s affections with her other beloved earthly companion — her dog, Egg Cream.

Book could see why the girl adored her dog.

He was wild and funny, furry and sweet.

He scratched at the door.

He rolled around on the floor.

He did neat things with sticks and balls.

He was warm and cozy. And he loved the girl.

For Book, though, Dog was a big problem.

A big, clumsy problem with scary teeth and a huge slippery tongue. He was messy and wet, and he licked and drooled.

No, Book didn’t like Dog one bit.

Then, sure enough, as Book is enjoying a quiet picnic with the girl “one perfectly lovely afternoon,” Dog-begotten disaster strikes. Suddenly, mud splatters from all sides and smothers him. Distraught that he has ruined Book, the girl screams at Egg Cream.

That night, her mother helps clean Book up, but the girl is “too sad and gloomy” to read.

As Book watches her sleep, he sinks into wistfulness as he contemplates no longer being her perfect book.

But when the girl opens her eyes in the morning, “something had changed.”

She has a plan.

With quiet excitement and optimism, she sits down at her desk with some art supplies as Egg Cream and Book wonder what she’s working on.

And then, the reveal: a colorful handmade jacket for Book, which she wraps around him as she beams a smile.

The book’s final spread features delightful hand-drawn instructions for how to make your very own book jacket.

Underpinning the sweet story is also a gentle clarion call for holding onto the intangible joys and tactile rewards of old-fashioned spine-and-paper books — an ebook, after all, can’t return the embrace of a handmade jacket, nor can it really be someone’s “favorite thing in the whole wide world” when its very thingness is so woefully nebulous.

Maira Kalman, wise as always, put it best: “When you hold a (real) book in your hands, the molecules in your body rejoice.”

The Jacket comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion Books, by far the most intelligent and imaginative picture-book publisher today, whose remarkable roster includes such treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, Wednesday, and Advice to Little Girls.

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05 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Flat Rabbit: A Minimalist Scandinavian Children’s Book about Making Sense of Death and the Mysteries of Life

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A gentle and assuring reminder that we don’t have all the answers.

Neil Gaiman, in discussing his gorgeous new adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, asserted that we shouldn’t protect ourselves and children from the dark. But when the thickest darkness comes, in childhood as much as in adulthood, it brings with it not the monsters and witches of fairy tales but the tragedies of life itself — nowhere more acutely than in confronting death and its ghouls of grief. And when it does come, as Joan Didion memorably put it, it’s “nothing like we expect it to be.” What we need isn’t so much protection as the shaky comfort of understanding — a sensemaking mechanism for the messiness of loss.

That’s precisely what Faroese children’s book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson does in The Flat Rabbit (public library | IndieBound) — a masterwork of minimalist storytelling that speaks volumes about our eternal tussle with our own impermanence.

The book, translated by Faroese language-lover Marita Thomsen, comes from a long tradition of Scandinavian children’s books with singular sensitivity to such difficult subjects — from Tove Jansson’s vintage parables of uncertainty to Stein Erik Lunde’s Norwegian tale of grief to Øyvind Torseter’s existential meditation on the meaning of something and nothing.

The story, full of quiet wit and wistful wonder, begins with a carefree dog walking down the street. Suddenly, he comes upon a rabbit, lying silently flattened on the road. As the dog, saddened by the sight, wonders what to do, his friend the rat comes by.

“She is totally flat,” said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her.

“Do you know her?”

“Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”

The two agree that “lying there can’t be any fun” and decide to move her, but don’t know where to take her and head to the park to think.

The dog was now so deep in thought that, had you put your ear to his skull, you would have actually heard him racking his brain.

Embedded in the story is a subtle reminder that ideas don’t come to us by force of will but by the power of incubation as everything we’ve unconsciously absorbed clicks together into new combinations in our minds. As the dog sits straining his neurons, we see someone flying a kite behind him — a seeming aside noted only in the visual narrative, but one that becomes the seed for the rabbit solution.

Exclaiming that he has a plan, the dog returns to the scene with the rat. They take the rabbit from the road and work all night on the plan, hammering away in the doghouse.

In the next scene, we see the rabbit lovingly taped to the frame of a kite, which takes the dog and the rat forty-two attempts to fly.

With great simplicity and sensitivity, the story lifts off into a subtle meditation on the spiritual question of an afterlife — there is even the spatial alignment of a proverbial heaven “above.” It suggests — to my mind, at least — that all such notions exist solely for the comfort of the living, for those who survive the dead and who confront their own mortality in that survival, and yet there is peace to be found in such illusory consolations anyway, which alone is reason enough to have them.

Mostly, the story serves as a gentle reminder that we simply don’t have all the answers and that, as John Updike put it, “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery.”

Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time.

“Do you think she is having a good time?” the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog.

The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there.

“I don’t know…” he replied slowly. “I don’t know.”

Complement The Flat Rabbit with Love Is Forever, a more literal but no less lovely take on helping young hearts deal with loss, then revisit Meghan O’Rourke’s magnificent grownup memoir of navigating mourning.

Illustrations courtesy of Owlkids Books

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04 NOVEMBER, 2014

Pablo Neruda’s Extraordinary Life, in an Illustrated Love Letter to Language

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A swirling celebration of one of the greatest creative icons of the twentieth century.

Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda was not only one of the greatest poets in human history, but also a man of extraordinary insight into the human spirit — take, for instance, his remarkable reflection on what a childhood encounter taught him about why we make art, quite possibly the most beautiful metaphor for the creative impulse ever committed to paper.

As a lover both of Neruda’s enduring genius and of intelligent children’s books, especially ones — such as the wonderful illustrated life-stories of Albert Einstein and Julia Child — I was instantly smitten with Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (public library | IndieBound) by Monica Brown, with absolutely stunning illustrations and hand-lettering by artist Julie Paschkis.

The story begins with the poet’s birth in Chile in 1904 with the given name of Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto — to evade his father’s disapproval of his poetry, he came up with the pen name “Pablo Neruda” at the age of sixteen when he first began publishing his work — and traces his evolution as a writer, his political awakening as an activist, his deep love of people and language and the luminosity of life.

Neftalí wasn’t very good at soccer or at throwing acorns like his friends, but he loved to read and discovered magic between the pages.

Embedded in the story is a sweet reminder of what books do for the soul and a heartening assurance that creative genius isn’t the product of conforming to common standards of excellence but of finding one’s element.

In fact, the book is as much a celebration of Neruda as it is a love letter to language itself — swirling through Paschkis’s vibrant illustrations are words both English and Spanish, beautiful words like “fathom” and “plummet” and “flicker” and “sigh” and “azul.”

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People is exuberant and enchanting in its entirety. Complement it with Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland, and On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky, then treat yourself to this bewitching reading of Neruda’s “Ode to the Book.”

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