Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

08 JULY, 2015

Mr. Gauguin’s Heart: The Beautiful and Bittersweet True Story of How Paul Gauguin Became an Artist


What an invisible dog knows about the tenacity of the human spirit and the healing power of art.

Many great artists have in common the ability to transform trauma into creative power. Among them is the great French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848–May 8, 1903), whose work influenced such legendary artists as Picasso and Matisse.

A wonderful addition to both the best children’s books about making sense of loss and the finest children’s books celebrating cultural icons, Mr. Gauguin’s Heart (public library) by writer Marie-Danielle Croteau and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault tells the bittersweet, unbelievably beautiful story of Gauguin’s early childhood and how, after his father’s death, the young boy sought solace in art and transmuted his grief into his first painting.

In this 2004 debut, Arsenault — whose genius has produced such subsequent treasures as Jane, the Fox & Me, Virginia Wolf, and Migrant — once again reveals herself to be one of the most gifted and evocative visual storytellers of our time.

We meet young Paul, a little boy who lives with his beloved parents, his sister Marie, and a dog he adores — “an odd-looking, little orange dog” with whom Paul goes everywhere, plays constantly, and even has conversations.

But the oddest thing about the little orange dog is that is that only Paul can see it.

One day, the Gauguins depart for Peru, and Paul’s imaginary companion boards the ship with the rest of the family. The other passengers find the bond between the boy and his invisible friend endearing — a testament not to his strangeness but to his boundless imagination.

It is a joyous journey, until Paul finds his mother in tears one afternoon.

She told Paul and his sister that their daddy had been carried away.

“How?” the children cried.

“It was his heart,” Mrs. Gauguin answered.

Marie threw herself, wailing, into her mother’s arms. Paul said nothing. He didn’t understand what it all meant. He didn’t see how being carried away by one’s heart could be such a tragedy.

Unable to make sense of it all, the boy perches on the ship’s bridge with his dog and peers into the ocean. All of a sudden, he sees a giant red balloon floating over the horizon. Holding onto its string is his father. As the other passengers gasp at the breathtaking sunset, Paul watches them point to his father’s big red heart.

The days wear on and every time the sun sets, Paul begins to cry all over again, saying goodbye to his father’s heart anew — a tender testament to the waves in which grief always seems to come.

When they finally reach Peru, Paul refuses to leave the ship, unwilling to part with the daily encounter with his father’s heart over the horizon. It takes an old man — a fellow passenger who had been watching the boy play with his invisible companion during the journey — to convince him to disembark the ship, on the pretext that his little orange dog needs to get out and run. So heartbroken is the little boy that he has stopped seeing his imaginary friend. All he wants is to be left alone, to scream that he never had a dog — but the old man seems to believe in the dog so staunchly that Paul doesn’t have the heart to disappoint him.

Leading Paul to the entrance of a great big park, the old man instructs the boy to meet him there next morning, with his little orange dog in tow. Paul complies and finds the old man painting quietly by the pond the next day, so immersed in his art that he doesn’t even notice the boy and his dog.

Eventually, he encourages Paul to join him at the easel and shows him how to mix red and yellow in order to make orange. More than that, he initiates the future painter in the incredible power of art:

“Painting is magic,” he said to Paul. “You can start with next to nothing and still do anything you want.”

The little boy looked the old man straight in the eye. “Even bring something to life?”

“Yes, you can bring things to life,” he replied. “Or prolong the life they had.”

The old man took a paintbrush and drew a picture of an orange on the white canvas. Then he peeled his own orange and ate it. “You see, my orange is gone and yet it isn’t. I still have this one.”

That evening, Paul goes home and shuts himself in his room. His mother, somewhat worried, hears rustling but the boy insists that she leave him alone. After a prolonged silence, he lets her in — and there, on a makeshift easel, is a painting of the ocean, with a giant red circle floating above the horizon.

Mrs. Gauguin’s face lit up. Seeing his mother’s smile, Paul realized that he wanted to be a magician.

Many people came to visit the Gauguin family in Peru. And all who came admired the little boy’s painting. Since they knew nothing about affairs of the heart, they assumed he had painted a picture of Japan’s national flag.

Years later, Paul would become one of the greatest painters of his time. It is said that his art resembles that of Japan. But what no one knows — other than you and Mrs. Gauguin — is that the red sun he painted all those years ago does not represent the flag for a faraway nation. The little boy’s painting of the big red sun is really a picture of Mr. Gauguin’s heart.

Mr. Gauguin’s Heart, originally published in French and translated into English by Susan Ouriou, is the kind of treasure that breaks your heart, then breaks it open. Complement it with an equally moving fictional counterpart in Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle, then revisit the illustrated stories of other luminaries’ childhoods: artist Henri Matisse, mathematician Paul Erdos, and primatologist Jane Goodall.

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25 JUNE, 2015

Why Dogs Have Wet Noses: An Irreverent Illustrated Reimagining of Noah’s Ark


Forty days and forty nights of loyalty and love.

The dog is an amazing creature — a frequent muse to an entire canon of art, a whole collection of Mary Oliver verses, and some excellent metaphors for beauty and aging, and . But its nose — which is how the dog actually “sees” the world — is a particularly miraculous pinnacle of its amazingness, and now the inspiration for a most fanciful alternative mythology.

In the immensely wonderful Why Dogs Have Wet Noses (public library), Scottish poet, novelist, and children’s book author Kenneth Steven and celebrated Norwegian illustrator Øyvind Torseter — the artist behind the existential allegory The Hole and the bittersweet My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — offer an irreverent and utterly heartwarming modern reimagining of Noah’s Ark.

Steven sets the stage:

A long, long time ago, not long after the world began, it started to rain. It was the kind of rain that really soaks you, pouring down from the sky like it will never stop.

We meet Noah, a man “both watchful and wise,” who looks like a lovable aging hipster from the maker movement. He begins building an enormous lifeboat — the Ark — then sets out to recruit “as many creatures as he could remember,” emanating a kind of indiscriminate Buddhist love for all, even “slugs, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies.”

The last to board is a mutt so odd-looking that Noah can’t quite tell what kind of a dog it is, but the soft black nose assures him that it is one.

With a great big groan and a terrifying tilt, the Ark sets sail as Noah wonders whether his strange company will survive this plunge into the unknown.

Steven’s writing, to be sure, is absolutely exquisite — the kind you might find in a Henry Beston masterpiece or an Annie Dillard classic rather than a typical children’s book (but this, of course, isn’t a typical children’s book):

They sailed away. Land had long since vanished. Only sea and sky remained. The rain fell heavier and heavier, and lightning shot from the black clouds, gleaming like snakes’ tongues. But apart from the crashing sounds of rain and thunder, it was completely quiet. As though there were no other sounds left in the whole wide world.

And yet inside the Ark, it was a completely different story — creatures of all shapes, sizes, and appetites clamored day and night. In a scene familiar to parents raising multiple small children — and perhaps good training for Noah himself, whose equally hipster-looking wife grows increasingly pregnant throughout the voyage — he labors tirelessly to feed each animal its favorite food, having “no peace and not a wink of sleep.”

No sooner had the last animal had dinner and gone to sleep, then it was time for the first to have breakfast again.

And yet Noah manages to hold the floating fort for twenty days until, suddenly, disaster strikes — the Ark springs a leak. Although the hole is “no bigger than a chestnut,” water begins to gush in, spelling dread and doom.

With his now beloved dog by his side, Noah brainstorms for a plan. At last, lightning of the more welcome and metaphorical kind strikes.

Just like that, the supreme testament to the dog’s dogness — its soft black nose — plugs the hole and saves the Ark.

All other creatures rejoice as the loyal dog sits there for forty days and forty nights, keeping their lifeboat from sinking amid the seemingly endless ocean.

And then one morning, just as the dog smells an unfamiliar scent, another violent disruption rattles their nautical rhythm — the Ark hits something hard.

Land! Hills rose up through the mist and behind them there was a tiny bit of blue sky. The rain had stopped at last and a magnificent rainbow stretched across the sky.

One by one, the creatures disembark onto the long-awaited shore, marveling at the lush life covering the land. But just as Noah, the last to climb out, joins the marveling bunch, he is seized with a shocking realization: His beloved dog is still down in the belly of the boat, nose faithfully plugging the hole.

Noah rushes to the rescue.

Noah gently stoked his dog’s tummy.

“Good boy,” he whispered.

“Woof!” the dog replied, leaping up to give his master a kiss wit his wet nose.

Never again would Noah’s dog have to go to sea. But from then on, every dog in the world would have a wet nose.

And that, you see, is why dogs have wet noses.

Why Dogs Have Wet Noses comes from Brooklyn-based independent children’s book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, makers of such intelligent and imaginative treasures as Beastly Verse, The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

Complement this particular gem with Torseter’s philosophical take on a different hole and another magnificent tale of the sea by way of an illustrated love letter to the blue whale, then revisit the far less fanciful actual science of the dog’s amazing nose.

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18 JUNE, 2015

Pool: A Tender Illustrated Celebration of Quiet Curiosity and How We Find Our Kindred Spirits


What our hunger for connection has to do with Borges’s imaginary beings.

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll plunged his Alice into a fantastical world through the looking-glass, South Korean fine artist and illustrator JiHyeon Lee offers a magnificent modern counterpart in her picture-book debut, Pool (public library) — a wordless masterpiece of space, scale, and silence converging to create an underwater world of wonder just beneath the reflective surface of ordinary life.

Lee’s delicate yet immensely expressive pencil illustrations, partway between Sophie Blackall and mid-career Maurice Sendak, emanate childhood’s tender trepidations and the gentle playfulness at the heart of the story.

We meet a boy standing poolside, looking reluctantly at the boisterous crowd lurching into the annual invasion of the public pool — a noisy, chaotic scene Lee communicates with great subtlety and quietude.

Perched on an uncrowded corner of the pool, the boy hesitantly contemplates the prospect of plunging.

At last, he takes the leap and dives below the superficial clamor of the crowd, where he encounters his unexpected counterpart — a little girl propelled by the same shy curiosity.

Together, they dive even deeper and the pool suddenly transmogrifies into a whimsical underwater wonderland full of strange and beautiful creatures — a magical mashup of the ocean’s most glorious real-life inhabitants, the mythological marine deities of ancient folklore, and Borges’s imaginary beings.

Suddenly, they come upon a most magnificent sight.

With a mastery of pacing time through negative space, calling to mind Marianne Dubuc’s exquisite The Lion and the Bird, Lee paints a visual gasp as the two children find themselves facing a gentle giant — a peculiar being reminiscent of our planet’s largest real creature (the subject of another spectacular picture-book), only white and furry.

They peer into its giant eye, into its enormous otherness, not with fear but with affectionate awe — a sweet and subtle reminder that, as Neil Gaiman memorably put it, “behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us.”

As the two make their way back to the surface, that watery looking-glass through which they had plunged into a modern-day Wonderland, they exit the pool from the other end, somehow transformed; the clamorous crowd, having completed this annual chore, leaves the same way it had flounced in.

And then, as they take off their goggles, they peer into each other’s naked eyes to find in the otherness an affectionate sameness of spirit peering back.

Pool is wonderful beyond words from cover to cover. Complement it with another wordless masterwork: Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown.

Thanks, Amy

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10 JUNE, 2015

The Blue Whale: A Loving Science Lullaby for Our Planet’s Largest-Hearted Creature


An affectionate tour of an alternate universe right here on earth, where it’s possible to grow by nine pounds an hour and never sleep.

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on the color of distance and desire. No creature compresses the edgeless grandeur of our Pale Blue Dot into a single body as perfectly as the blue whale — an animal absolutely awesome in the true sense of the word. That awe-striking being is what London-based illustrator Jenni Desmond celebrates in the marvelous nonfiction children’s book The Blue Whale (public library) — a loving science lullaby about our planet’s biggest creature, and a beautiful addition to the finest children’s books celebrating science.

Alongside Desmond’s immeasurably warm and largehearted illustrations is her simply worded, deeply intelligent synthesis of what marine biologists know about this extraordinary mammal — in fact, she worked closely with Diane Gendron, a marine biologist who studies blue whales. At the heart of the book is a compassionate curiosity about the beings with whom we share this world, effecting what the great Mary Oliver called a “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Indeed, despite the gaping disparity of scales, we have more in common with this gentle giant of the ocean than we realize — the blue whale, like us, is a highly intelligent mammal and one of the few creatures with a lifespan comparable to our own.

There is a charming meta touch to the story — the protagonist, a little boy with a crown that evokes Maurice Sendak’s Max, is learning and dreaming about blue whales by reading this very book, which he is seen holding in a number of the scenes.

Although the whaling industry of yore may have inspired some legendary art, more than 360,000 blue whales were killed in the first half of the twentieth century as these magnificent creatures were being reduced to oil, blubber, baleen, and meat. A global ban on whale hunting made them a protected species in 1966, but other forms of our arrogant anthropocentrism are putting them in danger anew as our our commercial fishing entangles them in its indiscriminate nets, our passenger ships pollute their habitats, and our general human activity continues to raise ocean temperatures.

And yet it isn’t with alarmism or bitter lamentation but with love befitting this largest-hearted of earthly creatures — its heart alone weighs around 1,300 pounds — that Desmond invites us into the world of the blue whale. She writes in the preface:

Blue whales are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and like all of the natural world they deserve our admiration and care. It is only then that they will flourish and multiply in their native ocean home.

And so it is with admiration and care that Desmond opens our eyes to the glory of this beautiful and intelligent creature — a creature whose own eye measures only six inches wide.

Next to its gargantuan weight of 160 tons, “about the same as a heap of 55 hippopotami,” and size of up to 100 feet, “the same length as a truck, a digger, a boat, a car, a bicycle, a motorcycle, a van, and a tractor — all lined up,” this minuscule eye devoid of tear glands and eyelashes makes for terribly poor eyesight.

But for this handicap of sensorial proportion the blue whale makes up in its astounding skin sensitivity and hearing — its ears, tiny holes located next to its minuscule eyes, can hear other whales’ songs up to 1,000 miles away. Because whales navigate the expanse of the ocean by sound, the noise of human-made vessels can disorient them, traumatize them, and even precipitate the kinds of mental illness Laurel Braitman explores in her excellent Animal Madness.

Desmond writes that no terrestrial animal can be nearly as big as the blue whale, for it would be impossible for a skeleton to support this much weight out of the water — the blue whale’s tongue alone weighs three tons “and its mouth is so big that 50 people can stand inside it.” This number, in fact, is a testament to what a whimsical cross-pollination of art, science, and sheer imagination this project is — Gendron manually measured how many people could stand in a boat the size of a blue whale’s mouth. (Fifty. Check.)

We learn, too, that while adult blue whales eat tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, baby whales — being mammals — eat not krill but their mother’s milk for the first eight months of life, consuming nearly 50 gallons of milk every day and growing by as much as nine pounds an hour.

But the most astounding fact about the blue whale are its sleep habits, which make even the most irregular human sleepers look like professional slumberers. Desmond explains:

Blue whales sleep by taking very short naps while slowly swimming close to the ocean’s surface. This is called logging. They sleeping this way because they have to remember to open their blowhole in order to breathe. Blue whales can never completely lose consciousness, not even in sleep, otherwise they would drown.

Unlike blue whales, people can drift into sleep without having to remember to breathe and keep themselves float, so we can fall asleep over a favorite book and begin to dream…

The Blue Whale, endlessly wonderful from cover to cover, comes from Brooklyn-based independent picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of some of the finest children’s books of our time — including an uncommonly tender Japanese take on The Velveteen Rabbit, the repeatedly rewarding The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

Complement it with an equally wonderful fictional counterpart, Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale, then dive into the grownup mesmerism of marine life with this fantastic On Being conversation with legendary oceanographer Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

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