Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

09 MARCH, 2015

An Illustrated Celebration of the Many Things Home Can Mean

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A sweet reminder that despite our different walks of life, we have in common a shared longing to belong.

“Home,” Maya Angelou wrote in her magnificent meditation on belonging and (not) growing up, “is that youthful region where a child is the only real living inhabitant.” Indeed, it seems that only for children, with their purity of feeling and their ability to “mediate the ideal and the real,” does the Venn diagram of home and house integrate into one fully overlapping circle. In adulthood, the circles drift further and further apart as we begin to project our conflicted dream-home ideals onto our real houses.

In the impossibly wonderful Home (public library), illustrator and children’s book author Carson Ellis presents an imaginative taxonomy of houses and a celebration of the wildly different kinds of people who call them home.

What emerges is a playful and tender reminder that however different our walks of life — what contrast there is between the Slovakian duchess’s mansion and the Kenyan blacksmith’s shack, between the babushka’s kitchen and the artist’s studio! — we are united by our deep desire for a place to call home.

After all, we begin belonging to his world — to borrow Mary Oliver’s wonderful phrase — first by rooting ourselves into it; by staking out a little corner of it to call our very own. It need not have walls or a roof — it can be a tour bus, or even a shoe, as Ellis’s illustrated taxonomy assures — but only from that place of safety can we reach out to connect, to understand one another, and to begin belonging together.

Ellis guides the reader to and through this common thread of belonging by placing little semi-hidden markers of communion and continuity — the same house plant graces multiple homes; a pigeon visits the young girl in Brooklyn and then perches on the Russian babushka’s window; the icon that hangs on the wall of the babushka’s kitchen is seen, several pages later, on the wall of the artist’s studio. (The artist, endearingly enough, is Ellis herself.)

Sprinkled amid the very real homes of very real people from different cultures are the whimsical abodes familiar from beloved tales — right next to the Japanese businessman is the Norse god, proudly standing before his magical palace, and a giant upside-down cup calls to mind Leonard Weisgard’s magnificent mid-century illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

Home is the kind of book that legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom, perhaps the greatest patron saint of childhood who ever lived, might say “can’t help but make any child warmed and attended to and considered.” Complement it with the best children’s books of the past year.

Illustrations © 2015 by Carson Ellis courtesy of Candlewick Press. Photographs my own.

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05 MARCH, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School: A Charming Catalog of Excuses and an Allegory for How Human Imagination Works

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A playful parable about the stories we tell to avoid being wrong and the combinatorial nature of human creativity.

Psychologists and behavioral economists now know that there is a strong positive correlation between creativity and dishonesty — the more intelligent and imaginative we are, the better we’re able to rationalize our misconduct. And since children’s minds reveal so much about how the human imagination develops, both psychological theory and parental practice confirm that kids come up with the most fanciful excuses for why they did those mischievous things they knew they weren’t supposed to do.

In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School (public library), celebrated children’s book author Davide Cali and French illustrator Benjamin Chaud weave a playful parable of this childhood tendency to come up with excuses so fantastical that they become charming stories in their own right — a crucible of creativity and a sandbox for the young mind to play with the building blocks of storytelling.

One morning, the little boy is late to school and when his teacher inquires about the reason for his tardiness, he proceeds to offer a litany of imaginative excuses. Giant ants ate his breakfast! Evil ninjas ambushed him on the way to the bus stop! A massive ape mistook the school bus for a banana! His uncle’s time machine misfired and sent him back to the dominion of dinosaurs!

There are “scary majorettes,” “an unusually large spiderweb,” an encounter with Bigfoot and Yeti, and a call from the president who demanded the boy’s “champion chess skills” in helping to “save the planet from an alien invasion.”

Underpinning the delightful story, with its acrobatics of the imagination and its disarming illustrations, is a subtle testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity — we create our “own” ideas by combining countless fragments of existing ones, of impressions and influences and bits of information, into novel combinations. Ursula K. Le Guin knew this when she considered where great ideas come from, as did Mark Twain when he contemplated originality in a letter to Helen Keller, asserting that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

The little boy’s tales are a testament to this machinery of ideation — many of them borrow subtle elements or entire plot lines from beloved fairy tales (there is the Little Red Riding Hood, beseeching him to help find her grandmother), pop culture tropes (a Godzilla-like ape seizes the school bus), and classic children’s stories (he grows tiny, then huge, à la Alice in Wonderland).

When the little boy is finished relaying his imaginative series of unfortunate events and his teacher inquires whether those fanciful misadventures were the reason for his tardiness, we get to the comically unremarkable truth — for truth, after all, is always unremarkable, and that is what makes it true.

In the final page, as the teacher perches over the boy in skeptical disapprobation of his excuses and their validity, a friendly dinosaur from the faulty avuncular time machine pokes its head through the classroom window — a gentle and generous gesture which seems to assure the young reader that the child’s experience is always real and valid, even if grownups don’t believe it is true.

One can’t help but think of Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” — what we believe, after all, is the only reality we’ll ever know, and who can agree on this fluctuating fiction we call Truth anyway?

Complement the impossibly delightful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School with another wonderful take on reconciling different realities, Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.)

Illustrations courtesy of Chronicle; book photographs my own

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23 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Velveteen Rabbit, Reimagined with Uncommon Tenderness by Beloved Japanese Illustrator Komako Sakai

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A tender tale of how the soft bonds of love confer realness upon our existence.

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in his exquisite 1950s meditation on becoming who you are. But as is the case with life’s most enduring perplexities, this wisdom was best delivered three decades earlier, not by a philosopher but by a children’s book author. “Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you,” Margery Williams wrote in 1922 in what would become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, part of the canon that contains such masterworks as The Little Prince, Winnie the Pooh, and Where the Wild Things Are.

This quiet aliveness of truth and tenderness is what Japanese illustrator Komako Sakai brings to a bewitching and unusual adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit (public library) nearly a century later — the loveliest take on the Williams classic since Maurice Sendak’s little-known 1960 illustrations.

Timeless as the book may be, it is also one of extraordinary timeliness today — a story that speaks to our deepest anxieties about the effects of technological progress on our humanity.

A soft stuffed rabbit is given to a little boy at Christmas, enjoyed for a fleeting moment, then quickly ignored in favor of other gifts far more modern and mechanical — wind-up toys that move like the real-life objects they miniaturize.

And yet when the wise old Skin Horse — the oldest toy in the nursery — assures the rabbit that toys are made real by children’s love, and the rabbit is emboldened by this notion despite feeling at a grave disadvantage compared to the modern toys, we too are reminded that however the cultural odds are stacked, our imperfect humanity is not merely the thing that makes life livable but the only thing that makes it worth living.

After the little boy’s Nana gives him the humble toy one restless night, the Velveteen Rabbit grows to be his most beloved companion.

They become inseparable — the boy even brings his soft friend into the woods behind the house, where one day the Velveteen Rabbit meets a pair of wild rabbits. Perplexed by his stiffness, they tease him about not being “Real” — he can’t even hop! — but although the taunting hurts him, the Velveteen Rabbit takes comfort in knowing that the little boy thinks he is Real, and loves him, and that’s realness enough.

Ever so gently, another subtle and profound undercurrent emerges — the finitude of childhood and the impermanence of life itself.

When the boy falls ill, the Velveteen Rabbit is by his side as doctors and parents hover anxiously. And when the boy recovers, the doctor instructs the boy’s mother to burn all of his belongings — books, toys, and especially that bedraggled stuffed rabbit — that may have been infected during his illness.

As the Velveteen Rabbit awaits his heartbreaking fate in a sack at the end of the garden, drowned in wistful reminiscence about all the joyful moments he and the little boy shared over the years, one very real tear rolls down his cheek and drops to the ground.

Why should it all end like this for someone who had been loved so much and become Real?

And then something magical happens — a flower emerges from the ground where the tear had fallen, and it blossoms to reveal the beautiful nursery fairy, who takes care of the most beloved toys after their children outgrow them.

With one kiss on the nose, the fairy transforms the Velveteen Rabbit into a Real rabbit — real not only to the boy who loved him, but real to the world, to all who judge the realness of others.

The seasons turn and when spring arrives again, the little boy treks back into the woods, where he has a strange and wonderful encounter with a wild rabbit that looks remarkably like his beloved lost toy. The rabbit looks at the boy, and the boy at the rabbit, they are elevated in a quiet moment of recognition — the mutual beholding of another’s realness of which all love is made.

Sakai’s take on The Velveteen Rabbit comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion, maker of some of the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books of our time — including such endlessly rewarding treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, The Jacket, and Wednesday.

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