Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

11 FEBRUARY, 2014

Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown’s Charming Illustrated Allegory about Curiosity, the Imagination, and the Subjectivity of Observation

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What children’s imaginations reveal about our relationship with reality.

Few children’s book writers today could compare in humor, sensitivity, and sheer creative irreverence to Lemony Snicket, the young-readers pen name of grown-up author Daniel Handler, under which he has penned such magnificent creative collaborations as 13 Words, illustrated by the great Maira Kalman, “Who Could That Be at This Hour?,” illustrated by celebrated cartoonist Seth, and The Dark, one of the best picture books of 2013, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Now comes 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by the inimitable Lisa Brown — a project all the more charming for the heartening fact that Handler and Brown are married and a living echelon of a romantic relationship that’s also a creative collaboration.

It tells the story of a little girl, a little boy, and their little dog, who grow intensely fascinated with the mysterious Swinster Pharmacy of the neighboring town and begin pondering what it might sell. Beneath it is a lovely allegory about the capacity of children’s imaginations to see enigmatic wonder in even the simplest things and find multiple meanings in the most mundane.

First, the small party journeys to the next town to investigate in person, surreptitiously observing the white-coated employees and even following one of them home one night, to his house right across the pharmacy.

Rumors around town say there are four secrets about the Swinster Pharmacy, but no one knows what any of them are.

Everything is cause for suspicion: The fruit bowl on the Pharmacy counter contains grapes that aren’t cut in half; strangers walk by casually, “just snacking or whispering or something,” and stop when they pass the Pharmacy; a news story about arson in the town pans the street on which the Pharmacy resides; they measure the building and it turns out to be a perfect square; “something about the door is electric.” All very, very suspicious.

The threesome decide to sneak behind the trees across the street from the Swinster Pharmacy and quietly scope out the comings and goings of the pharmacy’s customers. Again, very suspicious activity ensues:

A woman went in once and came out fifteen minutes later wearing the exact same outfit.

The pharmacy begins to haunt the children’s dreams:

In all of our dreams, the Pharmacy squats in the middle of the block like something blue and hungry. In the morning it is on the corner.

And still the mystery of what the Pharmacy sells endures.

What makes 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy most enchanting is that, whether intentionally or not, it serves as a cautionary parable for the subjective ways in which we decide what is true and what is real — a reminder that without the essential tools of critical thinking, we warp the art of observation into a subjective filter that colors our perception of the world to paint it as what we want it to be rather than what it is.

Illustrations courtesy of McSweeney’s

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06 FEBRUARY, 2014

David Hockney Illustrates the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

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The beauty of ugly and the whimsy of negative space.

As a lover of fairy tales — especially little-known gems like those E.E. Cummings wrote for his only daughter or beloved classics illustrated by creative legends like Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and Alice and Martin Provensen — I was delighted to discover Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm with illustrations by David Hockney (public library), in which the celebrated contemporary artist and pop art icon adds to history’s finest visual takes on the Grimm tales. This tiny treasure, originally published in 1970 by the British Royal Academy of Arts and reissued in 2012, features Hockney’s weird and wonderful drawings for The Little Sea Hare, Fundevogel, Rapunzel, The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear, Old Rinkrank, and Rumpelstilzchen.

What makes Hockney’s visual interpretation especially enchanting is that while traditional fairy tale images tend to rely on beauty and color to create magic and contrast the beautiful and the ugly to distinguish between good and evil, even the princesses in his black-and-white illustrations are unassuming, ugly even; where ornate, detailed imagery would ordinarily fill the traditional visual vignette, Hockney’s ample use of negative space invites the imagination to roam freely. Perhaps above all, his haunting, scary, architectural illustrations serve as a testament to J.R.R. Tolkien’s assertion that, even if they might appeal to the young, fairy tales are not written “for children.”

Here are a few favorite etchings.

'The Princess in her tower' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The boy hidden in an egg' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The boy hidden in a fish' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The Princess searching' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The cook' (Fundevogel)

'The older Rapunzel' (Rapunzel)

'The tower had one window' (Rapunzel)

'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair' (Rapunzel)

'A black cat leaping' (The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear)

'Inside the castle' (The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear)

'Pleading for the child' (Rumpelstilzchen)

'Riding around on a cooking spoon' (Rumpelstilzchen)

'He tore himself in two' (Rumpelstilzchen)

Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm with illustrations by David Hockney is an absolutely wonderful little tome, doubly so for the gorgeous fabric-bound red cover and the elegant, minimalist black-white-and-red typesetting of the story text. Pair it with the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales and how Hans Christian Andersen changed storytelling.

For more famous artists’ illustrations for literary classics, see Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, Milton Glaser’s art for Lord Byron’s “Don Juan,” Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, William Blake’s paintings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975.

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03 FEBRUARY, 2014

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Original Watercolors for The Little Prince

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“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.”

Although Antoine de Saint-Exupéry only wrote one children’s book in his lifetime, it is among the most beloved of all time, one of those rare gems with most timeless philosophy for grown-ups. But what few realize is that Saint-Exupéry, a commercial pilot who never mastered English and penned his masterwork in French, wrote The Little Prince (public library) not in Paris but in New York City and Long Island, where he arrived in 1940 after the Nazi invasion of France.

In April of 1943, shortly after the book came out, 43-year-old Saint-Exupéry shoved his Little Prince manuscripts and drawings in a brown paper bag, handing it to his friend Silvia Hamilton — “I’d like to give you something splendid,” he told her, “but this is all I have.” — and departed for Algiers as a military pilot with the Free French Air Force. He was eight years over the age limit for pilots in such squadrons, so he petitioned relentlessly for exemption until it was finally granted by General Dwight Eisenhower. On July 31, 1944, he left on a reconnaissance mission, never to return. He was 44 years old when he perished — a biographical detail that lends eerie poignancy to the fact that, perched atop his little planet, the Little Prince watched the sun set exactly 44 times.

Parts of his plane were found years later. A fisherman near Marseilles caught Saint-Exupéry’s silver bracelet in his net. Along with the author’s name, that of his wife, and his American publisher’s address, the inscription read “NYC USA.”

The Little Prince wasn’t published in the author’s native France until two years after his death. Even in America, it was only a moderate success initially — it only stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for two weeks, compared to twenty for Saint-Exupéry’s aviation memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars, perhaps because it occupied that odd, uncategorizable neverland between a children’s story and philosophical fable for adults. And yet precisely therein lies the book’s timeless magic. Today, it has been translated into more than 260 languages and dialects, and it lands in millions of hands, little and big, each year.

In 1968, The Morgan Library in New York — home to such treasures as the life of Rumi in rare Islamic paintings and the illustrated to-do lists of famous artists — acquired the original manuscripts. Now, a new Morgan exhibition explores Saint-Exupéry’s creative process through the writings that he excluded from the final version — the Morgan manuscript contains 30,000 words, nearly double those in the published book — and his little-known original watercolors, among other biographical ephemera. Indeed, what made Saint-Exupéry such a singular artist of the imagination was that he ranked among those rare writers who also illustrated their own works — celebrated creators like Maurice Sendak, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Maira Kalman — with text and image informing and enriching one another.

What makes these drawings most extraordinary is that they at once embody and counter Saint-Exupéry’s most memorable line — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — by seeking to make visible, even seen, the creative craftsmanship of a man who long after his death continues to move generations with his tender tale about the meaning of life.

Saint-Exupéry was among the many famous writers with odd habits and questionable sleep regimens: He wrote well into the night and had no scruples about calling up a friend at 2 A.M. to read a passage aloud; he carried a cup of coffee or tea with him at all times and almost always had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Unsurprisingly, those habits are imprinted — quote literally — on his work, as in the coffee stain on this early Little Prince manuscript page:

One of the drawings even has a cigarette burn:

Also included in the exhibition, envisioned by Morgan Library curator Christine Nelson, are the last photographs taken of Saint-Exupéry, captured by LIFE photojournalist John Phillips, whose account of a conversation with Saint-Exupéry is our only record of the inspiration for the book:

When I asked Saint-Ex how the Little Prince had entered his life, he told me that one day he looked down on what he thought was a blank sheet and saw a small childlike figure. “I asked him who he was, ” Saint-Ex said. “I’m the Little Prince,” was the reply.

Indeed, Saint-Exupéry’s beloved character evolved largely in the margins of his letters and notebooks. In a 1940 missive to a friend, he doodled a character with thinning hair, much like his own, wearing a bow-tie. He gave a similar drawing to Elizabeth Reynal, a French-speaking friend in New York, who eventually convinced him to weave his character into a children’s story.

One of the loveliest meta-materials in the exhibit is a 1943 review of The Little Prince by P.L. Travers for the New York Herald Tribune, echoing Tolkien’s conviction that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and articulating the profound, timeless appeal of the book with exquisite sensitivity:

Children quite naturally see with the heart, the essential is clearly visible to them. The little fox will move them simply by being a fox. They will not need his secret until they have forgotten it and have to find it again. I think, therefore, that The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it. Yet even in saying this I am conscious of drawing a line between grown-ups and children. . . . And I do not believe that line exists.

Saint-Exupéry’s original full-color drawings are included in the 70th anniversary boxed set edition of The Little Prince. The Morgan Library’s The Little Prince: A New York Story is on view through April 27, 2014.

All images courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum © Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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