Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

25 JUNE, 2013

The Dark: An Illustrated Meditation on Overcoming Fear from Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

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A heart-warming allegory about what it means to make peace with our demons.

Daniel Handler — beloved author, timelessly heartening literary jukeboxer — is perhaps better-known by his pen name Lemony Snicket, under which he pens his endlessly delightful children’s books. In fact, they owe much of their charisma to the remarkable creative collaborations Snicket spawns, from 13 Words illustrated by the inimitable Maira Kalman to Who Could It Be At This Hour? with artwork by celebrated cartoonist Seth. The latest Snicket gem is at least as exciting — a minimalist yet magnificently expressive story about a universal childhood fear, titled The Dark (public library) and illustrated by none other than Jon Klassen.

In a conversation with NPR, Handler echoes Aung San Suu Kyi’s timeless wisdom on freedom from fear and articulates the deeper, more universal essence of the book’s message:

I think books that are meant to be read in the nighttime ought to confront the very fears that we’re trying to think about. And I think that a young reader of The Dark will encounter a story about a boy who makes new peace with a fear, rather than a story that ignores whatever troubles are lurking in the corners of our minds when we go to sleep.

The Dark is part My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, part Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, but mostly the kind of singular treat only Snicket can deliver.

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21 JUNE, 2013

James Gandolfini Reads Maurice Sendak’s Most Controversial Book

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Two creative icons on the precipice of mortality.

On the evening of June 19, I attended a wonderful event at New York’s Society of Illustrators celebrating the inimitable Maurice Sendak and the taboos explored in his work. Among the many memorable insights was a passing mention of a reading from Sendak’s 1970 classic In The Night Kitchen (public library) Sopranos star James Gandolfini had done at a 92Y tribute for Sendak’s 80th birthday in 2008. Little did any of us at the event know that mere hours earlier, Gandolfini had been been pronounced dead in an Italian hospital while on vacation with his 13-year-old son. In an even more eerie strike of tragic coincidence, one of the taboos discussed at the lecture was the notion of mortality in Sendak’s books. Thus, for reasons that are threefold obvious, there is hardly a better way to honor both Gandolfini and Sendak than with the original recording of the acclaimed actor’s exquisitely expressive reading of the Sendak classic:

At the lecture, Steven Heller quoted Sendak as having once told him in an interview:

Primarily, my work was an act of exorcism… so I could have peace of mind as an artist.

(How reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s timeless advice to his teenage son, in which he argued that “the point of being an artist is that you may live” and added, “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”)

But In The Night Kitchen, which was a Caldecott honor book in 1971, has a story particularly emblematic of both Sendak’s defiant spirit and the generous, steadfast support of his editor and creative champion, the great Ursula Nordstrom. In 1972, when a school librarian burned a copy of the book in an act of micro-censorship against Sendak’s depiction of his fictional little boy in the nude, a righteously outraged Nordstrom sent said librarian this colorful letter, found in the ever-excellent Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — a fine addition to literary history’s most poignant meditations on censorship:

January 5, 1972

Dear [Redacted]:

Your letter about Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen was delayed in reaching my desk as you sent it to our Scranton, Pennsylvania, division. I am sorry not to have written you more promptly.

I am indeed distressed to hear that in the year 1972 you burned a copy of a book. We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children. I assume it is the little boy’s nudity which bothers you. But truly, it does not disturb children! Mr. Sendak is a creative artist, a true genius, and he is able to speak to children directly. For children—at least up to the age of 12 or 13—are usually tremendously creative themselves. Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses? To me as editor and publisher of books for children, that is one of my greatest and most difficult duties. Believe me, we do not take our responsibilities lightly! I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.

I will send you a few positive comments on this book within the next few days, and I hope you will read them and that you will give the children in your school a chance to enjoy Mr. Sendak’s book.

Yours sincerely,

(Signed)

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13 JUNE, 2013

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems for Young People

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Warm hearts, brown thoughts, and the magic of city trees.

Among creative culture’s most delightful fringes are the generally lesser-known children’s books by famous “adult” authors — Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain (illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky), Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou (illustrated by Basquiat), The Cats of Copenhagen by James Joyce, The Bed Book by Sylvia Plath (illustrated by Quentin Blake), The Wishing Tree by William Faulkner, To Do by Gertrude Stein, Eggs of Things by Anne Sexton, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot (illustrated by Edward Gorey), and other gems by Aldous Huxley, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes.

Though Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, delinquent schoolgirl, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits — never explicitly wrote for children, the verses in the wonderful 1951 collection Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems Selected for Young People (public library) make a fine addition to this treasure chest of literary gems for budding readers.

Featuring tender and enchanted drawings by J. Paget-Fredericks, who illustrated a great deal of Millay’s work over the course of more than twenty years, the poems embrace the Sendakian view that children should be filled with whimsy, but shouldn’t be shielded from the dark. With Millay’s signature blend of sensitivity, irreverence, and poignant exuberance, they open to young readers the full psychoemotional spectrum of the world and, as Rilke memorably put it, let everything happen … beauty and terror.”

GROWN-UP

Was it for this I uttered prayers,
And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs,
That now, domestic as a plate,
I should retire at half-past eight?

THE UNEXPLORER

There was a road ran past house
Too lovely to explore.
I asked my mother once — she said
That if you followed where it led
It brought you to the milk-man’s door
(That’s why I have not traveled more.)

TRAVEL

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

SORROW

Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain, –
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.

People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.

SOUVENIR

Just a rainy day or two
In a windy tower,
That was all I had of you—
Saving half an hour.

Marred by greeting passing groups
In a cinder walk,
Near some naked blackberry hoops
Dim with purple chalk.
I remember three or four
Things you said in spite,
And an ugly coat you wore,
Plaided black and white.

Just a rainy day or two
And a bitter word.
Why do I remember you
As a singing bird?

EPITAPH

Heap not on this mound
Roses that she loved so well;
Why bewilder her with roses,
That she cannot see or smell?
She is happy where she lies
With the dust upon her eyes.

CITY TREES

The trees along this city street,
Save for the traffic and the trains,
Would make a sound as thin and sweet
As trees in country lanes.

And people standing in their shade
Out of a shower, undoubtedly
Would hear such music as is made
Upon a country tree.

Oh, little leaves that are so dumb
Against the shrieking city air,
I watch you when the wind has come, —
I know what sound is there.

All sixty poems in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems Selected for Young People are an absolute treat. They were taken from Millay’s A Few Figs From Thistles, Second April, Renascence, and The Harp Weaver.

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