Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

03 MAY, 2013

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me: Maya Angelou’s Courageous Children’s Verses, Illustrated by Basquiat

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A priceless primer on poetry and contemporary art for little ones, and a timeless reminder of the power of courage in all of us.

Fear is the enemy of creativity, the hotbed of mediocrity, a critical obstacle to mastering life. Few embody the defiance of fear with greater dignity and grace than reconstructionist Maya Angelou, who has overcome remarkable hardships — childhood rape, poverty, addiction, bereavement — to become one of today’s most celebrated writers. Like a number of other celebrated “adult” poets and novelists who have also written for children — including Sylvia Plath, Mark Twain, Anne Sexton, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Mary Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes — so has Angelou: The 1993 gem Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (public library), conceived and edited by Sara Jane Boyers, pairs Angelou’s simple, strong words with drawings by legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose signature style of child-like fancy and colorful emotional intensity offers a perfect match for Angelou’s courageous verses.

Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don’t frighten me at all.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Hear Angelou read the poem herself, which she says she wrote “for all children who whistle in the dark and who refuse to admit that they’re frightened out of their wits”:

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me is an absolute treat in its entirety, a priceless primer on poetry and contemporary art for little ones and a timeless reminder of the power of courage in all of us. Complement it with Angelou’s stirring meditation on home, belonging, and (never) growing up.

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15 APRIL, 2013

Eggs of Things: Anne Sexton’s 1963 Children’s Book

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“These are all eggs of things. They will be our secret.”

Given my soft spot for lesser-known vintage children’s books by famous literary icons — most recently, Mark Twain’s wonderful Advice to Little Girl and Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book and The It Doesn’t Mater Suit — I was thrilled to track down a surviving copy of Eggs of Things (public library), a 1963 out-of-print gem by beloved poet and academic trouble-maker Anne Sexton, co-written with Library of Congress poetry consultant Maxine Kumin and illustrated by Leonard Shortall.

It tells the story of an inventive foursome — Skippy, Buzz, Skippy’s younger sister nicknamed Pest (as proper brothers and sisters tend to do), and their dog Cowboy — who hatch the idea of saving their neighborhood vegetable garden from cutworms by fishing out some toad eggs from the nearby pond, incubating them in their tub, then releasing the toads into the garden to take are of the worms.

Eggs of Things was followed by More Eggs of Things in 1964, also sadly out-of-print but available in some public libraries.

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12 APRIL, 2013

My Father’s Arms Are a Boat: A Tender Norwegian Tale of Love and Loss

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Reconciling the yin-yang of existence in the snowy Scandinavian outdoors.

The finest children’s books have a way of exploring complex, universal themes through elegant simplicity and breathless beauty. From my friends at Enchanted Lion, collaborators on Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls and makers of some of the most extraordinary picture-books you’ll ever encounter, comes My Father’s Arms Are a Boat (public library) by writer Stein Erik Lunde and illustrator Øyvind Torseter, translated by Kari Dickson.

This tender and heartening Norwegian gem tells the story of an anxious young boy who climbs into his father’s arms seeking comfort on a cold sleepless night. The two step outside into the winter wonderland as the boy asks questions about the red birds in the spruce tree to be cut down the next morning, about the fox out hunting, about why his mother will never wake up again. With his warm and assuring answers, the father watches his son make sense of this strange world of ours where love and loss go hand in hand.

Lunde, who also writes lyrics and has translated Bob Dylan into Norwegian, is a masterful storyteller who unfolds incredible richness in few words. Meanwhile, Torseter’s exquisite 2D/3D style combining illustration and paper sculpture, reminiscent of Soyeon Kim’s wonderful You Are Stardust, envelops the story in a sheath of delicate whimsy.

Above all, My Father’s Arms Are a Boat is about the quiet way in which boundless love and unconditional assurance can lift even the most pensive of spirits from the sinkhole of existential anxiety.

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