Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

07 JANUARY, 2013

Charles Addams Illustrates Mother Goose, 1967

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“Come with a hoop, Come with a call, Come with a good will, Or not at all.”

I have a documented soft spot for vintage children’s books, especially little-known gems by otherwise famous creators, coupled with a weakness for the macabre style of mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey. So imagine my delight upon finding out that in 1967, beloved Addams Family creator and New Yorker cartoonist Charles “Chas” Addams (January 7, 1912–September 29, 1988) put his twist on the classic Mother Goose tales. The Charles Addams Mother Goose (UK; public library) is exactly as darkly delightful as you’d expect it to be, bringing the time-honored characters to wicked new life. In the midst of the Vietnam War, Addams brought equal parts comfort and comic relief with this intersection of the deeply familiar and the refreshingly irreverent.

Why Addams chose to create an adaptation of Mother Goose is subject to speculation only. Tee Addams, the artist’s third and last wife, writes in the foreword to the 2002 deluxe reprint, weeks before her own death:

I think it was possibly due to his longtime desire sparked by famed bibliophile and Saturday Review of Literature cofounder Christopher Morley and his 1942 letter to Random House president Bennett Cerf suggesting he publish an Addams version of the nursery rhymes. Or it could have been due to fellow New Jersey denizen Carolyn Rush and her in-depth studies of Mother Goose, who, when interviewed in 1935 stated, ‘The rimes we grew to love in childhood have even more interest as we grow older and learn they have historic value.’ But more than likely, it was because of Charlie’s steadfast conviction to enjoy life’s lessons through the uncluttered eyes of a child; to ignore convention and have fun with it.

Three blind mice, see how they run!
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a sight in your life
As three blind mice?

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?
The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!

Girls and boys,
Come out to play,
The moon does shine
As bright as day.
Come with a hoop,
Come with a call,
Come with a good will,
Or not at all.

Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.

There was an old woman tossed in a basket,
Seventeen times as high as the moon;
But where she was going, no mortal could tell,
For under her arms she carried a broom.
‘Old woman, old woman, old woman,’ said I,
‘Whither, oh whither, oh whither so high?’
‘To sweep the cobwebs from the sky,
and I’ll be with you by-and-by.’

And perhaps it was Mother Goose Kurt Vonnegut channeled in writing about his moused apartment:

Pretty John Watts,
We are troubled with rats;
Will you drive them out of the house?
We have mice too in plenty
That feast in the pantry,
But let them stay
And nibble away.
What harm is a little brown mouse?

I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives.
How many are going to St. Ives?

Here am I,
Little Jumping Joan;
When nobody’s with me,
I’m all alone.

In addition to some of Addams’s never-before-published sketchbooks and photographs, the 2002 reprint includes this additional image, which Addams created for the original 1967 edition but it was dropped from the book at the last moment “for reasons unknown”:

A red sky at night is a shepherd’s delight,
A red sky in the morning is a shepherd’s warning.

The Charles Addams Mother Goose is an absolute treat — the most marvelous resurrection since Edward Gorey’s lost cryptic alphabet and Dr. Seuss’s obscure book of nudes.

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28 DECEMBER, 2012

The Strange Story of William Faulkner’s Only Children’s Book

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A rare vintage treasure, with stunning black-and-white illustrations and a side of controversy.

As a lover of obscure children’s books by famous authors of grown-up literature, I was delighted to discover The Wishing Tree (UK; public library) by none other than William Faulkner — a sort of grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland, Don Quixote, and To Kill a Mockingbird, about a girl who embarks upon a strange adventure on her birthday only to realize the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration and kindness.

But far more intriguing than the mere existence of the book is the bizarre story of how it came to be: In 1927, Faulkner gave the story to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, with whom he was still in love. He hoped Estelle would leave her unhappy marriage and marry him instead — which she did two years later.

The tiny book was typed and bound on colored paper by Faulkner himself. (It wasn’t uncommon in those days for authors to hand-craft and publish their own books.) The first page of the book read:

For his dear friend
Victoria
on her eight birthday
Bill he made
this Book

Faulkner included this beautiful dedication verse:

To Victoria

‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard
Grave and windless bells; mine air
Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.

Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve,
Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’

On the left-hand page facing the dedication verse, the following text appeared:

single mss. impression
oxford-mississippi-
5-february-i927

The catch? Faulkner turned out to be an unapologetic, serial regifter: He made another copy of the book for his friend’s daughter, a little girl dying of cancer, and then two more for two other children — his godson and to the daughter of his friend, the actress Ruth Ford — years later. Each child believed the book had been made exclusively for him or her. But apart from the ethical question, a more practical one presented itself when Victoria tried to publish the book nearly four decades later, only to find out she wasn’t the only rights-holder.

Copyright was eventually worked out and in 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House New York — who just five years later commissioned Salvador Dalí’s exquisite Alice In Wonderland illustrations — to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring stunning black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese. I was lucky enough to hunt down one of the surviving copies, number 121.

…if you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.

The Wishing Tree, sadly long out of print, remains Faulkner’s only known children’s book. On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, now also out of print but findable used with some persistence.

Thanks, Anique

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27 DECEMBER, 2012

How People Live In The Suburbs: A Vintage Illustrated Gem

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“Swinging is a good time to close your eyes and make-believe.”

Much has been written about what makes a great city, with recent theories placing walkability atop the list of favorable assets, deeming suburbs among the least desirable, most unsustainable, most culturally insular places to live. In fact, every week from now until 2050 more than a million people are being added to our cities. But the city-suburb relationship didn’t always skew this way — in the first half of the 20th century, suburban sprawl was hailed as a pinnacle of industrial progress and by the 1950s, more Americans lived in suburbs than anywhere else.

Last week, while researching the lovely vintage gem The Little Golden Book of Words, I came upon another out-of-print treasure: How People Live In The Suburbs (UK; public library) by Muriel Stanek, originally published in 1970 as an educational supplement teaching primary school children about the basics of social studies. Through a mix of vibrant illustrations by Bernadine Bailey and photographs by Philip Gendreau, the slim 48-page book captures the golden age of utopian visions for suburbia, a bittersweet memento from one of history’s greatest failures of urban planning.

How People Live In The Suburbs was published as part of a Basic Understanding series of primary school supplements, also including How People Earn and Use Money, How Farms Help Us, and How Our Government Helps Us — all, sadly, out of print but delightful if you’re able to secure a copy.

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