Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

17 OCTOBER, 2013

Inside the Rainbow: Gorgeous Vintage Russian Children’s Book Illustrations from the 1920s-1930s

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“A lovely primary-colored geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun.”

Since the golden age of children’s literature in mid-century America and Europe, we’ve seen children’s books used for purveying everything from philosophy to propaganda to science. But two decades before this Western surge of design innovation and conceptual experimentation in children’s books, a thriving scene of literature and art for young readers was taking root on the other side of the soon-to-be Iron Curtain. Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times (public library), edited by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, collects the most vibrant masterpieces of Russian children’s literature from the short but pivotal period between 1920 and 1935 — a time-capsule of the ambitious aesthetic and imaginative ideology that burned bright for a few brief moments before the onset of communism cast down its uniform grayness.

Philip Pullman, who knows a thing or two about the permeating power of children’s storytelling, writes in the foreword:

The world of Russian children’s illustrated books in the first twenty years or so of Soviet rule is almost incomparably rich. What were they doing, these commissars and party secretaries, to allow this wonderland of modern art to grow under their very noses? I expect the rule that applies to children’s books was just as deeply interiorized in the Soviet Union as it has been in the rest of the world: they don’t matter. They can be ignored. They’re not serious.

(Coincidentally, Neil Gaiman recently lamented that “there is [no] such a thing as a bad book for children. … Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading.”)

Pullman contrasts the distinctive, indigenous style of this Russian book art with its Western counterparts from the same era:

The kind of modern art that lives so vigorously and joyously in these pages is, of course, one with a Russian ancestry. There is no Cubism here … no Post-Impressionism … no Dada. What there is is Constructivism, and plenty of it, and of its metaphysical parent, Suprematism. Basic geometrical shapes, the square, the circle, the rectangle, are everywhere; flat primary colors dominate.

And yet, conceptually, many of these illustrations find — and often presage — certain Western counterparts. Take, for instance, these spreads from Boris Ermolenko’s 1930 visual taxonomy of occupations, Special Clothing, which call to mind beloved French illustrator Blebolex’s book People, one of the best children’s books of 2011:

Among the visual ephemera are also some instructional manuals on child-rearing and child-care, like this list of tips on upbringing found in the reception rooms of Crèches and the Museums of Mother and Child — a curious mix of practical common sense, questionable advice, and timeless, remarkably timely wisdom:

HINTS ON UPBRINGING

It is very hard to give due education to a single child, for a child needs the company of others his own age. Never take a child to motion pictures or the theatre.

Do not carry a child in your arms for any length of time; he must move.

Do not help a child who is in a difficult situation unless it be dangerous; he must learn to care for himself. If you are ill, upset or unhappy, do not let the child feel it.

Never whip, kick, or spit on a child.

Parents and elders should agree on what is allowed to and forbidden to children. It is bad to have one parent allow what the other forbids

A well-balanced routine makes a child grow healthy and accustoms him to organized social life.

Teach a child to work for others.

Understand and take part in a child’s happiness and sorrow, and he will come to you when he needs you. Do not disturb a child while he plays, or he will disturb you while you work.

If a child is annoyed with a toy, take it away and give it to him after he has forgotten his grievance.

Be careful of any trifle which a child considers a toy, even though it may only be a piece of wood or a stone.

Not everything you see in the toyshop is a good toy. Before buying a toy, see if you have anything in the house which will serve the same purpose.

Never forbid a child to play with other healthy children.

Do not tell stories to a child before he goes to sleep, for you will disturb him with new impressions.

Do not awaken a child without need when he should be sleeping.

Fresh air is as necessary in a child’s room in winter as in summer.

A child should be given a chance to urinate before and after sleeping.

Do not allow a child to stay up later than eight o’clock in the evening.

Sleep for a child under three years of age is as necessary during the day as during the night.

Each child must sleep in an individual bed; and each bed must consist of a hair mattress, an oilcloth, a pillow, blankets and sheets.

A child must spend between three and four hours outdoors each day, and, if he is old enough, he should walk during that time.

Some of the most charming pieces explore the burgeoning world of transportation:

Then there are the sheer, unmediated delights, such as Kornei Chukovsky’s playful 1927 poetry book The Telephone.

It begins:

Ting-a-ling-a-ling… A telephone ring! “Hallo! Hallo!”
“Who are you?” “Jumbo Joe,
“I live at the zoo!” “What can I do?” “Send me some jam For my little Sam.” “Do you want a lot?” “A five-ton pot,
And send me some cake — The poor little boy
Has swallowed a toy
And his tummy will ache If he gets no cake.”
“How many tons of cake will you take?” “Only a score.
He won’t be able to eat any more —
My little Sam is only four!”
And after a while
A crocodile rang from the Nile:
“I will be ever so jolly
If you send us a pile
Of rubber galoshes —
The kind that one washes —
For me and my wife and for Molly!”
“You’re talking too fast! Why, the week before last I posted ten pair
Of galoshes by air.”
“Now, doctor, be steady!
We’ve eaten already
The pile that you posted!
We ate them all roasted,
And the dish it was simply delicious, So everyone wishes
You would send to the Nile
A still bigger pile
That would do for a dozen more dishes.”

What’s most striking about these vibrant, colorful, exuberant images and verses, however, is their stark contrast to the cultural context in which they were born — alongside them we find grim photographs of desolate little faces in shabby schoolrooms, the faces of a generation that would be soon engulfed by communism’s dark descend. And yet these children’s books, Pullman marvels, emanate “a lovely primary-colored geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun” — a light at once heartening as a glimmer of generational hope and bittersweet against the historical backdrop of the oppressive regime that would eventually extinguish it as communism sought to purge the collective conscience of whimsy and imaginative sentimentality.

Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times is an absolute treasure trove, both as a portable museum of magnificent graphic design and as a time-capsule of a pivotal moment in world history. Complement it with these vintage Soviet art and propaganda posters from the same era.

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15 OCTOBER, 2013

E. B. White on Why He Wrote Charlotte’s Web, Plus His Rare Illustrated Manuscripts

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“A book is a sneeze.”

Legendary editor and reconstructionist Ursula Nordstrom, who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, is celebrated as the single most influential champion of innovation in children’s book publishing in the past century. Her vision ushered in a new era of imagination of literature for young readers and brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. More than merely an editor, Nordstrom, who famously cultivated the insecure genius of young Maurice Sendak, wore the hats of friend, therapist, confidante, and tireless defender of her young authors. Among her most memorable creative feats, however, is Charlotte’s Web (public library) by E. B. White, published on October 15, 1952.

E. B. White's second draft for the beginning of Charlotte's Web, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

A few weeks before the book’s release, however, the Harper & Row publicity department expressed unease about White’s choice of protagonist. Worried that a spider might revolt readers and critics, they asked him to explain his choice. On September 29, White sent Nordstrom a short note in response to her concern that the book endpapers are too bright (but not without an endearing Whitean tease: “I’m not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper’”), then proceeded to address the PR people’s unease in a lengthy explanation of why he wrote a book featuring a spider. The letter, unearthed by Letters of Note, is itself an absolute masterpiece of prose and testament to White’s character, bespeaking at once his elegant command of the written word and his equally famed love of animals. (White’s bemused dismay at the inquiry was sure to fall on an understanding ear, as Nordstrom had her own feisty grievances with publishers’ unimaginative shallowness.)

E. B. White's drawings of the vectors of the web-spinning process, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

I have been asked to tell how I came to write “Charlotte’s Web.” Well, I like animals, and it would be odd if I failed to write about them. Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did.

A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of “Charlotte’s Web” is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.

As for Charlotte herself, I had never paid much attention to spiders until a few years ago. Once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else — the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than I find anything in nature repulsive or revolting, and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign. Spiders are skilful, amusing and useful, and only in rare instances has anybody ever come to grief because of a spider.

One cold October evening I was lucky enough to see Aranea Cavatica spin her egg sac and deposit her eggs. (I did not know her name at the time, but I admired her, and later Mr. Willis J. Gertsch of the American Museum of Natural History told me her name.) When I saw that she was fixing to become a mother, I got a stepladder and an extension light and had an excellent view of the whole business. A few days later, when it was time to return to New York, not wishing to part with my spider, I took a razor blade, cut the sac adrift from the underside of the shed roof, put spider and sac in a candy box, and carried them to town. I tossed the box on my dresser. Some weeks later I was surprised and pleased to find that Charlotte’s daughters were emerging from the air holes in the cover of the box. They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors. They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show.

At the present time, three of Charlotte’s granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.

I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.

E. B. White's notes on web weaving, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

White, in fact, had little patience for the objections some critics, librarians, teachers, and parents had to the book’s protagonist and his choice to tackle the subject of death in a children’s book, which he saw as an infringement on his creative vision and integrity as a writer. In an unpublished letter to Nordstrom, cited in The Annotated Charlotte’s Web (public library), White dismisses these concerns with his characteristically concise, sharp-witted satire:

I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a litter of hyenas. The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.

Complement with the altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library), which also gave us Nordstrom’s infinitely heartening correspondence with young Sendak.

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10 OCTOBER, 2013

Need a House, Call Ms. Mouse: Progressive Vintage Children’s Book Starring a Female Architect

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“Henrietta is a world famous home decorator, which means she is — an artist, a designer, a dreamer, a builder, a creator, all that and more, too.”

As a lover of exquisite vintage children’s books, especially ones with irreverent messages that encourage creative endeavors and those empowering little girls to transcend confining social expectations, my heart leapt at the 1981 gem Need A House? Call Ms. Mouse (public library) — a lovely story aiming to awaken in kids a passion for architecture, starring a female protagonist. Written by George Mendoza, it features vibrant illustrations by Doris Susan Smith that fall somewhere between Maurice Sendak and the Provensens.

The story begins with an infinitely heartening “job description”:

Henrietta is a world famous home decorator, which means she is — an artist, a designer, a dreamer, a builder, a creator, all that and more, too.

But with great fame comes great responsibilities: Henrietta gets all kinds of requests, requiring increasing degrees of creative vision and architectural complexity — a spaceship-inspired treehouse for Squirrel (because what’s more mid-century-modern than that?), an elaborate Atlantis-like underwater residence for Trout, a modernist LA beach house for Lizard, even an intricate pear interior for Worm.

The twist, however, is that despite her architectural accomplishments, Henrietta herself — like Thoreau, whose famous philosophy of simple living inspired another lovely children’s book — prefers the simple life:

Why a treasure like Need A House? Call Ms. Mouse would perish in the mausoleum of out-of-print books is beyond me — used copies, while findable, cost a fortune. Thankfully, that’s just another reason to love public libraries.

A million thanks to Sharon for the discovery

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