Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

09 JUNE, 2015

Oliver Jeffers on the Paradox of Ownership and the Allure of Duality

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“We only own something because everybody agrees that we do.”

Oliver Jeffers is one of the most talented and thoughtful children’s book authors and artists of our time. Whether he is exploring love and loss in his unusual stories for young readers or the facts and fictions of memory in his fine art, undergirding his work is a deep fascination with duality and paradox.

In the foreword to the magnificent monograph Neither Here Nor There: The Art of Oliver Jeffers, Richard Seabrook remarks on this recurring theme, “the concept that something can mean one thing to one person, and something entirely different to another.” Nowhere does this come more vibrantly alive than in Jeffers’s This Moose Belongs to Me (public library) — a disarming story about a boy who believes he owns his pet moose Marcel, only to discover that so do other people, who call him by different names, while the moose himself doesn’t quite get the concept of being owned and is thus oblivious to the boy’s list of rules for being a good pet.

What emerges is an allegory for our rather human tendency to dig in our heels when things don’t go our way, forgetting Henry Miller’s timeless taunt — “And your way, is it really your way?” — and snapping into self-righteousness. When the moose doesn’t obey the rules of being a pet, the boy storms off “embarrassed and enraged” — another curious psychoemotional duality the richness of which Jeffers captures with great economy of words.

Sometimes the moose wasn’t a very good pet. He generally ignored Rule 7: going whichever way Wilfred wanted to go.

But the story is, above all, a parable about the nature of ownership as a mutually agreed upon figment and the comical sense of entitlement it engenders. What makes it especially enchanting is the conceptual meta-message — for the backgrounds of his illustrated vignettes, Jeffers reapporpriates classical landscape paintings by a mid-century Slovakian painter named Alexander Dzigurski, rendering the project a sort of posthumous collaboration and a creative mashup of which Montaigne would have approved.

Jeffers’s message is subtle but resounding: In art — as in science, as in all of human culture — the ideas we call our own are but the combinatorial product of countless borrowings from the intellectual “property” of others. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best in his supportive letter to Helen Keller when she was accused of plagiarism: “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

With another delightfully thoughtful touch, Jeffers reminds us that these borrowings can come not only from others but from ourselves — in one of the scenes, the lumberjack-bear protagonist of his previous book, The Great Paper Caper, makes a cameo against the backdrop of a borrowed landscape painting.

In his wholly wonderful Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Jeffers tells the story of this moosely mashup and how he tracked down the grandson of the Slovakian painter for permissions, then reflects on the deeper elements of duality in his body of work. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

On the conceptual confluences that sprouted This Moose Belongs to Me, which was essentially Arthur Koestler’s seminal bisociation theory of creativity in action:

I was reading, at that time, a history of Manhattan and I read about the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch. And the natives who were on the land were like, “Yeah, sure, you can buy it!” But nobody really owns land anyway, so they had to leave — and that was to the great confusion of the Dutch… There was an element of truth in that… We only own something because everybody agrees that we do.

I just thought this was a really interesting concept and applied it to owning a pet…

And then, when I was sketching the drawings … I knew that I wanted to use oil paintings… and I’d started off making all those oil paintings… At that point, I glanced over my studio and there were all of these old landscape paintings lined up for another project. And I’m thinking about this story, and the rules of how to be a good pet, and the moose doesn’t really get that he’s supposed to be a pet — and two things connected to each other. And I thought, “Well, if it is about ownership, then I should probably just reappropriate these paintings into this book… It seems conceptually a fit.”

[…]

The book ended up mostly being a collaboration between me and this long-ago dead guy.

On the roots of his obsession with duality and its particular manifestation in a collaboration with a doctor of quantum physics around the famed fact that light can appear to be both a particle and a wave, depending on how the question is asked and how the answer is measured:

There was a sense of duality I grew up with — [Belfast] was a split city, really. There was a lot of violence, but there was also a lot of happiness. And really, that being the backbone of the culture and the existence in which I grew up, and choosing to get past, I think it leaves its marks way down there.

But then, I fell in with this project with Professor Quantum Physics, and through that I discovered the actual theory of duality, which looks at light in particular — light when measured in particles becomes a particle and light when measured in waves becomes a wave. What I took from that was that it’s up to us, then, how we define it — we choose the equipment with which we measure, so therefore it’s up to us… That was what fascinated me — that we have the ability to look at anything and make it anything we want, to some degree.

That’s why I started making art about that sense of, “Can we look at things logically and emotionally, all at the same time?”

Subscribe to Design Matters here. For more of Jeffers’s magic, see Once Upon an Alphabet, which was among the best children’s books of 2014, and The Heart and the Bottle, a tender illustrated fable about what happens when we deny our difficult emotions.

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04 JUNE, 2015

The Big Green Book: Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak’s Little-Known and Lovely Vintage Children’s Book About the Magic of Reading

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A subversive celebration of how books transform us.

In 1962, the revered British poet and novelist Robert Graves was sixty-seven, with his greatest works long behind him; Maurice Sendak was an insecure young artist of thirty-four, with Where the Wild Things Are — his greatest work, which would turn him into a household name for generations to come — still a year ahead.

Mere months earlier, Sendak had illustrated Tolstoy, and now he was about to join forces with one of the greatest living authors of his own era: He was tasked with illustrating The Big Green Book (public library), Graves only children’s book — a wondrous and subversive story about the magic of reading.

That the protagonist is named Jack, like Sendak’s beloved brother, would have only added to the felicitous allure of the collaboration.

Little Jack is an orphan living with his aunt and uncle, who are “not very nice to him” because they take him on long walks when he wants to be left alone to play, and with their big old dog — a rather familiar dog — who likes chasing rabbits so much that the family frequently has rabbit pie for dinner.

One day, Jack climbs into the attic to play and discovers a big green book, which turns out to be full of magic spells.

As his eyes grow “bigger and bigger” with wonder, his magical find makes literal Rebecca Solnit’s memorable metaphor for the book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” Jack’s heart magically migrates from his little-boy chest into a little-old-man chest as he transmogrifies into a miniature Merlin-like personage, with a big beard and a tattered robe.

The story is delightfully nonsensical, but in a Lewis Carroll kind of way — nonsense undergirded by existential insight and deep human truth. It’s hard, for instance, not to feel Graves’s wistfulness at the incomprehensibly swift passage of life when he, in his late sixties, writes of little Jack’s magical transmutation:

Soon he found he was not a little boy any more — he was an old man with a long beard.

And when the aunt and uncle, now fretting over Jack’s disappearance, decide that they must ask “that ragged old man” whether he has seen the little boy anywhere, it’s hard not to feel thrust into the middle of the immutable mystery of personal identity — how is it, really, that you and your childhood self are the same person despite a lifetime of staggering physical and psychological changes? The ragged old man, Graves writes, “was really Jack all the time” — miraculously, so are we. And when the old man answers the uncle’s question, it’s impossible for the heart not to swell with Graves’s wistfulness once more:

A little boy was here only a minute ago… Now he’s disappeared.

The little old man convinces the aunt and uncle to stick around for a game of cards. With the help of his newfound magic, he proceeds to beat them over and over again. They start out playing for just a couple of dollars, but double the stakes each new game, hoping to recover their losses, only to lose again — until they owe the little sorcerer their house, their garden, and even their rabbit-chasing dog. (Three decades later, Sendak would dust off the symbolism of playing cards as a manipulation tool in his darkest children’s book, also starring a protagonist named Jack.)

Just as they’re about to take the little old man to the house, for him to claim his winnings, he performs one last spell — the rabbit being chased by the dog suddenly turns around, punches the dog in the nose, and reverses the chase.

At the house, under the pretext that he is taking a look at his new property, the little old man goes back to the attic and transmogrifies into Jack.

When the little boy joins his aunt and uncle outside, they begin telling him about the mysterious little man who now owned their lives, but Jack points out that there is no such person in sight, convincing them — in one final mind-muddling prank — that they had dreamt it all, making them feel “very silly” for it.

Life returns to normal, except for the dog, whose fresh fear of rabbits endures and ensures that the family is never to have rabbit pie again — a sweet, subtle reminder that although we inevitably return to the real world when the reading experience ends, books always transform us and leave traces of themselves in our real selves, to be carried forward beyond the last page.

Complement the wholly magical The Big Green Book with Sendak’s illustrations for The Nutcracker, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Melville’s Pierre, and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, then revisit his little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

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02 JUNE, 2015

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Illustrated Story of Eccentric Genius and Lovable Oddball Paul Erdos

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How a prodigy of primes became the Magician from Budapest before he learned how to butter his own bread.

The great Hannah Arendt called mathematics the “science par excellence, wherein the mind appears to play only with itself.” Few minds have engaged in this glorious self-play more fruitfully than the protagonist of The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős (public library) by writer Deborah Heiligman and illustrator LeUyen Pham — a wonderful addition to the most intelligent and imaginative picture-book biographies of great artists and scientists, telling the story of the eccentric Hungarian genius who went on to become one of the most prolific and influential mathematicians of the twentieth century.

Tucked into Pham’s illustrations are a number of mathematical Easter eggs, such as the palindromic primes, dihedral primes, Leyland primes, and other prime varieties — a particular obsession for Erdős — she built into her Budapest cityscape.

Erdős was born in Budapest to Jewish parents who were both math teachers. His two sisters, ages three and five, died of scarlet fever the day of his birth and his father spent the first six years of little Paul’s life as a prisoner of war in Russia. It was his mother, Anna, who nurtured the young boy’s early love of math.

Even as a toddler — or an epsilon, a very small amount in math, as he would later come to call children — he was already doing complex calculations in his head.

One day, when he was 4, Paul asked a visitor when her birthday was. She told him.

What year were you born? he asked.
She told him.

What time?
She told him.

Paul thought for a moment.
Then he told her how many seconds she had been alive.

Paul liked that trick. He did it often.

But despite — or, rather, because of — his extreme intelligence, Paul didn’t do so well in school. His intellectual vigor paralleled his bodily restlessness — he simply couldn’t sit still in the classroom.

Paul told Mama he didn’t want to go to school anymore. Not for 1 more day, for 0 days. He wished he could take days away — negative school days! He pleaded with Mama to stay home.

Luckily, mama was a worrier. She worried about germs a lot. She worried Paul could catch dangerous germs from the children at school.

Anna finally relented and Paul was entrusted in the care of the stern Fraülein. She and his mother did everything for him — they cut his meat, buttered his bread, and dressed him. But while such attentive care gave the boy room to grow his genius — we do know, after all, that parental presence rather than praise is the key to a child’s achievement — it made for substantial social awkwardness later in life.

By the time time he was twenty, he was already a world-famous mathematician, known as The Magician from Budapest — but he still lived with his mom, who still did his laundry and cooked for him and buttered his bread.

Heiligman illustrates the magnitude of his everyday incapacity with an amusing anecdote:

When Paul was 21, some mathematicians invited him to go to England to work on his math.

[…]

They all went to dinner.

Everyone else talked and ate, but Paul stared at his bread. He stared at his butter. He didn’t know how to butter his bread.

Finally he took his knife, put some butter on it, and spread it on his bread. Phew. He did it! “It wasn’t so hard,” he said.

But the buttering of the bread was merely the trigger for a larger realization — young Paul saw that the traditional path of settling down in one place, with a wife and children, working at a nine-to-five job, wasn’t the right path for him, he who longed to do math for nineteen hours a day. Heiligman writes:

Here is what he did:

Paul would get on an airplane with two small suitcases filled with everything he owned — a few clothes and some math notebooks. He might have $20 in his pocket. Or less.

He flew from New York to Indiana and to Los Angeles. He flew across the world, from Toronto to Australia.

“I have no home,” he declared. “The world is my home.”

More than half a century before Airbnb, he began staying with mathematicians all over the world, who would take him into their homes and take care of him just like his mother had. He wasn’t the easiest of house guests — he would wake up at 4 in the morning to do math, and one time he caused a colorful kitchen explosion by stabbing a carton of tomato juice with a knife, having grown impatient with figuring out how to open it properly — but his friends around the world loved him dearly for his brilliant mind and generous collaborative spirit.

Indeed, for all his eccentricity — TIME famously called him “The Oddball’s Oddball” — Erdős was no lone genius. If Voltaire was the epicenter of the famous Republic of Letters, Erdős was the epicenter of a Republic of Numbers — over the course of his long life, he collaborated with more than 500 other mathematicians and greatly enjoyed his role as what Heiligman aptly terms a “math matchmaker,” introducing peers around the world to one another so they could cooperate in moving mathematics forward. These collaborations advanced the progress of computing and paved the way for modern search engines.

He became affectionately known as Uncle Paul and mathematicians came to talk of “Erdős numbers” to measure their collaborative distance from the beloved genius in degrees of separation — those who worked with him directly earned the number 1, those who worked with someone who had worked with him directly got 2, and so forth.

Paul said he never wanted to stop doing math. And he didn’t. To stop doing math, Paul said, was to die.

So Paul left this world while he was at a math meeting.

(His famous peer John Nash — who inspired the film A Beautiful Mind, was awarded the Nobel Prize, and bore the Erdős number 3 — wasn’t so lucky.)

Complement the warm and wonderful The Boy Who Loved Math with the illustrated life-stories of other celebrated minds, including Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Ibn Sina, and Maria Merian. For a grownup biography of Erdős, see the excellent The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.

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01 JUNE, 2015

The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, Reimagined in Uncommonly Soulful Illustrations by Austrian Artist Lisbeth Zwerger

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“Once upon a time, when wishes could still come true…”

Few feats of storytelling have possessed the popular imagination more powerfully or enduringly than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. In the two centuries since the publication of the little-known original edition, penned by Jacob and Wilhelm when they were in their twenties, some of humanity’s most celebrated artists and writers have retold and reimagined these bewitching tales, producing masterpieces like Maurice Sendak’s illustrations a decade in the making, David Hockney’s wonderfully weird vintage visual vignettes, Neil Gaiman’s mesmeric retelling of Hansel and Gretel, and Shaun Tan’s uncommonly haunting sculptural interpretation.

Among the most enrapturing visual reimaginings is one by the celebrated Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger. Having previously illustrated such beloved classics as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Selfish Giant, she brings her singular vision to eleven of the Grimm stories in the absolutely gorgeous volume Tales from the Brothers Grimm: Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (public library), translated by Anthea Bell.

The Frog King or Iron Henry

The Brave Little Taylor

The Children of Hamelin

Zwerger’s distinctive pictorial language resonates deeply with the storytelling sensibility of the Brothers Grimm — there is a shared mastery of the interplay between darkness and light, subtlety and drama; a common quietude that bellows as the story breaches the surface of awareness and penetrates the psyche.

Hans My Hedgehog

The Children of Hamelin

The Children of Hamelin

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

The Brave Little Taylor

Hans My Hedgehog

Hans My Hedgehog

There is something particularly wonderful about the juxtaposition of the tales’ unabashed strangeness, which lends itself more readily to stark black-and-white illustrations and literal visual narration, and Zwerger’s soft watercolors, full of delicate abstraction. What emerges is a dialogue — an embrace, even — between the sharp outer edges of the stories and their interior sensitivity, bespeaking their dimensional enchantment.

The Bremen Town Musicians

The Bremen Town Musicians

The Bremen Town Musicians

The Bremen Town Musicians

Briar Rose

Briar Rose

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

Complement Zwerger’s impossibly beautiful Tales from the Brothers Grimm with trailblazing female children’s book artist Wanda Gág’s early-twentieth-century illustrations, then revisit Zwerger’s interpretations of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and Oscar Wilde.

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