Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

16 JULY, 2013

Alice and Martin Provensen’s Stunning Vintage Illustrations for Twelve Classic Fairy Tales

By:

From “The Happy Prince” to “The Beauty and the Beast,” by way of feminism and art history.

As a hopeless fan of Alice and Martin Provensen and a lover of fairy tales, especially ones featuring exquisite illustrations and beautiful reimaginings of the classics, I was delighted to come across The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales (public library) — an out-of-print gem published in 1971, in which the creative duo bring their singular whimsy to twelve beloved fairy tales. From classics like “The Beauty and the Beast” to literary tales like Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” to a recasting of Grimm’s goose girl as a heroine driven by the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, it is at once a timeless treasure trove of storytelling and a subtle time-capsule of cultural history.

'The Swan Maiden' by Howard Pyle

'The Swan Maiden' by Howard Pyle

'The Forrest Bride' by Parker Fillmore

'The Forrest Bride' by Parker Fillmore

'Feather O' My Wing' by Seamus MacManus

'Feather O' My Wing' by Seamus MacManus

In the foreword, Joan Bodger makes an important distinction, which Philip Pullman would come to echo in his retelling of The Brothers Grimm:

The stories in this book are literary fairy tales and thus may seem both familiar and unfamiliar. They are literary fairy tales because they are consciously created pieces of literature. The folk fairy tale is much more ancient, handed along through time (inheritance) and space (diffusion). Folk tales are so transformed by many tellings that no one knows for sure where they began, or how, or why. Certain it is that men and women in every time and every place have tried to impart what is most powerful or complicated or downright funny about the human condition by making up stories to explain the inexplicable.

The literary tale borrows shamelessly from the folk tale but gives it a new twist or dimension… Literary tales are filched from the seething cauldron of folklore, but the best bits and pieces of them are thrown back into the pot to be used again and again.

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince and the Goose Girl' by Elinor Mordaunt

'The Happy Prince' by Oscar Wilde

'The Lost Half-Hour' by Henry Beston

'The Nightingale' by Hans Christian Andersen

'The Seven Simons' by Ruth Manning-Sanders

'The Beauty and the Beast' by Arthur Rackham

Martin Provensen died of a heart attack in 1987, but Alice has continued to write and illustrate well into her nineties. Their artwork has inspired generations of children and its influence quietly reverberates through styles of some of today’s most celebrated artists and illustrators like Vladimir Radunsky. (That their Wikipedia page is so incomplete and out-of-date is truly a shame.)

Complement The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales with Edward Gorey’s take on three classic fairy tales and Kay Nielsen’s stunning 1914 illustrations for Scandinavian fairy tales.

Thanks, Gjela

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

15 JULY, 2013

The Big Box: Toni Morrison’s Darkly Philosophical Children’s Book, a Collaboration with Her Son

By:

“Who says they can’t handle their freedom?”

In 1999, beloved author Toni Morrison teamed up with her son, the painter and musician Slade Morrison, and joined the ranks of other famous “adult” writers who penned lesser-known and lovely children’s stories. Together, they wrote The Big Box (public library) — the seemingly grim tale of Patty, Mickey, and Liza Sue, who are banished to live in a giant box because they “can’t handle their freedom,” having made no other transgression than the silly little disobediences and restlessnesses of which all children are “guilty.” No parents, teachers, neighbors, or fairy godmothers are there to rescue them from their cruel prison which embodies the curious duality of punishment and protection and illustrates our frequent, culturally chronic difficulty in distinguishing between the two.

The message, of course, is far less simplistic — the story, based on an idea Slade had when he was nine years old, which first appeared on the pages of pioneering magazine Ms. in 1980, deals with questions of morality, imaginative freedom, justice, and self-sufficiency. In the final scene, we see the three children break free of the box by their own ingenuity as the Morrisons pose the congratulatory question, “Who says they can’t handle their freedom?”

Conceptually, the book is reminiscent of Maurice Sendak’s insistence that children can handle darker, subversive themes and need not be cushioned into an artificial reality — something illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall echoed in this fantastic interview. In fact, it is only recently that children’s literature became sugar-coated and euphemistic — throughout the lengthy history of children’s picture-books, from the Brothers Grim to Edward Gorey, authors have used the dark to illuminate the complexities of life.

The Big Box — the first of several such heart-warming mother-son collaborations — features art by the inimitable Giselle Potter, who went on to illustrate Gertrude Stein’s wonderful posthumously published alphabet book.

In an interview, Morrison addresses the underlying message and what the book is about:

The plight (and resistance) of children living in a wholly commercialized environment that equates “entertainment” with happiness, products with status, “things” with love, and that is terrified of the free (meaning un-commodified, unpurchaseable) imagination of the young. (Although children participate enthusiastically in the “love me so buy me” pattern, I think they are taught to think that way and that on some deep level they know what is being substituted.)

[…]

[The "box"] is a soft, familiar, comfortable, everyday “prison” into which children are metaphorically placed when their imagination is suppressed or programmed.

The children in The Big Box are surrounded by a kind of perfection — they have the newest and best toys, they are in comfortable settings with soft chairs, treats of all kinds, including a fancy television set — but much of it is fake (a jar of dirt, a butterfly under a glass, a recording of a seagull), the doors only open one way, and there are multiple locks to keep the children from getting out.

Complement The Big Box with other previously uncovered children’s gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

11 JULY, 2013

I’ll Be You and You Be Me: A Vintage Ode to Friendship and Imagination, Illustrated by Sendak

By:

“Indescribably lovely and absolutely perfect and — well, pure in the best sense.”

In 1952, more than a decade before Where the Wild Things Are catapulted him into creative celebrity, the inexhaustibly brilliant Maurice Sendak began collaborating with beloved children’s book author Ruth Krauss, of whom Sendak is cited to have said, “Prior to the commercialization of children’s books, there was Ruth Krauss.” He illustrated eight of her books during her lifetime, as well as a posthumous edition of one of her earliest books in 2005, twelve years after Krauss died. Perhaps the most delightful of their collaborations is I’ll Be You and You Be Me (public library) — a heart-warming and witty ode to the empathic bonds of friendship and a celebration of children’s wild and whimsical imagination, originally published in 1954.

Though this gem was reprinted in 1982, it is sadly long out of print — why is this so often the case with yesteryear’s treasures? — but used copies can still be found with some looking. I’ve managed to get a hold of an original first edition. Please enjoy.

Among Krauss’s delightful verses is also this wonderful addition to history’s finest definitions of love, reminiscent of the Peanuts classic Love Is Walking Hand in Hand:

shoes shoes
little black shoes
little black shoes
with little black bows —
someday someday
little black shoes
with little black bows
on the toes –

A year after I’ll Be You and You Be Me was published, the great Ursula Nordstrom, who had been not only Sendak’s editor but also his confidante, therapist, loving friend, and greatest champion, wrote in a letter to 27-year-old Maurice about his illustrations for another Krauss book, which could just as easily apply to this one:

There are a few peaks in an editor’s life, and seeing those pictures of yours has been a peak of mine. They are indescribably lovely and absolutely perfect and — well, pure in the best sense.

How perfectly and purely put, and how sorely Nordstrom’s passionate spirit is missed.

Complement this with Sendak’s little-known and lovely illustrations of Tolstoy and his posthumous love letter to the world.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.