Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

02 MAY, 2012

Ounce, Dice, Trice: Exploring the Whimsy of Words in Extraordinary Names for Ordinary Things

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Cartography for the land of linguistic imagination.

As a lover of language and children’s books, I found myself head over heels with Ounce Dice Trice — poet Alastair Reid and beloved artist Ben Shahn’s marvelous exploration of the nooks and crannies of language, real and imagined, through obscure, esoteric, and invented words for familiar things that are as mind-bending as they are tongue-twisting. It’s part Lewis Carroll, part Shel Silverstein, part something entirely its own and entirely refreshing.

The title comes from the playful alternative words bored shepherds used when they grew tired of counting their sheep the usual way.

Reid, best-known for his translations of Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, writes to his young readers — and, it feels, to the eternal child in each of us — in the introduction:

And if you grow to love words for their own sake, you will begin to collect words yourself, and you will be grateful, as I am, to all the people who collect odd words and edit odd dictionaries, out of sheer astonishment and affection.

Conceptually delightful and beautifully illustrated, Ounce Dice Trice will put your relationship with language through a kaleidoscope of whimsy, stirring you to rediscover the sound and feel of words as they tug mischievously at your tongue.

Thanks, Marylaine; images via NYRB

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01 MAY, 2012

The Conference of Birds: Beautifully Illustrated Story of Belonging Based on an Ancient Sufi Poem

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What a hopeful hoopoe bird has to do with the deepest truths of the human condition.

As a lover of children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups and of obscure children’s books by famous authors of adult literature, I find it a rare delight to stumble upon an inversion of sorts — poetic books for grown-ups by beloved authors of children’s literature. Such is the case of The Conference of the Birds (public library) by the celebrated and prolific Czech-born children’s writer and illustrator Peter Sís — a lyrical, heartwarming adaptation of the classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem of the same title. The story unfolds in a landscape reminiscent of the sentimental cartography world: Thirty birds, led by the hoopoe, set out on a journey across the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death in a quest to find their true king, Simorgh.

At its heart, it’s a story about belonging and homecoming to the deepest of inner certitude as the avian heroes, drawn from all species, perish and persevere on their momentous quest, only to find at the end that Simorgh is, in fact, each of them and all of them — a beautiful allegory of a beautiful human truth to which Sís’s soft yet evocative illustrations add delicate dimension.

Birds!
Look at the troubles happening in our world!
Anarchy — discontent — upheaval!
Desperate fights over territory, water, and food!
Poisoned air! Unhappiness!
I fear we are lost. We must do something!
I’wve seen the world. I know many secrets.
Listen to me: I know of a king who has all the answers.
We must go and find him.

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27 APRIL, 2012

The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works, in Vibrant Vintage Illustrations circa 1959

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“Two hearts could provide enough energy to drive a truck around the world in two years.”

Much of our inquiry into what makes us human focuses on understanding consciousness, yet we spend the whole of our lives in our physical bodies. As a lover of anatomical art and vintage science illustration, I was instantly enamored with The Human Body: What It Is And How It Works — a stunning vintage anatomy book, depicting and explaining in more than 200 vibrant mid-century illustrations the inner workings of the body. Originally published in 1959, this colorful gem was inspired by German artist and researcher Fritz Kahn, who in his 1926 classic Man as Industrial Palace described the human body as “the highest performance machine in the world” and used industrial metaphors to illustrate its remarkable capacities.

From the nine systems of the body — skeletal, muscle, nervous, digestive, respiratory, circulatory, lymphatic, endocrine, and reproductive — to the intricacies of the different organs and senses, the tantalizing tome demonstrates, in delightfully illustrated detail, just how magnificent our physical complexity is.

A gorgeous four-page centerfold illustrates full-body views of the various systems — muscles, blood vessels, nerves, digestive organs, and the gastrointestinal tract.

The introduction traces the history of our modern understanding of the body:

Almost nothing, it seems, could be more important to man than the human body. It is the solid part of “I”; it is with us as long as we live. Yet thousands and thousands of years passed before man really learned about this physical part of himself.

Among the ancients, health was something given by the gods. If you had an accident or got sick, it was because you had displeased the gods, or a demon had entered your body. The demon had to be eliminated, the gods made happy, before you could get well. Breathing and digestion, the circulation of blood, the working of the brain — these functions that kept a human being alive and active were not understood. The few real facts that were known were badly mixed up with superstition.

For more on the pictorial history of how we understand the body, see The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination from the Wellcome Collection and Hidden Treasure from The National Library of Medicine.

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