Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

20 MARCH, 2015

The Illustrated Story of Persian Polymath Ibn Sina and How He Shaped the Course of Medicine

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How a voraciously curious little boy became one of the world’s greatest healers.

Humanity’s millennia-old quest to understand the human body is strewn with medical history milestones, but few individual figures merit as much credit as Persian prodigy-turned-polymath Ibn Sina (c. 980 CE–1037 AD), commonly known in the West as Avicenna — one of the most influential thinkers in our civilization’s unfolding story. He authored 450 known works spanning physics, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, logic, poetry, and medicine, including the seminal encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine, which forever changed our understanding of the human body and its inner workings. This masterwork of science and philosophy — or metaphysics, as it was then called — remained in use as a centerpiece of medieval medical education until six hundred years after Ibn Sina’s death.

As a lover of children’s books that celebrate the life-stories of influential and inspiring luminaries — including those of Jane Goodall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Neruda, Henri Rousseau, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian — I was delighted to come upon The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina (public library) by Lebanese writer Fatima Sharafeddine and Iran-based Iraqi illustrator Intelaq Mohammed Ali, a fine addition to these favorite children’s books celebrating science.

In stunning illustrations reminiscent of ancient Islamic manuscript paintings, this lyrical first-person biography traces Ibn Sina’s life from his childhood as a voracious reader to his numerous scientific discoveries to his lifelong project of advancing the art of healing.

A universal celebration of curiosity and the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge, the story is doubly delightful for adding a sorely needed touch of diversity to the homogenous landscape of both science history and contemporary children’s books — here are two Middle Eastern women, telling the story of a pioneering scientist from the Islamic Golden Age.

The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have also given us such treasures as a wordless illustrated celebration of the art of noticing, a tender love letter to winter, and a heartening celebration of gender diversity.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs my own.

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17 MARCH, 2015

Sidewalk Flowers: An Illustrated Ode to Presence and the Everyday Art of Noticing in a Culture of Productivity and Distraction

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A gentle wordless celebration of the true material of aliveness.

“How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her magnificent defense of living with presence. But in our age of productivity, we spend our days running away from boredom, never mind its creative and spiritual benefits, and toward maximum efficiency. Under the tyranny of multitasking, the unitasking necessary for the art of noticing has been exiled from our daily lives. And yet, as we grow increasingly disillusioned with the notion of “work/life balance,” something in our modern souls is aching for the resuscitation of this dying capacity for presence. That capacity is especially essential in parenting, where the cultural trope of the device-distracted parent is an increasingly disquieting pandemic.

Half a century after Ruth Krauss wrote, and Maurice Sendak illustrated, one of the loveliest lines in the history of children’s books — “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.” — poet JonArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith team up on a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.

Sidewalk Flowers (public library) tells the wordless story of a little girl on her way home with her device-distracted father, a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood walking through the urban forest. Along the way, she collects wildflowers and leaves them as silent gifts for her fellow participants in this pulsating mystery we call life — the homeless man sleeping on a park bench, the sparrow having completed its earthly hours, the neighbor’s dog and, finally, her mother’s and brothers’ hair.

The flowers become at once an act of noticing and a gift of being noticed, a sacred bestowing of attention with which the child beckons her father’s absentee mind back to mindful presence.

In the final scene, the little girl tucks a wildflower behind her ear, in the same gesture with which her father holds his device, and looks up to the sky — a subtle, lyrical reminder that we each have a choice in what to hold to our ear and our mind’s eye: a flower or a phone.

Sidewalk Flowers, which is immeasurably wonderful in its analog totality, comes from Canadian independent children’s-book publisher Groundwood Books — creators of the intelligent and imaginative Once Upon a Northern Night, What There Is Before There Is Anything There, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs my own.

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13 MARCH, 2015

When I Have a Little Girl / When I Have a Little Boy: A Vintage Illustrated Daydream about Life without Unimaginative Rules

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“She can pet any dog she likes without asking if it’s friendly. (She’ll know. I always do.)”

The recent rediscovery of Lincoln Steffens’s magnificent 1925 meditation on the delights of gender-blind parenting reminded me of the like-spirited gem When I Have a Little Girl / When I Have a Little Boy (public library) — a magnificent collaboration between children’s book legend Charlotte Zolotow (June 26, 1915–November 19, 2013), whom the greatest patron saint of modern childhood once aptly described as “a brilliant and sensitive creative person,” and artist Hilary Knight (b. November 1, 1926), best known for illustrating the widely and wildly beloved Eloise series.

Originally published in the late 1960s as two separate boy/girl versions, the story was eventually combined into a charming “flip-flop book” in 1988 — reading from one end tells the story of a little girl (reminiscent of the lovably mischievous Eloise) daydreaming of the unconventional mother she’d be when she has a little girl of her own; turning the book upside-down and reading from the other end tells the parallel story of a little boy daydreaming of being an equally unconventional father to his future little boy.

The story tickles every child’s dream of escaping the silly rules imposed by overcautious and unimaginative adults, calling to mind young Mark Twain’s irreverent advice to little girls and offering a positive counterpoint to Toni Morrison’s dark take on the things kids are made to do, with a touch of Emily Hughes’s wonderful Wild.

Above all, it celebrates children’s inherent intelligence, living up to E.B. White’s famous proclamation that “anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time” — Zolotow writes up to them, as she always did, and Knight elevates the writing even further, as he always does.

Tucked into the cheekiness is also the subtle acknowledgement that these rules are sometimes in place to benefit the adults rather than the child — like the practice, always unfair to kids and familiar to those who have grown up in complicated families, of asking children to keep grownups’ secrets.

When I have a little girl, all the rules will be different.

And I will never say to her, “When you are a mother you will understand why all these rules are necessary.”

Complement When I Have a Little Girl / When I Have a Little Boy with Zolotow’s charming reverse-psychology ode to friendship, The Hating Book, then see Lena Dunham’s fantastic documentary about Knight. Here is a taste:

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09 MARCH, 2015

An Illustrated Celebration of the Many Things Home Can Mean

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A sweet reminder that despite our different walks of life, we have in common a shared longing to belong.

“Home,” Maya Angelou wrote in her magnificent meditation on belonging and (not) growing up, “is that youthful region where a child is the only real living inhabitant.” Indeed, it seems that only for children, with their purity of feeling and their ability to “mediate the ideal and the real,” does the Venn diagram of home and house integrate into one fully overlapping circle. In adulthood, the circles drift further and further apart as we begin to project our conflicted dream-home ideals onto our real houses.

In the impossibly wonderful Home (public library), illustrator and children’s book author Carson Ellis presents an imaginative taxonomy of houses and a celebration of the wildly different kinds of people who call them home.

What emerges is a playful and tender reminder that however different our walks of life — what contrast there is between the Slovakian duchess’s mansion and the Kenyan blacksmith’s shack, between the babushka’s kitchen and the artist’s studio! — we are united by our deep desire for a place to call home.

After all, we begin belonging to his world — to borrow Mary Oliver’s wonderful phrase — first by rooting ourselves into it; by staking out a little corner of it to call our very own. It need not have walls or a roof — it can be a tour bus, or even a shoe, as Ellis’s illustrated taxonomy assures — but only from that place of safety can we reach out to connect, to understand one another, and to begin belonging together.

Ellis guides the reader to and through this common thread of belonging by placing little semi-hidden markers of communion and continuity — the same house plant graces multiple homes; a pigeon visits the young girl in Brooklyn and then perches on the Russian babushka’s window; the icon that hangs on the wall of the babushka’s kitchen is seen, several pages later, on the wall of the artist’s studio. (The artist, endearingly enough, is Ellis herself.)

Sprinkled amid the very real homes of very real people from different cultures are the whimsical abodes familiar from beloved tales — right next to the Japanese businessman is the Norse god, proudly standing before his magical palace, and a giant upside-down cup calls to mind Leonard Weisgard’s magnificent mid-century illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

Home is the kind of book that legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom, perhaps the greatest patron saint of childhood who ever lived, might say “can’t help but make any child warmed and attended to and considered.” Complement it with the best children’s books of the past year.

Illustrations © 2015 by Carson Ellis courtesy of Candlewick Press. Photographs my own.

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