Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

16 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Petunia, I Love You: A Forgotten 1965 Children’s Book Treasure

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A sweet and irreverent reminder that kindness is the most potent antidote to evil.

Given my inexhaustible affection for vintage children’s books, I was instantly smitten by the 1965 gem Petunia, I Love You (public library) by Roger Duvoisin, part of his altogether delightful Petunia series — the story of the conniving Raccoon, who sets out to make Petunia the goose, “so handsome and so fat,” his dinner, but ends up making a good friend instead. Tucked into the vibrantly illustrated tale is a sweet, irreverent reminder that the unlikeliest, most rewarding of friendships are free to blossom as soon as we dissolve the shackles of our own agendas and that selfless kindness, which needs neither forgiveness nor permission, is the greatest antidote to evil, something with which both Tolstoy and Gandhi would concur.

When he first lays out on Petunia, Raccoon instantly knows that the plump goose eclipses him in strength considerably — “a blow from her wing had put to flight bigger animas than he” — so he turns to deception instead.

Enlisting his smarmy charm, he approaches Petunia, taking her for a farm fool:

“Dear Petunia,” said the Raccoon, who had thought of a wicked scheme, “you are so pretty. I love you, Petunia.
It would make me so happy just to have your company for a little walk in the forest.
Today, I am going to see my old aunt. Won’t you come along?”

“You are so polite and kind, Raccoon,” said Petunia.
“It would be rude of me to refuse. pray, lead the way.”

“To your honor, dear Petunia, I’ll walk behind you.”

But Petunia is no boob. She insists they walk side by side to “make the conversation more pleasant.” Reluctantly, Raccoon goes along with the request, deciding to trap her once they get to the forest.

And yet ruse after ruse, Petunia manages to outwit the exasperated Raccoon, who proceeds to fall into a creek, get stuck in a hole, endure an attack by bees, and barely escape getting squashed by a giant rock — all calculated “accidents” of his own invention, aimed at Petunia but incurred by Raccoon himself.

All throughout his failed assassination attempts, Petunia calmly helps Raccoon out of his own traps, unfazed by the series of disaster scenarios.

Once they return to the farm, Raccoon is so tired and hungry that he is ready to eat anything at all. Suddenly, he smells strawberry jam in a metal box behind the barn and rustles into it, only to find himself a captive of the farmer’s trap. Just as the farmer approaches, with the unequivocal mission of doom, Petunia releases the lock and Raccoon runs for dear life as his savior follows in effortless flight.

Shaken by his near-death experience and the kindness of his inadvertent friend, Raccoon confesses his original “wicked scheme,” apologizing sincerely and vowing to be Petunia’s “truest friend, for ever and ever.”

He walks her back to the farm gate and, as they part, he once again says, “Petunia, I love you” — only this time, it beams from the heart.

Sadly, Petunia, I Love You rests in the cultural burial ground of out-of-print treasures, but used copies can still be found. For a vintage picture-book aesthetic similar to Duvoisin’s, see the wonderful work of husband-and-wife creative powerhouse Alice and Martin Provensen.

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15 SEPTEMBER, 2014

A Sweet Celebration of Connection and Inner Softness in a Culture That Encourages Hard Individualism and Prickly Exteriors

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What a baby cactus can teach us about empathy, free will, and the art of finding one’s tribe.

A hug is such a simple act. But how anguishing when one is denied this basic exchange of human goodwill and kindness. Surely, one doesn’t even have to be human to feel the anguish of that denial. At first glance, this seems to be the premise behind Hug Me (public library) by animator-turned-children’s-book-author Simona Ciraolo — a sweet story about a young cactus named Felipe, who longs for such softness of contact in a family that sees emotional expression as a sign of weakness. Felipe runs away, looking for a new family to give him the affection he yearns for, but only finds heartbreak and rejection.

Felipe’s lonesomeness grows deeper when his first friend, a “bold, confident” giant yellow balloon who hovers over Felipe’s solitary patch of desert, succumbs to the inevitable outcome of the mismatched relationship. Even as he grieves his friend, Felipe is scolded for his emotional sensitivity rather than comforted with the very hug he needs.

Reaching his emotional tipping point, he finally departs to look for a new family, but quickly realizes that he is unwelcome everywhere and is left with nothing but his own company — not the self-elected art of solitude that can be so nourishing, but a forced lonesomeness that saddens the soul.

At last, Felipe finds a true friend in a little rock longing for affection amid a family as stiff and stern as his own, a kindred spirit whose cries for connection resonate in perfect unison with his own — a sweet finale reminding us that nothing dissolves loneliness like empathy and the awareness of shared experience.

There is, of course, a deeper allegorical undertone to the tale, beyond the surface interpretation of celebrating one’s inner softness in a culture that encourages a prickly exterior. A subtle undercurrent celebrates the spiritual homecoming of finding one’s tribe, the expansive embrace found in a kinship of souls. The story is also a celebration of free will, reminding us ever so gently that whatever our circumstances, we always have choices — and that our inability to see this is perhaps our gravest self-imposed limitation.

Hug Me comes from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us that lovely field guide of mythic monsters and the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic polar expedition.

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11 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The World’s First Children’s Book about a Two-Mom Family

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A pioneering picture-book with an enduring message of equality.

“Many homosexuals live together in stable relationships. The time will come when homosexual marriages are recognized,” two Danish psychologists predicted in their honest, controversial, and now-iconic guide to teenage sexuality in 1969. But decades would pass before their prognosis would slowly, painfully begin to come true. In the meantime, those “stable relationships” were denied the dignity of being called a family and forced to conform to the mainstream-normative narratives of what a family actually is.

In the 1980s, writer Lesléa Newman began noticing that same-sex couples were having kids like everybody else, but had no children’s books to read to them portraying non-traditional family units. At that point, women had been “marrying” one another for ages, but true marriage equality in the eyes of the law and the general public was still two decades away, as were children’s books offering alternate narratives on what makes a family. So Newman enacted the idea that the best way to complain is to make things and penned Heather Has Two Mommies (public library) — a sweet, straightforward picture-book illustrated by Diana Souza, telling the story of a warm and accepting playground discussion of little Heather’s life with Mama Kate, a doctor, and Mama Jane, a carpenter.

Heather’s favorite number is two. She has two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two hands, and two feet. She also has two pets: a ginger-colored cat named Gingersnap and a big black dog named Midnight.

Heather also has two mommies: Mama Jane and Mama Kate.

The book, which predated even Maurice Sendak’s controversial children’s story grazing the subject, was unflinchingly pioneering — with the proper social outrage to attest to this status. Not only did it rank number 11 on the American Library Association’s chart of America’s most frequently challenged books in the 1990s, but its impact continued for decades — comedian Bill Hicks, an eloquent champion of free speech, paid homage to it in his final act on Letterman in October of 1993 and it was even parodied in a 2006 episode of The Simpsons titled “Bart Has Two Mommies.”

Despite that, or perhaps precisely because of it, the book lives on as a bold embodiment of Bertrand Russell’s famous proclamation: “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

Twenty years later, Newman followed up with the board books Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me, affectionately illustrated by artist Carol Thompson.

Complement Heather Has Two Mommies with Andrew Solomon’s remarkable Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, a moving meditation on how love both changes us and makes us more ourselves, and the impossibly charming And Tango Makes Three, an allegorical marriage quality primer telling the true story of Central Park Zoo’s gay penguin family.

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