Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Giselle Potter’

08 MAY, 2015

A Lovely Illustrated Children’s Book Celebrating Trailblazing Jazz Pianist and Composer Mary Lou Williams

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How an extraordinary woman transformed bullying into beautiful music and came to lift the spirits of millions.

The history of jazz is strewn with Y chromosomes and credit-hogging egos, which makes pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910–May 28, 1981) all the more dazzling an outlier — a generous genius who, like Mozart, began playing the piano at the age of four. At a time when women sang and danced but rarely played an instrument, Williams became a virtuoso pianist who went on to write and arrange for legends like Duke Ellington and mentored a generation of emerging icons, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Ellington himself, who believed she was “like soul on soul,” aptly captured her spirit and legacy in noting that “her music retains a standard of quality that is timeless.”

In The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend (public library), writers Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald tell Williams’s uplifting story of passion, perseverance, and prolific contribution to creative culture. What emerges is not only a wonderful addition to the loveliest picture-books celebrating creative luminaries, but also a bold antidote to the striking statistics that only 31 percent of children’s books feature female protagonists and a mere 0.3 percent include characters of color.

The story, illustrated by the inimitable Giselle Potter — the talent behind Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, Toni Morrison’s dark allegory for freedom, and an original love letter to dreams — begins with a long train ride little Mary took with her mother and sister from their hometown of Atlanta to Pittsburg, known as “The Smoky City” for its fuming steel mills, where they were to live with her aunt and uncle.

Chug-ga
Chug-ga
Clappety
Clap
Clap

The night she left Georgia, Mary couldn’t see anything but lights out the train window … but she could hear! She listened to the train and clapped out its sound on her knees.

She sang the sound of its whistle.
“Chug-ga, chug-ga, chug-ga … Toot! Toot!”

The train went faster, leaving home behind:
“Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack!”

Mary clapped and sang softly, so that Mama and her sister, Mamie, could sleep.
By the time they arrived at the big station in Pittsburgh the next morning, Mary had sung herself to sleep, too.

Music was Mary’s most exuberant love — a love seeded by her mother, who was an organ player at their church back in Georgia, attesting once again to the power of attentive, creatively supporting parenting in cultivating artistic genius.

When Mary was three, Mama played a tune, holding Mary on her lap.

As the last notes sounded through the room, Mary reached out and played them back to her mother. Mama stood up and Mary went tumbling. Mama cried to her neighbors, “Come hear this! Come hear my baby girl play!”

But they had to sell the organ when they moved, so Mary stopped playing. To make matters direr, their new home was far from welcoming — hostile to newcomers, the neighbors threw bricks through their windows and tirelessly taunted the family with unwholesome epithets. The local children called Mary cruel names, pulled her hair, and ridiculed her clothing.

And yet even at this young age, Mary possessed that singular skill of great artists — the ability to turn trauma into raw material for art — and transmuted the trying experience into music:

Ugly names and cruel words… Mary called them “bad sounds” and she taught herself to play them out. Even without a keyboard, she could do it. Tapping on the tabletop, she beat back the bad sounds and sang out her sadness. She crooned and whispered and shouted out until her spirit was lifted free.

One day, when little Mary was picking dandelions in the street, a kindly lady from the local church passed by and invited her over for ice cream. As soon as the little girl entered the house, a treat far more delectable transfixed her — a big old piano, sitting in the corner under a lace cover. Intrigued by the little girl’s interest, the lady invited Mary to play her a tune.

Mary sat down and lifted the cover. She drew a shaky breath and her fingers found the keys. They hadn’t forgotten a thing. Soon she was riding those keys, playing a tune that rumbled along like a freight train.

“Lord have mercy!” said Lucille. The teacup jumped in her hand. She went to the stairs and called up.

“Cephus! Come down here and hear this child play.” But Cephus was already halfway down the stairs.

Soon, the neighbors and the whole town were bewitched by Mary’s talent and she became affectionately known as “the little piano girl of East Liberty.” People even started paying her to play for them — something that calls to mind another pioneering woman of the era, the great children’s book artist and author Wanda Gág, who was so talented as a child that she sold her drawings to feed the family.

The remainder of the wholly wonderful The Little Piano Girl goes on to tell the story of how Williams came to lift other spirits free with her music the way she had once lifted her own, electrifying people the world over and becoming one of the most influential musicians humanity has ever known.

Complement it with more magnificent picture-book biographies celebrating great artists, writers, and scientists, including those of Frida Kahlo, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Neruda.

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23 APRIL, 2015

Tell Me What to Dream About: An Illustrated Nocturnal Adventure of Imaginative Possibility

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Because who doesn’t want to be eating teeny-tiny waffles surrounded by teeny-tiny animals?

“Something nameless hums us into sleep,” Mark Strand wrote in his bewitching ode to dreams — perhaps the same nameless something that has compelled us, for as long as the written record of human thought has existed, to seek an explanation for why we dream at all, what actually happens when we sleep, and how dreaming relates to our waking lives.

Nearly a century after Freud’s eccentric niece named Tom explored the fascination of dreams in a most unusual children’s book, no doubt influenced by her famous uncle’s foundational treatise on the subject, one of the finest children’s-book illustrators of our time tackles that alluring nameless something from a different and immeasurably delightful angle.

In Tell Me What to Dream About (public library), third-generation artist Giselle Potter — who has previously illustrated such treasures as Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book and Toni Morrison’s darkly philosophical allegory for freedom — offers a whimsical take on lucid dreaming, that irresistible longing to choose our own nocturnal adventures.

Potter tells the story of two sisters who, at bedtime, offer each other ideas for possible things to be dreamt that night — a tree-house town, a world where everything is furry, a fluffy world where clouds are worn as sweaters and eaten as treats, teeny-tiny animals feasting on teeny-tiny waffles. What emerges is a colorful celebration of children’s minds — that mecca of metaphor where the imagination is born.

Complement the wholly delightful Tell Me What to Dream About with Argentinian cartoonist Liniers’s darker but no less delightful pictorial exploration of nightmares. For a grownup primer on the subject, see the science of controlling your dreams and how dreaming regulates our negative emotions, then devour Strand’s magnificent poem “Dreams” and Freud’s 1922 gem David the Dreamer.

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15 JULY, 2013

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

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“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.

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21 MAY, 2012

To Do: Gertrude Stein’s Posthumous Alphabet Book

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“Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster.”

In 1939, Gertrude Stein penned her first children’s book, The World Is Round, whose dramatic story was featured in this twopart omnibus of obscure children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature. The following year, Stein wrote an intended follow-up, titled To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (public library) — a fine addition to my well-documented obsession with unusual alphabet books.

But publisher after publisher rejected the manuscript as too complex for children. (One must wonder what Maurice Sendak might have said to that.) The book was never published in Stein’s lifetime. In 1957, more than a decade after Stein’s death, Yale University Press published a text-only version and in 2011, more than half a century later, the first illustrated version true to Stein’s original vision was released, with exquisite artwork by New Yorker illustrator Giselle Potter.

In the press release for The World Is Round, Stein offered the following characteristically philosophical statement regarding her children’s writing, exuding the same dedication to the intertwining of form and meaning we’ve come to expect from her adult writing:

Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.

Z is a nice letter, and I am glad it is not Y, I do not care for Y, why, well there is the reason why, I do not care for Y, but Z is a nice letter.
I like Z because it is not real it just is not real and so it is a nice letter to you and nice to me, you will see.

Zebra and Zed.

A Zebra is a nice animal, it thinks it is a wild animal but it is not it goes at a gentle trot. It has black and white stripes and it is always fat. There never was a thin Zebra never, and it is always well as sound as a bell and its name is Zebra.

It is not like a goat, when a goat is thin there is nothing to do for him, nothing nothing, but a Zebra is never thin it is always young and fat, just like that.

Images courtesy of Yale University Press

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