Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

25 JULY, 2014

Migrant: An Alice in Wonderland for the Modern Immigrant Experience

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A compassionate chronicle of the laboring nomad’s optimism and wistfulness.

Having spent my entire adult life as an immigrant, with all the relocations, bureaucracies, and social strain implied, I have tremendous respect for any effort to capture the complexities of the immigrant experience, its joys and its struggles, without robbing it of dimension. So I was instantly enamored with Migrant (public library) — a gem of a picture-book by Canadian writer Maxine Trottier and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault, the artist who also gave us the wonderful Jane, the Fox & Me, a graphic novel inspired by Charlotte Brönte, and Virginia Wolf, a picture-book reimagining of Virginia Woolf’s childhood with her sister Vanessa.

Migrant tells the story of Anna, the youngest child in a large family of German-speaking Mennonites from Mexico, who venture to Canada to work as fruit and vegetable harvest laborers each spring. As Trottier points out in the afterword, they are part of a long tradition of people from all around the world, who have come to North America seeking not only a livelihood but also freedom, opportunity, a new beginning.

Arsenault’s tender illustrations bring a soft acceptance to Anna’s conflicting feelings — optimism and wistfulness, isolation and togetherness — feelings, I imagine, common to the immigrant experience and present in varying proportions in the heart of every nomad since the dawn of humanity.

Ripe with metaphor, Trottier’s beautiful, rhythmic narrative traces Anna’s imaginative interpretations of her reality. Too young to labor, the girl sees the rest of her family as a hive of worker bees.

When her parents’ backs are bent under the hot sun, when her older brothers and sisters dip and rise, dip and rise over the vegetables, that is when all of them are bees.

As they move into yet another empty house near the field, she imagines herself as a jack rabbit living in an abandoned burrow. (The scene, as Arsenault portrays it — Anna with her giant rabbit ears, surrounded by teacups — has a decided Alice in Wonderland feel, perhaps a subtle, intentional reflection of the strangeness and surreality a migrant invariably experiences in a foreign land.)

At night, Anna curls up with her sister as they sleep like a litter of kittens, while their brothers burrow together like puppies in the other room. Unable to understand the locals when the family shops for groceries “at the cheap store,” she hears their unfamiliar language as “a thousand crickets all singing a different song.” The family, with its annual journey from Mexico to Canada and back, becomes a flock of migratory geese.

A sweet and curious little girl, Anna wonders what a life of stability might be like — a life where she has her own bed and her own bicycle, where she watches the seasons come and go, rather than coming and going with them.

It is ultimately a tale at once hopeful and harrowing — a poignant catalyst for compassion, in reminding us how so many people live, and a testament, in Anna’s flights of the imagination, to Jeanette Winterson’s assertion that we tell ourselves stories in order to survive.

But fall is here, and the geese are flying away.

And with them Anna goes, like a monarch, like a robin, like a feather in the wind!

Migrant comes from Canadian independent publisher House of Anansi. Complement it with Larry and Friends, a charming illustrated ode to the immigrant experience.

Images courtesy of House of Anansi

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23 JULY, 2014

July 23, 1951: How a Vintage Children’s Book Saved New York’s Iconic Little Red Lighthouse

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A timeless testament to the power of stirring the collective imagination.

In 1880, a little lighthouse was erected on New Jersey’s Sandy Hook to guide arriving ships into New York Harbor. But by 1917, this friendly nocturnal sherpa had become obsolete, so it was dismantled and put in storage. Four years later, it was reassembled on the Hudson River, in Harlem, where it warned sailors along this vital industrial route about a fiercely dangerous part of the shore called Jeffrey’s Hook. The relocated lighthouse, renamed Jeffrey’s Hook Light, stood forty feet tall, proud of its responsibility and it status as the only lighthouse on the island of Manhattan.

Its glory days, however, lasted only a decade. The formidable George Washington Bridge was built to tower over it in 1931 and the steel giant’s bright lights rendered the little lighthouse obsolete once more. But it had already captured the hearts and imagination of the community and, eventually, the nation: In 1942, children’s book author Hildegarde Swift (1890–1977) wrote The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (public library) — a charming homage to the lonesome landmark that portrays the lighthouse as the dutiful and intrepid guardian of the river, featuring gorgeous illustrations by none other than the great Lynd Ward (1905–1985), godfather of the graphic novel.

Once upon a time a little lighthouse was built on a sharp point of the shore in the Hudson Valley.

It was round and fat and red.

It was fat and red and jolly.

And it was VERY, VERY PROUD.

In 1951, after decommissioning the lighthouse and extinguishing its lamp, the U.S. Coast Guard moved to dismantle it and auction off the parts, but a public outcry bubbled up and people flooded city officials with letters and money seeking to save the iconic lighthouse — all thanks to the book, which had by then become beloved by a generation.

On July 23, 1951, the Coast Guard surrendered to the public outpour of love and gave the property to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1979, it was inducted into the National Register of Historic Parks. In 2000, it received a fresh coat of red paint, true to its historic color in The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, which was itself restored and republished in 2003 and remains a heartening testament to the fact that whenever the collective imagination is stirred in a meaningful way, social good invariably results.

Today, the little red lighthouse stands as an iconic piece of New York’s history, as well as a spectacular biking destination.

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21 JULY, 2014

New Yorker Cartoonist Roz Chast’s Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Aging, Illness, and Death

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Making sense of the human journey with wit, wisdom, and disarming vulnerability.

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote in his magnificent memoir. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” It’s a sentiment somewhat easier to swallow — though certainly not without its ancient challenge — when it comes to our own death, but when that of our loved ones skulks around, it’s invariably devastating and messy, and it catches us painfully unprepared no matter how much time we’ve had to “prepare.”

Count on another beloved New Yorker contributor, cartoonist Roz Chast, to address this delicate and doleful subject with equal parts wit and wisdom in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir (public library) — a remarkable illustrated chronicle of her parents’ decline into old age and death, pierced by those profound, strangely uplifting in-between moments of cracking open the little chests of truth we keep latched shut all our lives until a brush with our mortal impermanence rattles the lock and lets out some understanding, however brief and fragmentary, of the great human mystery of what it means to live.

The humor and humility with which Chast tackles the enormously difficult subject of aging, illness and death is nothing short of a work of genius.

But besides appreciating Chast’s treatment of such grand human themes as death, duty, and “the moving sidewalk of life,” I was struck by how much her parents resembled my own — her father, just like mine, a “kind and sensitive” man of above-average awkwardness, “the spindly type,” inept at even the basics of taking care of himself domestically, with a genius for languages; her mother, just like mine, a dominant and hard-headed perfectionist “built like a fire hydrant,” with vanquished dreams of becoming a professional pianist, an unpredictable volcano of anger. (“Where my father was tentative and gentle,” Chast writes, “she was critical and uncompromising.” And: “Even though I knew he couldn’t really defend me against my mother’s rages, I sensed that at least he felt some sympathy, and that he liked me as a person, not just because I was his daughter.”)

Chast, like myself, was an only child and her parents, like mine, had a hard time understanding how their daughter made her living given she didn’t run in the 9-to-5 hamster wheel of working for the man. There were also the shared family food issues, the childhood loneliness, the discomfort about money that stems from having grown up without it.

The point here, of course, isn’t to dance to the drum of solipsism. (Though we only children seem particularly attuned to its beat.) It’s to appreciate the elegance and bold vulnerability with which Chast weaves out of her own story a narrative at once so universally human yet so relatable in its kaleidoscope of particularities that any reader is bound to find a piece of him- or herself in it, to laugh and weep with the bittersweet relief of suddenly feeling less alone in the most lonesome-making of human struggles, to find some compassion for even the most tragicomic of our faults.

From reluctantly visiting her parents in the neighborhood where she grew up (“not the Brooklyn of artists or hipsters or people who made — and bought — $8 chocolate bars [but] DEEP Brooklyn”) as their decline began, to accepting just as reluctantly the basic facts of life (“Old age didn’t change their basic personalities. If anything, it intensified what was already there.”), to witnessing her father’s mental dwindling (“One of the worst parts of senility must be that you have to get terrible news over and over again. On the other hand, maybe in between the times of knowing the bad news, you get to forget it and live as if everything was hunky-dory.”), to the self-loathing brought on by the clash between the aspiration of a loving daughter and the financial strain of elder care (“I felt like a disgusting person, worrying about the money.”), Chast treks with extraordinary candor and vulnerability through the maze of her own psyche, mapping out our own in the process.

Chast also explores, with extraordinary sensitivity and self-awareness, the warping of identity that happens when the cycle of life and its uncompromising realities toss us into roles we always knew were part of the human journey but somehow thought we, we alone, would be spared. She writes:

It’s really easy to be patient and sympathetic with someone when it’s theoretical, or only for a little while. It’s a lot harder to deal with someone’s craziness when it’s constant, and that person is your dad, the one who’s supposed to be taking care of YOU.

But despite her enormous capacity for wit and humor even in so harrowing an experience, Chast doesn’t stray too far from its backbone of deep, complicated love and paralyzing grief. The book ends with Chast’s raw, unfiltered sketches from the final weeks she spent in the hospice ward where her mother took her last breath. A crystalline realization suddenly emerges that Chast’s cartooning isn’t some gimmicky ploy for quick laughs but her most direct access point to her own experience, her best sensemaking mechanism for understanding the world, life and, inevitably, death.

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is an absolutely astounding read in its entirety — the kind that enters your soul through the backdoor, lightly, and touches more parts of it and more heavinesses than you ever thought you’d allow. You’re left, simply, grateful.

Images courtesy of Bloomsbury © Roz Chast; thanks, Wendy

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