Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

13 JULY, 2015

Wild Ideas: The Creative Problem-Solving Strategies of Different Animals, in Illustrated Dioramas

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From procrastinating pigeons to counting bears to dung beetles that navigate by the stars.

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in his mind-expanding 1950s meditation on what reality really is. Although our species has a long history of using nonhuman animals as metaphors for understanding human reality, we are only just beginning to accord our fellow creatures the dignity of their own reality by growing a new understanding of their complex consciousness.

Nonhuman animals, it turns out, have a great deal to teach us not only about reality but also about our immutable quest to bend reality to our will — that is, about the art of problem-solving.

In Wild Ideas (public library), researcher, educator, and environmental writer Elin Kelsey and Korean-Canadian artist Soyeon Kim — the creative duo behind You Are Stardust, that wonderful picture-book teaching kids about the universe in illustrated dioramas — present an imaginative and illuminating catalog of various animals’ problem-solving strategies, from how dung beetles use stars as a navigation system to the procrastination tactics of pigeons.

Each example in the book comes from Kelsey’s interviews with scientists who study the respective species, brought to life in Kim’s breathtaking 2D/3D dioramas.

In addition to the heartening celebration of our kinship with other beings, there is also a subtler, almost Buddhist undertone to the project: So much of our anguish in the face of obstacles comes from judging them as bad and resisting that particular manifestation of reality, causing ourselves enormous distress in the act of this resistance — and yet here is a powerful reminder that obstacles are neutral events and a natural part of life, which other species face as a matter of course and without negative judgment.

Step outside. Look. If squirrels can learn to cross roads by watching people, what can you learn by watching squirrels?

All around you, creatures seek solutions.

Pigeons procrastinate.

Bees calculate.

Elephants innovate.

Bears keep count.

You turn to friends and family for support, and so do other animals.

Ravens use gestures to offer ideas. Hyenas cooperate to help the hunt.

When they’re seeking direction, dung beetles look to the heavens and steer by the Milky Way.

Complement Wild Ideas with a very different take on how nonhuman animals enrich our human lives — Beastly Verse, a glorious illustrated celebration of famous poems inspired by animals.

Illustrations courtesy of Owlkids Books

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25 JUNE, 2015

Why Dogs Have Wet Noses: An Irreverent Illustrated Reimagining of Noah’s Ark

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Forty days and forty nights of loyalty and love.

The dog is an amazing creature — a frequent muse to an entire canon of art, a whole collection of Mary Oliver verses, and some excellent metaphors for beauty and aging, and . But its nose — which is how the dog actually “sees” the world — is a particularly miraculous pinnacle of its amazingness, and now the inspiration for a most fanciful alternative mythology.

In the immensely wonderful Why Dogs Have Wet Noses (public library), Scottish poet, novelist, and children’s book author Kenneth Steven and celebrated Norwegian illustrator Øyvind Torseter — the artist behind the existential allegory The Hole and the bittersweet My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — offer an irreverent and utterly heartwarming modern reimagining of Noah’s Ark.

Steven sets the stage:

A long, long time ago, not long after the world began, it started to rain. It was the kind of rain that really soaks you, pouring down from the sky like it will never stop.

We meet Noah, a man “both watchful and wise,” who looks like a lovable aging hipster from the maker movement. He begins building an enormous lifeboat — the Ark — then sets out to recruit “as many creatures as he could remember,” emanating a kind of indiscriminate Buddhist love for all, even “slugs, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies.”

The last to board is a mutt so odd-looking that Noah can’t quite tell what kind of a dog it is, but the soft black nose assures him that it is one.

With a great big groan and a terrifying tilt, the Ark sets sail as Noah wonders whether his strange company will survive this plunge into the unknown.

Steven’s writing, to be sure, is absolutely exquisite — the kind you might find in a Henry Beston masterpiece or an Annie Dillard classic rather than a typical children’s book (but this, of course, isn’t a typical children’s book):

They sailed away. Land had long since vanished. Only sea and sky remained. The rain fell heavier and heavier, and lightning shot from the black clouds, gleaming like snakes’ tongues. But apart from the crashing sounds of rain and thunder, it was completely quiet. As though there were no other sounds left in the whole wide world.

And yet inside the Ark, it was a completely different story — creatures of all shapes, sizes, and appetites clamored day and night. In a scene familiar to parents raising multiple small children — and perhaps good training for Noah himself, whose equally hipster-looking wife grows increasingly pregnant throughout the voyage — he labors tirelessly to feed each animal its favorite food, having “no peace and not a wink of sleep.”

No sooner had the last animal had dinner and gone to sleep, then it was time for the first to have breakfast again.

And yet Noah manages to hold the floating fort for twenty days until, suddenly, disaster strikes — the Ark springs a leak. Although the hole is “no bigger than a chestnut,” water begins to gush in, spelling dread and doom.

With his now beloved dog by his side, Noah brainstorms for a plan. At last, lightning of the more welcome and metaphorical kind strikes.

Just like that, the supreme testament to the dog’s dogness — its soft black nose — plugs the hole and saves the Ark.

All other creatures rejoice as the loyal dog sits there for forty days and forty nights, keeping their lifeboat from sinking amid the seemingly endless ocean.

And then one morning, just as the dog smells an unfamiliar scent, another violent disruption rattles their nautical rhythm — the Ark hits something hard.

Land! Hills rose up through the mist and behind them there was a tiny bit of blue sky. The rain had stopped at last and a magnificent rainbow stretched across the sky.

One by one, the creatures disembark onto the long-awaited shore, marveling at the lush life covering the land. But just as Noah, the last to climb out, joins the marveling bunch, he is seized with a shocking realization: His beloved dog is still down in the belly of the boat, nose faithfully plugging the hole.

Noah rushes to the rescue.

Noah gently stoked his dog’s tummy.

“Good boy,” he whispered.

“Woof!” the dog replied, leaping up to give his master a kiss wit his wet nose.

Never again would Noah’s dog have to go to sea. But from then on, every dog in the world would have a wet nose.

And that, you see, is why dogs have wet noses.

Why Dogs Have Wet Noses comes from Brooklyn-based independent children’s book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, makers of such intelligent and imaginative treasures as Beastly Verse, The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

Complement this particular gem with Torseter’s philosophical take on a different hole and another magnificent tale of the sea by way of an illustrated love letter to the blue whale, then revisit the far less fanciful actual science of the dog’s amazing nose.

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18 JUNE, 2015

Pool: A Tender Illustrated Celebration of Quiet Curiosity and How We Find Our Kindred Spirits

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What our hunger for connection has to do with Borges’s imaginary beings.

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll plunged his Alice into a fantastical world through the looking-glass, South Korean fine artist and illustrator JiHyeon Lee offers a magnificent modern counterpart in her picture-book debut, Pool (public library) — a wordless masterpiece of space, scale, and silence converging to create an underwater world of wonder just beneath the reflective surface of ordinary life.

Lee’s delicate yet immensely expressive pencil illustrations, partway between Sophie Blackall and mid-career Maurice Sendak, emanate childhood’s tender trepidations and the gentle playfulness at the heart of the story.

We meet a boy standing poolside, looking reluctantly at the boisterous crowd lurching into the annual invasion of the public pool — a noisy, chaotic scene Lee communicates with great subtlety and quietude.

Perched on an uncrowded corner of the pool, the boy hesitantly contemplates the prospect of plunging.

At last, he takes the leap and dives below the superficial clamor of the crowd, where he encounters his unexpected counterpart — a little girl propelled by the same shy curiosity.

Together, they dive even deeper and the pool suddenly transmogrifies into a whimsical underwater wonderland full of strange and beautiful creatures — a magical mashup of the ocean’s most glorious real-life inhabitants, the mythological marine deities of ancient folklore, and Borges’s imaginary beings.

Suddenly, they come upon a most magnificent sight.

With a mastery of pacing time through negative space, calling to mind Marianne Dubuc’s exquisite The Lion and the Bird, Lee paints a visual gasp as the two children find themselves facing a gentle giant — a peculiar being reminiscent of our planet’s largest real creature (the subject of another spectacular picture-book), only white and furry.

They peer into its giant eye, into its enormous otherness, not with fear but with affectionate awe — a sweet and subtle reminder that, as Neil Gaiman memorably put it, “behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us.”

As the two make their way back to the surface, that watery looking-glass through which they had plunged into a modern-day Wonderland, they exit the pool from the other end, somehow transformed; the clamorous crowd, having completed this annual chore, leaves the same way it had flounced in.

And then, as they take off their goggles, they peer into each other’s naked eyes to find in the otherness an affectionate sameness of spirit peering back.

Pool is wonderful beyond words from cover to cover. Complement it with another wordless masterwork: Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown.

Thanks, Amy

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10 JUNE, 2015

The Blue Whale: A Loving Science Lullaby for Our Planet’s Largest-Hearted Creature

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An affectionate tour of an alternate universe right here on earth, where it’s possible to grow by nine pounds an hour and never sleep.

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on the color of distance and desire. No creature compresses the edgeless grandeur of our Pale Blue Dot into a single body as perfectly as the blue whale — an animal absolutely awesome in the true sense of the word. That awe-striking being is what London-based illustrator Jenni Desmond celebrates in the marvelous nonfiction children’s book The Blue Whale (public library) — a loving science lullaby about our planet’s biggest creature, and a beautiful addition to the finest children’s books celebrating science.

Alongside Desmond’s immeasurably warm and largehearted illustrations is her simply worded, deeply intelligent synthesis of what marine biologists know about this extraordinary mammal — in fact, she worked closely with Diane Gendron, a marine biologist who studies blue whales. At the heart of the book is a compassionate curiosity about the beings with whom we share this world, effecting what the great Mary Oliver called a “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Indeed, despite the gaping disparity of scales, we have more in common with this gentle giant of the ocean than we realize — the blue whale, like us, is a highly intelligent mammal and one of the few creatures with a lifespan comparable to our own.

There is a charming meta touch to the story — the protagonist, a little boy with a crown that evokes Maurice Sendak’s Max, is learning and dreaming about blue whales by reading this very book, which he is seen holding in a number of the scenes.

Although the whaling industry of yore may have inspired some legendary art, more than 360,000 blue whales were killed in the first half of the twentieth century as these magnificent creatures were being reduced to oil, blubber, baleen, and meat. A global ban on whale hunting made them a protected species in 1966, but other forms of our arrogant anthropocentrism are putting them in danger anew as our our commercial fishing entangles them in its indiscriminate nets, our passenger ships pollute their habitats, and our general human activity continues to raise ocean temperatures.

And yet it isn’t with alarmism or bitter lamentation but with love befitting this largest-hearted of earthly creatures — its heart alone weighs around 1,300 pounds — that Desmond invites us into the world of the blue whale. She writes in the preface:

Blue whales are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and like all of the natural world they deserve our admiration and care. It is only then that they will flourish and multiply in their native ocean home.

And so it is with admiration and care that Desmond opens our eyes to the glory of this beautiful and intelligent creature — a creature whose own eye measures only six inches wide.

Next to its gargantuan weight of 160 tons, “about the same as a heap of 55 hippopotami,” and size of up to 100 feet, “the same length as a truck, a digger, a boat, a car, a bicycle, a motorcycle, a van, and a tractor — all lined up,” this minuscule eye devoid of tear glands and eyelashes makes for terribly poor eyesight.

But for this handicap of sensorial proportion the blue whale makes up in its astounding skin sensitivity and hearing — its ears, tiny holes located next to its minuscule eyes, can hear other whales’ songs up to 1,000 miles away. Because whales navigate the expanse of the ocean by sound, the noise of human-made vessels can disorient them, traumatize them, and even precipitate the kinds of mental illness Laurel Braitman explores in her excellent Animal Madness.

Desmond writes that no terrestrial animal can be nearly as big as the blue whale, for it would be impossible for a skeleton to support this much weight out of the water — the blue whale’s tongue alone weighs three tons “and its mouth is so big that 50 people can stand inside it.” This number, in fact, is a testament to what a whimsical cross-pollination of art, science, and sheer imagination this project is — Gendron manually measured how many people could stand in a boat the size of a blue whale’s mouth. (Fifty. Check.)

We learn, too, that while adult blue whales eat tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, baby whales — being mammals — eat not krill but their mother’s milk for the first eight months of life, consuming nearly 50 gallons of milk every day and growing by as much as nine pounds an hour.

But the most astounding fact about the blue whale are its sleep habits, which make even the most irregular human sleepers look like professional slumberers. Desmond explains:

Blue whales sleep by taking very short naps while slowly swimming close to the ocean’s surface. This is called logging. They sleeping this way because they have to remember to open their blowhole in order to breathe. Blue whales can never completely lose consciousness, not even in sleep, otherwise they would drown.

Unlike blue whales, people can drift into sleep without having to remember to breathe and keep themselves float, so we can fall asleep over a favorite book and begin to dream…

The Blue Whale, endlessly wonderful from cover to cover, comes from Brooklyn-based independent picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of some of the finest children’s books of our time — including an uncommonly tender Japanese take on The Velveteen Rabbit, the repeatedly rewarding The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

Complement it with an equally wonderful fictional counterpart, Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale, then dive into the grownup mesmerism of marine life with this fantastic On Being conversation with legendary oceanographer Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle.

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