Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

13 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Henry Builds a Cabin: Thoreau’s Joyfully Minimalist Life at Walden, Illustrated for Kids and Full of Wisdom for All

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“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a one as their neighbors have.”

In September of 1992, a young man by the name of Chris McCandless perished in the wilderness after resolving to live outside of consumer culture, as close to nature as possible. His story, still the source of ongoing controversy, became the book Into the Wild, which then became the movie of the same title, which gave us one of the best film soundtracks ever. Despite its tragic ending, McCandless’s tale is infused with the ideas and ideals of another man who left the city for the woods to attempt a simple life more than a century earlier: Henry David Thoreau. In the forest around the shores of Walden Pond, he built himself a tiny cabin 10 feet wide and 15 feet long, snugly containing only his bed, a writing desk, and a table with three chairs. He built it himself, with the help of a few friends, using old boards and bricks. The total cost was only $28.12½ — a masterpiece of material minimalism in every sense.

Henry Builds a Cabin (public library), the sequel to artist and author D. B. Johnson’s infinitely delightful Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, adapts the tale of Thoreau and his cabin in vibrant illustrations, once again casting the beloved transcendentalist as a lovable bear named Henry. The story is inspired by this famous passage from Thoreau’s Walden, presaging the notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” by a century:

Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a one as their neighbors have.

Johnson’s vibrant, distinctive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations invite us to spy on Henry while he builds his cabin as his friends, one by one, question his modest choices.

First, his friend Emerson, who helps Henry raise the beams, questions the size of his dining area:

“Henry,” he said, “your cabin looks too small to eat in!”
“It’s bigger than it looks,” said Henry.

Henry leads Emerson to a bean patch he has planted behind the cabin and proclaims:

When it’s finished, this will be my dining room.

Then, as Henry is nailing the boards on the roof, his friend Alcott arrives and brings his own skepticism.

“Henry,” he said, “your cabin looks too dark to read in!”
“It’s brighter than it looks,” said Henry.

Henry leads him to a sunny spot next to the cabin and exalts:

When it’s finished, this will be my library.

With more visitors come more questions about the comfort and practicality of the cabin, but Henry refutes each with his cheerful resourcefulness. Finally, on July 4, 1845, he moves into his cabin and blissfully munches on beans in his “dining room,” enjoys a good book in his “library,” and takes pride in his tiny cabin built with heart and humility.

The end of the book features this endearing breakdown of Thoreau’s cabin construction budget:

  • Boards $8.03½
  • Used shingles $4.00
  • Laths $1.25
  • Two second-hand windows $2.43
  • One thousand old bricks $4.00
  • Two casks of Lime* $2.40
  • Hair* $0.31
  • Mantle-tree iron $0.15
  • Nails $3.90
  • Hinges and screws $0.14
  • Latch $0.10
  • Chalk $0.01
  • Transportation $1.40
    • TOTAL: $28.12½

      *lime and hair were used to make plaster

Complement Henry Builds a Cabin with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, then revisit some of Thoreau’s timeless philosophy for grown-ups.

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12 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Well-Read Women: Gorgeous Watercolor Portraits of Literature’s Most Beloved Heroines

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Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Clarissa Dalloway, Holly Golightly, Daisy Buchanan, Lolita, and more.

When my friend Lisa Congdon and I started our Reconstructionists project — a yearlong illustrated celebration of women who changed the course of history and our understanding of the world — we knew that nearly half of them would end up being women of letters. Now, New-York-based painter and fashion illustrator Samantha Hahn is giving us the literary fiction counterpart to The Reconstructionists in Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines (public library) — a collection of expressive watercolor depictions of such literary icons as Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Holly Golightly, and Clarissa Dalloway, paired with a memorable quote by each character.

Though some of the typographic renderings could use a bit more love and the quote selections tend to reach for the popular over the profound, the portraits themselves, to which the screen does absolutely no justice here, are breathtaking — sometimes tender, sometimes intense, always thoughtfully evocative of each heroine’s persona and sensibility.

JANE EYRE

'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Brontë

NANCY

'Oliver Twist' by Charles Dickens

CLARISSA DALLOWAY

'Mrs. Dalloway' by Virginia Woolf

EMMA BOVARY

'Madame Bovary' by Gustave Flaubert

LARA GUISHAR

'Dr. Zhivago' by Boris Pasternak

ESTHER GREENWOOD

'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath

HOLLY GOLIGHTLY

'Breakfast at Tiffany's' by Truman Capote

Pair Well-Read Women with Lolita reimagined by modern graphic designers and The Graphic Canon — literary classics distilled by contemporary cartoonists and graphic artists.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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10 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Nurse Lugton’s Curtain: Virginia Woolf’s Little-Known Children’s Story, in Gorgeous Watercolors

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A lovely allegory about the whimsical wonderland we enter as we slip into sleep.

In 1923, with her literary fame still ahead of her, beloved author and reconstructionist Virginia Woolf collaborated with her two teenage nephews, one of whom went on to become an intellectual tour de force in his own right, on a witty and wonderful family bulletin. It was there that Woolf’s first little-known children’s story, The Widow and the Parrot, made its debut. A year later, in 1924, Woolf penned another children’s tale but, like Gertrude Stein’s alphabet book, it only entered the world posthumously, in 1965. Nearly three decades later still, Nurse Lugton’s Curtain (public library) — the story of a whimsical world that lurks inside the pattern of the drawing-room curtain Nurse Lugton is quietly sewing, then comes alive as she falls asleep — was published in 1991 with expressive and enchanting watercolors illustrations by Julie Vivas.

This long-lost gem, alas out-of-print but still findable used, comes as a fine addition to other little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, including previously uncovered treasures by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, John Updike, and Jane Goodall.

Complement Nurse Lugton’s Curtain with Woolf’s first children’s story, then revisit the beloved author’s meditation on how to read a book and the only surviving recording of her voice.

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