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16 DECEMBER, 2013

Cats, Dogs, and the Human Condition: The Year’s Best Books about Pets and Animals

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Artful cats, literary dogs, Bob Dylan, and a whole lot of non-human genius.

After the year’s best books in psychology and philosophy, art and design, history and biography, science and technology, and “children’s” (though we all know what that means), the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continue with the year’s loveliest reads about our fellow non-human beings.

1. E. B. WHITE ON DOGS

Literary history brims with famous authors who adored their pets, and E. B. White — extraordinary essayist, celebrator of New York, champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style — was chief among them. He had a dozen dogs over the course of his long life, including his beloved Scotty Daisy, who was not only the only witness to White’s wedding to the love of his life but also “wrote” this utterly endearing letter to Katharine White on the occasion of her pregnancy. In E. B. White on Dogs (public library), Martha White, Elwyn’s granddaughter and literary executor, collects the beloved author’s finest letters, poems, sketches, and essays celebrating his canine companions.

In the introduction to the anthology, White’s granddaughter poignantly observes that her grandfather revealed so much of himself through his writing about his dogs, riffing on his poignant obituary for Daisy:

My grandfather also suffered from a chronic perplexity, I believe, and he spent his career trying to take hold of it, not infrequently through the literary device of his dogs.

In this particular case, it seems, Malcolm Gladwell was wrong in asserting, “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.” Dogs, for White, were about dogs, but also about how to be human.

Sample this fantastic collection with some of White’s gems here and here.

2. LOST CAT

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell asserted indignantly in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs. Though hailed as memetic rulers of the internet, cats have also enjoyed a long history as artistic and literary muses, but never have they been at once more about cats and more about something else than in Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, she of many wonderful collaborations — a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity, also among the best biographies, memoirs, and history books of the year. Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love.

After Caroline crashes an experimental plane she was piloting, she finds herself severely injured and spiraling into the depths of depression. It both helps and doesn’t that Caroline and Wendy have just fallen in love, soaring in the butterfly heights of new romance, “the phase of love that didn’t obey any known rules of physics,” until the crash pulls them into a place that would challenge even the most seasoned and grounded of relationships. And yet they persevere as Wendy patiently and lovingly takes care of Caroline.

When Caroline returns from the hospital with a shattered ankle, her two thirteen-year-old tabbies — the shy, anxious Tibby (short for Tibia, affectionately — and, in these circumstances, ironically — named after the shinbone) and the sociable, amicable Fibby (short for Fibula, after the calf bone on the lateral side of the tibia) — are, short of Wendy, her only joy and comfort:

Tibia and Fibula meowed happily when I arrived. They were undaunted by my ensuing stupor. In fact they were delighted; suddenly I had become a human who didn’t shout into a small rectangle of lights and plastic in her hand, peer at a computer, or get up and disappear from the vicinity, only to reappear through the front door hours later. Instead, I was completely available to them at all times. Amazed by their good luck, they took full feline advantage. They asked for ear scratches and chin rubs. They rubbed their whiskers along my face. They purred in response to my slurred, affectionate baby talk. But mostly they just settled in and went to sleep. Fibby snored into my neck. Tibby snored on the rug nearby. Meanwhile I lay awake, circling the deep dark hole of depression.

Without my cats, I would have fallen right in.

And then, one day, Tibby disappears.

Wendy and Caroline proceed to flyer the neighborhood, visit every animal shelter in the vicinity, and even, in their desperation, enlist the help of a psychic who specializes in lost pets — but to no avail. Heartbroken, they begin to mourn Tibby’s loss.

And then, one day five weeks later, Tibby reappears. But once the initial elation of the recovery has worn off, Caroline begins to wonder where he’d been and why he’d left. He is now no longer eating at home and regularly leaves the house for extended periods of time — Tibby clearly has a secret place he now returns to. Even more worrisomely, he’s no longer the shy, anxious tabby he’d been for thirteen years — instead, he’s a half pound heavier, chirpy, with “a youthful spring in his step.” But why would a happy cat abandon his loving lifelong companion and find comfort — find himself, even — elsewhere?

When the relief that my cat was safe began to fade, and the joy of his prone, snoring form — sprawled like an athlete after a celebratory night of boozing — started to wear thin, I was left with darker emotions. Confusion. Jealousy. Betrayal. I thought I’d known my cat of thirteen years. But that cat had been anxious and shy. This cat was a swashbuckling adventurer back from the high seas. What siren call could have lured him away? Was he still going to this gilded place, with its overflowing food bowls and endless treats?

There only one obvious thing left to do: Track Tibby on his escapades. So Caroline, despite Wendy’s lovingly suppressed skepticism, heads to a spy store — yes, those exist — and purchases a real-time GPS tracker, complete with a camera that they program to take snapshots every few minutes, which they then attach to Tibby’s collar.

What follows is a wild, hilarious, and sweet tale of tinkering, tracking, and tenderness. Underpinning the obsessive quest is the subtle yet palpable subplot of Wendy and Caroline’s growing love for each other, the deepening of trust and affection that happens when two people share in a special kind of insanity.

“Evert quest is a journey, every journey a story. Every story, in turn, has a moral,” writes Caroline in the final chapter, then offers several “possible morals” for the story, the last of which embody everything that makes Lost Cat an absolute treat from cover to cover:

6. You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want.

7. But that’s okay, love is better.

Take a closer look here, then hear MacNaughton and Paul in conversation about combining creative collaboration with a romantic relationship.

3. DOG SONGS

Mary Oliver is not only one of the sagest and most beloved poets of our time, a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, but is also among literary history’s greatest pet-lovers. Dog Songs (public library) collects her most soul-stirring poems and short prose celebrating that special human-canine relationship and what it reveals about the meaning of our own lives — a beautiful manifestation of Oliver’s singular sieve for extracting from the particularities of the poetic subject the philosophical universalities of the human condition to illuminate what it means to live a good life, a full life, a life of purpose and presence.

Inhale, for instance, this:

LUKE

I had a dog
  who loved flowers.
    Briskly she went
        through the fields,

yet paused
  for the honeysuckle
    or the rose,
        her dark head

and her wet nose
  touching
    the face
         of every one

with its petals
  of silk,
    with its fragrance
         rising

into the air
  where the bees,
    their bodies
        heavy with pollen,

hovered—
  and easily
     she adored
        every blossom,

not in the serious,
  careful way
    that we choose
        this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
  the way we love
     or don’t love—
        but the way

we long to be—
  that happy
    in the heaven of earth—
        that wild, that loving.

Amidst the poetic, there are also the necessary, playfully practical reminders of how dogs illustrate the limitations of our own sensory awareness:

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.

Then there are the fictional — or are they? — conversations with Oliver’s dog Ricky, which brim with love and wisdom. In one, titled “Show Time,” they watch a dog show on TV and wince at the unfortunate, borderline abusive grooming the contestants have had to endure. Ricky exclaims:

“If I ever meet one of these dogs I’m going
to invite him to come here, where he can
be a proper dog.”

Okay, I said. But remember, you can’t fix
everything in the world for everybody.

“However,” said Ricky, “you can’t do
anything at all unless you begin. Haven’t
I heard you say that once or twice, or
maybe a hundred times?”

In another poem, Oliver affectionately acknowledges that innocent canine gift for employing a dog’s intellect for his own self-gratification, as when he dupes both you the other household human into feeding him breakfast:

Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble. A dog is a true and loving friend. A dog is also a hedonist.

In a short prose piece, Oliver considers the wretched elephant in every dog-lover’s room:

Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old — or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.

One of her most poignant meditations strokes the heart of why dogs are so much more than the ornament Virginia Woolf’s nephew reduced them to. It comes in the collection’s concluding essay, emanating the loving-kindness of Buddhism and condensing that in the prism of the dog:

Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?

LITTLE DOG’S RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
  in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

“Tell me you love me,” he says.

“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.

But even more powerful is the other direction of that affirmative affection — the wholehearted devotion of dogs, who love us unconditionally and in the process teach us to love; in letting us see ourselves through their eyes, they help us believe what they see, believe that we are worthy of love, that we are love.

THE SWEETNESS OF DOGS

What do you say, Percy? I am thinking
of sitting out on the sand to watch
the moon rise. It’s full tonight.
So we go

and the moon rises, so beautiful it
makes me shudder, makes me think about
time and space, makes me take
measure of myself: one iota
pondering heaven. Thus we sit, myself

thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up
into my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.

Ultimately, the closing verses of the poem “Percy Wakes Me” speak for the entire collection:

This is a poem about Percy.
This is a poem about more than Percy.
Think about it.

And oh how much more is Dog Songs about.

4. THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF CATS

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell proclaimed in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of the best art books of 2012 and among the finest pet-related books of all time. Cats, on the other hand — despite their long history as literary muses, poetic devices, creative catalysts, and targets of artful grievances — are largely about something else, about some facet or other of our human needs, desires, and conceits: our relationships, our cities, our grappling with mortality.

So bespeaks The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (public library), the highly anticipated feline sequel to last year’s canine edition, also among the best art and design books of the year — a shiny, well-fed tome that gathers the best cat-coddling articles, essays, short stories, poems, cartoons, covers, and other feats of literature and art from the New Yorker archives. Spanning nearly nine decades, the collection featuring contributions from such celebrated minds as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, James Thurber, Susan Orlean, and even the patron saint of “the other side,” famed dog-lover E. B. White.

In the foreword, the great New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane lays out the decrees of cat-connoisseurship:

The first rule of felinology: you need to learn to look at cats down to the last whisker, every bit as closely as they look at you. To them, remember, nothing is lost in the dark.

And another solemn dictum:

Serious cat people, like first-rate art critics, are chivvied by passion into perspicacity. Believing is seeing.

Lane considers the singular allure of using the feline psyche as literary fodder:

This will never be anything but challenging, even if you wear motorcycle gauntlets and a knight’s visor, but it remains a quest to which many writers are lured. Perhaps they view it as a kind of scratching post — ready-made, abrasive chance to sharpen their natural skills.

Even Joyce, Lane tells us, was privy to it — in the fourth chapter of Ulysses, he tackled a “very specific quandary, the spelling of a cat’s ululation … and came up with the infinitesimal swell of ‘mkgnao’ into ‘mrkgnao.’” Lane illustrates the affectionate absurdity of it all with a tongue-in-cheek invitation: “Try both, out loud, but not after eating crackers, and see if you can tell them apart.”

More than anything, however, the anthology embodies the cat’s defining characteristic: its cluster of opposites, rolled together into a giant hairball of cultural attitudes — something, perhaps, at once uncomfortably and assuringly reflective of our own chronically conflicted selves. Lane writes:

So it is, as this well-fed book stretches out in languor, that the array of feline opposites starts to emerge. Cats must be destroyed; cats should be saved. Cats are like us; no, cats are not of this world. Cats can be savored for their fellowship, then eaten for their flesh. . . . Cats exist in these pages, as they do throughout our lives, both as obsessively singular … and as a barely controllable mass, doomed to proliferate forever, like poison ivy or biographies of Napoleon. Above all, for every cat who is liked, accepted or worshipped from afar, there is another who peers into our eyes — those hopeless orbs, superfluous at night — and spies only horror, indifference, and fear.

Indeed, despite the bountiful and often ardent cat-lovers among literary history’s famous pet-owners, Lane challenges the very notion that cats and literature go together:

Perhaps we need to rethink the assumption, deep-rooted but far from well grounded, that writers and cats are a good mix. Sure, Mark Twain had cats, such as Sour Mash and Blatherskite, and, up at the more louche and loping end of American literature, in the life and work of Poe, Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Edward Gorey, and Stephen King, you are never that far from the patter of ominous paws; whether a cat has been reared on a diet of neat Burroughs would find a niche at The New Yorker, however, is open to debate. We aim at the scrutable, the translucent, the undrugged, and the verified; whether we even get close is not for us to say, but such aspirations find no echo in the bosom of the cat. The cat sneers at clarity and career plans, and even its major stratagems can be dropped upon a whim. . . .

One of the best pieces in the collection, both for the sheer joy of exquisite language and for its disarming insight into the baffling paradoxes of the human-feline psychic bond, is a long 2002 feature by Susan Orlean, titled “The Lady and the Tigers.” Beyond the undeniable freakshow mesmerism of a true story about a New Jersey woman who owns more than two dozen tigers for no other reason than her intense love for the species, the essay, much like good visual caricature, also reveals a whole lot about the psychology of our ordinary relationships with small domestic cats through this woman’s extraordinary relationship with her gigantic felines. Take, for instance, the evolution of the woman’s tiger menagerie:

After arriving in Jackson, Byron-Marasek got six more tigers — Bengal, Hassan, Madras, Marco, Royal, and Kizmet — from McMillan and from Ringling Brothers. The next batch — Kirin, Kopan, Bali, Brunei, Brahman, and Burma — were born in the back yard after Byron-Marasek allowed her male and female tigers to commingle. More cubs were born, and more tigers obtained, and the tiger population of Holmeson’s Corner steadily increased. Byron-Marasek called her operation the Tigers Only Preservation Society. Its stated mission was, among other things, to conserve all tiger species, to return captive tigers to the wild, and “to resolve the human/tiger conflict and create a resolution.”

And so we get the perfect Orleanean spear at the heart of the human condition in all its absurdity:

You know how it is — you start with one tiger, then you get another and another, then a few are born and a few die, and you start to lose track of details like exactly how many tigers you actually have.

Tucked between the essays and short stories are also a number of delightful poems, such as this 1960 gem by Ted Hughes:

TOMCATS

Daylong this tomcat lies stretched flat
As an old rough mat, no mouth and no eyes.
Continual wars and wives are what
Have tattered his ears and battered his head.

Like a bundle of old rope and iron
Sleeps till blue dusk. Then reappear
His eyes, green as ringstones: he yawns wide red,
Fangs fine as a lady’s needle and bright.

A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,
Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks
While the knight rode fighting its clawing and bite.
After hundreds of years the stain’s there

On the stone where he fell, dead of the tom:
That was at Barnborough. The tomcat still
Grallochs odd dogs on the quiet,
Will take the head clean off your simple pullet.

Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point-blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings

Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon
Nightly over the round world of men
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.

(The poem was penned the year Frieda, his daughter with Sylvia Plath, was born — a child nursed on nursery rhymes — so one can’t help but find in Hughes’s playful verses the hint of an irreverent nursery rhyme.)

In his 1992 piece “Cat Man,” George Steiner tells the story of “the most illustrious, compelling cat in the history of literature” — a Montparnasse tabby named Bébert, who was abandoned by his Germany-bound owners at the onset of WWII and met his second owner, the novelist, physician and “manic crank” Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, better-known as Céline, in Paris. Bébert promptly proceeded to enthrall the man into describing him as “magic itself, tact by wavelength.” When the cat’s time came in his Sphinx-like years at the end of 1952, the obituary Destouches wrote — rivaled only by E. B. White’s remembrance of his beloved dog Daisy — was nothing short of a literary micro-masterpiece:

After many an adventure, jail, bivouac, ashes, all of Europe … he died agile and graceful, impeccably, he had jumped out the window that very morning. . . . We, who are born old, look ridiculous in comparison!

Perhaps the most recurring theme of all, however, is the concept of the cat not as an extension of the human self, as a dog might be, but rather as something otherworldly, mysterious, with a mind of its own onto which we may project our human intentions and interpretations, but one which we will ultimately never comprehend — a force of nature, often as uncontrollable as its elements, as in this 1960 poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

ELECTRICAL STORM

Dawn an unsympathetic yellow.
Cra-aack! — dry and light.
The house was really struck.
Crack! A tinny sound, like a dropped tumbler.
Tobias jumped in the window, got in bed –
silent, his eyes bleached white, his fur on end.
Personal and spiteful as a neighbor’s child,
thunder began to bang and bump the roof.
One pink flash;
then hail, the biggest size of artificial pearls.
Dead-white, wax-white, cold –
diplomats’ wives’ favors
from an old moon party –
they lay in melting windrows
on the red ground until well after sunrise.
We got up to find the wiring fused,
no lights, a smell of saltpetre,
and the telephone dead.

The cat stayed in the warm sheets.
The Lent trees had shed all their petals:
wet, stuck, purple, among the dead-eye pearls.

Originally featured in October, with lots more art and excerpts.

5. WILD ONES

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (public library) by journalist Jon Mooallem, also among the best science and technology books of the year, isn’t the typical story designed to make us better by making us feel bad, to scare us into behaving, into environmental empathy; Mooallem’s is not the self-righteous tone of capital-K knowing typical of many environmental activists but the scientist’s disposition of not-knowing, the poet’s penchant for “negative capability.” Rather than ready-bake answers, he offers instead directions of thought and signposts for curiosity and, in the process, somehow gently moves us a little bit closer to our better selves, to a deep sense of, as poet Diane Ackerman beautifully put it in 1974, “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

In the introduction, Mooallem recalls looking at his four-year-old daughter Isla’s menagerie of stuffed animals and the odd cultural disconnect they mime:

[T]hey were foraging on the pages of every bedtime story, and my daughter was sleeping in polar bear pajamas under a butterfly mobile with a downy snow owl clutched to her chin. Her comb handle was a fish. Her toothbrush handle was a whale. She cut her first tooth on a rubber giraffe.

Our world is different, zoologically speaking — less straightforward and more grisly. We are living in the eye of a great storm of extinction, on a planet hemorrhaging living things so fast that half of its nine million species could be gone by the end of the century. At my place, the teddy bears and giggling penguins kept coming. But I didn’t realize the lengths to which humankind now has to go to keep some semblance of actual wildlife in the world. As our own species has taken over, we’ve tried to retain space for at least some of the others being pushed aside, shoring up their chances of survival. But the threats against them keep multiplying and escalating. Gradually, America’s management of its wild animals has evolved, or maybe devolved, into a surreal kind of performance art.

Yet even conservationists’ small successes — crocodile species bouncing back from the brink of extinction, peregrine falcons filling the skies once again — even these pride points demonstrate the degree to which we’ve assumed — usurped, even — a puppeteer role in the theater of organic life. Citing a scientist who lamented that “right now, nature is unable to stand on its own,” Mooallem writes:

We’ve entered what some scientists are calling the Anthropocene — a new geologic epoch in which human activity, more than any other force, steers change on the planet. Just as we’re now causing the vast majority of extinctions, the vast majority of endangered species will only survive if we keep actively rigging the world around them in their favor. … We are gardening the wilderness. The line between conservation and domestication has blurred.

He finds himself uncomfortably straddling these two animal worlds — the idyllic little-kid’s dreamland and the messy, fragile ecosystem of the real world:

Once I started looking around, I noticed the same kind of secondhand fauna that surrounds my daughter embellishing the grown-up world, too — not just the conspicuous bald eagle on flagpoles and currency, or the big-cat and raptor names we give sports teams and computer operating systems, but the whale inexplicably breaching in the life-insurance commercial, the glass dolphin dangling from a rearview mirror, the owl sitting on the rump of a wild boar silk-screened on a hipster’s tote bag. I spotted wolf after wolf airbrushed on the sides of old vans, and another wolf, painted against a full moon on purple velvet, greeting me over the toilet in a Mexican restaurant bathroom. … [But] maybe we never outgrow the imaginary animal kingdom of childhood. Maybe it’s the one we are trying to save.

[…]

From the very beginning, America’s wild animals have inhabited the terrain of our imagination just as much as they‘ve inhabited the actual land. They are free-roaming Rorschachs, and we are free to spin whatever stories we want about them. The wild animals always have no comment.

So he sets out to better understand the dynamics of the cultural forces that pull these worlds together with shared abstractions and rip them apart with the brutal realities of environmental collapse. His quest, in which little Isla is a frequent companion, sends him on the trails of three endangered species — a bear, a butterfly, and a bird — which fall on three different points on the spectrum of conservation reliance, relying to various degrees on the mercy of the very humans who first disrupted “the machinery of their wildness.” On the way, he encounters a remarkably vibrant cast of characters — countless passionate citizen scientists, a professional theater actor who, after an HIV diagnosis, became a professional butterfly enthusiast, and even Martha Stewart — and finds in their relationship with the environment “the same creeping disquiet about the future” that Mooallem himself came to know when he became a father. In fact, the entire project was inextricably linked to his sense of fatherly responsibility:

I’m part of a generation that seems especially resigned to watching things we encountered in childhood disappear: landline telephones, newspapers, fossil fuels. But leaving your kids a world without wild animals feels like a special tragedy, even if it’s hard to rationalize why it should.

The truth is that most of us will never experience the Earth’s endangered animals as anything more than beautiful ideas. They are figments of our shared imagination, recognizable from TV, but stalking places — places out there — to which we have no intention of going. I wondered how that imaginative connection to wildlife might fray or recalibrate as we’re forced to take more responsibility for its wildness.

It also occurred to me early on that all three endangered species I was getting to know could be gone by the time Isla is my age. It’s possible that, thirty years from now, they’ll have receded into the realm of dinosaurs, or the realm of Pokémon, for that matter — fantastical creatures whose names and diets little kids memorize from books. And it’s possible, too, I realized, that it might not even make a difference, that there would still be polar bears on footsy pajamas and sea turtle-shaped gummy vitamins — that there could be so much actual destruction without ever meaningfully upsetting the ecosystems in our minds.

Originally featured in May — read more here.

6. THE GENIUS OF DOGS

For much of modern history, dogs have inspired a wealth of art and literature, profound philosophical meditations, scientific curiosity, deeply personal letters, photographic admiration, and even some cutting-edge data visualization. But what is it that makes dogs so special in and of themselves, and so dear to us?

Despite the mind-numbing title, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think (public library; UK) by Brian Hare, evolutionary anthropologist and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and Vanessa Woods offers a fascinating tour of radical research on canine cognition, from how the self-domestication of dogs gave them a new kind of social intelligence to what the minds of dogs reveal about our own. In fact, one of the most compelling parts of the book has less to do with dogs and more with genius itself.

In examining the definition of genius, Hare echoes British novelist Amelia E. Barr, who wisely noted in 1901 that “genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.” Hare points out that standardized tests provide a very narrow — and thus poor — definition of genius:

As you probably remember, tests such as IQ tests, GREs, and SATs focus on basic skills like reading, writing, and analytical abilities. The tests are favored because on average, they predict scholastic success. But they do not measure the full capabilities of each person. They do not explain Ted Turner, Ralph Lauren, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, who all dropped out of college and became billionaires.

Instead, Hare offers a conception of genius that borrows from Howard Gardner’s seminal 1983 theory of multiple intelligences:

A cognitive approach is about celebrating different kinds of intelligence. Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.

For a perfect example, Hare points to reconstructionist Temple Grandin:

Temple Grandin, at Colorado State University, is autistic yet is also the author of several books, including Animals Make Us Human, and has done more for animal welfare than almost anyone. Although Grandin struggles to read people’s emotions and social cues, her extraordinary understanding of animals has allowed her to reduce the stress of millions of farm animals.

The cognitive revolution changed the way we think about intelligence. It began in the decade that all social revolutions seemed to have happened, the sixties. Rapid advances in computer technology allowed scientists to think differently about the brain and how it solves problems. Instead of the brain being either more or less full of intelligence, like a glass of wine, the brain is more like a computer, where different parts work together. USB ports,keyboards, and modems bring in new information from the environment; a processor helps digest and alter the information into a usable format, while a hard drive stores important information for later use. Neuroscientists realized that, like a computer, many parts of the brain are specialized for solving different types of problems.

An example of this comes from the study of memory, which we already know is fascinating in its fallibility:

One of the best-studied cognitive abilities is memory. In fact, we usually think of geniuses as people who have an extraordinary memory for facts and figures, since such people often score off the charts on IQ tests. But just as there are different types of intelligence, there are different types of memory. There is memory for events, faces, navigation, things that occurred recently or long ago — the list goes on. If you have a good memory in one of these areas, it does not necessarily mean your other types of memory are equally good.

Ultimately, the notion of multiple intelligences is what informs the research on dog cognition:

There are many definitions of intelligence competing for attention in popular culture. But the definition that has guided my research and that applies throughout the book is a very simple one. The genius of dogs — of all animals, for that matter, including humans — has two criteria:

  1. A mental skill that is strong compared with others, either within your own species or in closely related species.
  2. The ability to spontaneously make inferences.

(This second criterion comes strikingly close to famous definitions of creativity.)

Originally featured in February.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

7. ANIMAL WISE

Most people who have observed animals even briefly wouldn’t question their emotional lives and their thriving inner worlds. While anthropomorphic animal tales have populated storytelling for as long as humanity has existed, in Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (public library) — part of my collaboration with The New York Public Library — science writer Virginia Morell takes us on an unprecedented tour of laboratories around the world and explores the work of pioneering animal cognition researchers to reveal the scientific basis for our basic intuition about what goes on in the hearts and minds of our fellow beings, from the laughter of rats to the intellectual curiosity of dolphins.

Observing her puppy Quincy invent a game, Morell contextualizes how far the study of animal sentience has come in the last half-century:

Why was I surprised when our pup invented a game? I think because at that time, in the late 1980s— not so very long ago—scientists were still stuck on the question “Do animals have minds?” A cautious search was under way for the answer, and the researchers’ caution had spilled over to society at large. In those days, if you suggested that dogs had imaginations or that rats laughed or had some degree of empathy for another’s pain, certain other people (and not just scientists) were likely to sneer at you and accuse you of being sentimental and of anthropomorphizing — interpreting an animal’s behavior as if the creature were a human dressed up in furs or feathers.

She goes on to explore how modern science has illuminated such marvels as how birds think, how an elephant’s memory works, how ants learn, and what goes on in the imagination of dolphins.

8. IF DOGS RUN FREE

As a lover of canine-centric literature and art, an aficionado of lesser-known children’s books by luminaries of grown-up culture — including gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike — and a previous admirer of Bob Dylan’s music adapted in picturebook form, I was thrilled for the release of If Dogs Run Free (public library) — an utterly delightful adaptation of the beloved 1970 Dylan song from the album New Morning by celebrated illustrator Scott Campbell.

Originally featured in September.

BONUS: A CAT-HATER’S HANDBOOK

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work,” Muriel Spark advised, “you should acquire a cat.” But while felines may have found their way into Joyce’s children’s books, Indian folk art, and Hemingway’s heart, their cultural status is quite different from that of dogs, which are in turn celebrated as literary muses, scientific heroes, philosophical stimuli, cartographic data points, and unabashed geniuses. In fact, there might even be a thriving subculture of militant anti-felinists — or so suggests A Cat-Hater’s Handbook (public library), a vintage gem by William Cole and beloved children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer, originally conceived in 1963, but not published until 1982. Since I chanced upon a surviving copy this year, and since it’s so impossibly wonderful, I’m throwing it in as a bonus pick.

The back cover boasts:

What’s so cute about an animal that loves absolutely nothing, makes your house smell terrible, and has a brain the size of an under-developed kidney bean? At last, a book that dares to answer these and other feline questions with the sane and sensible answer:

Not a damned thing!

Also included is a selection of “scathing anti-feline poetry and prose” from the likes of William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Shel Silverstein.

Cole writes in the introductory pages:

Ailurophobia is, dictionarily speaking, a fear of cats. But words have a way of gradually sliding their meanings into something else, and ailurophobia is now accepted as meaning a strong dislike of the animals. Ailurophobes abound. Quiet cat-haters are everywhere. Often, a casual remark that I was doing anti-cat research would bring sparkle to the eyes of strangers. Firm bonds of friendship were immediately established. Mute lips were unsealed, and a delightful flow of long-repressed invective transpired. It was heart warming to find that what I thought would be a lonely crusade is truly a great popular cause.

What you’ll find, of course, is that underpinning Ungerer’s delightfully irreverent illustrations and Cole’s subversive writing is self-derision rather than cat-derision as this cat-hater’s handbook reveals itself as a cat-lover’s self-conscious and defiant love letter to the messy, unruly, all-consuming, but ultimately deeply fulfilling relationship with one’s loyal feline friend.

The intelligence of cats is a subject that arouses the cat-lover to fever pitch. Of course, there are all kinds of intelligences; the intelligence of a dolphin, for example, is particularly dolphinesque — it is suited to his surroundings and must be equated in those terms. Scientists balk at making comparative statements about animal intelligence. I spoke to one at the American Museum of Natural History who said that ‘a general judgement, from the literature, would put the intelligence of cats below dogs and above rats.’ (Which is the right place for them, anyway.)

On average, each suburban or country cat will kill 10 to 50 birds a year.

A Cat-Hater’s Handbook is, sadly, out of print, but used copies still abound online and are possibly available at your local public library.

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13 DECEMBER, 2013

The Pious Infant: Edward Gorey’s Rare Illustrated Allegory about the Dangers of Dogmatism

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A darkly delightful allegory about what happens when we take our convictions to an extreme.

Beloved mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey used a variety of anagrammatic pseudonyms, formed by remixing the letter of his real name, for his prolific and diverse creative output, spanning irreverent children’s books, paperback covers for literary classics, naughty delights for grownups, and illustrated envelopes. Among Gorey’s multiple female pseudonyms was Mrs. Regera Dowdy, an imaginary 19th-century persona, under which he penned the rare and wonderful gem The Pious Infant (public library), included in the altogether fantastic collection Amphigorey Too (public library) — the characteristically dark story of obsessively devout Little Henry Clump, illustrating the absurdity of religious dogmatism, the perils of self-righteousness, and the notion that any ideology or set of rigid beliefs taken to an extreme is likely to backfire into self-destructiveness.

I was fortunate enough to track down a surviving copy — a signed one, at that — digitized and preserved here for our shared delight:

Although long out of print, used copies of The Pious Infant can still be found online and at some public libraries, and Amphigorey Too, which includes this one and fourteen other Gorey treasures, is still in print. Complement it with The Green Beads and consider supporting the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust with a donation to the Edward Gorey House.

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09 DECEMBER, 2013

The 13 Best Children’s, Illustrated, and Picture Books of 2013

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Young Mark Twain’s lost gem, the universe in illustrated dioramas, Maurice Sendak’s posthumous love letter to the world, Kafka for kids, and more treats for all ages.

“It is an error … to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large,” J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in his superb meditation on fantasy and why there’s no such thing as writing “for children,” intimating that books able to captivate children’s imagination aren’t “children’s books” but simply really good books. After the year’s best books in psychology and philosophy, art and design, and history and biography, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continue with the loveliest “children’s” and picture-books of 2013. (Because the best children’s books are, as Tolkien believes, always ones of timeless delight, do catch up on the selections for 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

1. ADVICE TO LITTLE GIRLS

In 1865, when he was only thirty, Mark Twain penned a playful short story mischievously encouraging girls to think independently rather than blindly obey rules and social mores. In the summer of 2011, I chanced upon and fell in love with a lovely Italian edition of this little-known gem with Victorian-scrapbook-inspired artwork by celebrated Russian-born children’s book illustrator Vladimir Radunsky. I knew the book had to come to life in English, so I partnered with the wonderful Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Brooklyn-based indie publishing house Enchanted Lion, maker of extraordinarily beautiful picture-books, and we spent the next two years bringing Advice to Little Girls (public library) to life in America — a true labor-of-love project full of so much delight for readers of all ages. (And how joyous to learn that it was also selected among NPR’s best books of 2013!)

While frolicsome in tone and full of wink, the story is colored with subtle hues of grown-up philosophy on the human condition, exploring all the deft ways in which we creatively rationalize our wrongdoing and reconcile the good and evil we each embody.

Good little girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offense. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.

If you have nothing but a rag-doll stuffed with sawdust, while one of your more fortunate little playmates has a costly China one, you should treat her with a show of kindness nevertheless. And you ought not to attempt to make a forcible swap with her unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.

One can’t help but wonder whether this particular bit may have in part inspired the irreverent 1964 anthology Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls and its mischievous advice on brother-sister relations:

If at any time you find it necessary to correct your brother, do not correct him with mud — never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is better to scald him a little, for then you obtain desirable results. You secure his immediate attention to the lessons you are inculcating, and at the same time your hot water will have a tendency to move impurities from his person, and possibly the skin, in spots.

If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.

Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.

Originally featured in April — see more spreads, as well as the story behind the project, here.

2. YOU ARE STARDUST

“Everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was … lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” Carl Sagan famously marveled in his poetic Pale Blue Dot monologue, titled after the iconic 1990 photograph of Earth. The stardust metaphor for our interconnection with the cosmos soon permeated popular culture and became a vehicle for the allure of space exploration. There’s something at once incredibly empowering and incredibly humbling in knowing that the flame in your fireplace came from the sun.

That’s precisely the kind of cosmic awe environmental writer Elin Kelsey and Toronto-based Korean artist Soyeon Kim seek to inspire in kids in You Are Stardust (public library) — an exquisite picture-book that instills that profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today.

Kim’s breathtaking dioramas, to which this screen does absolutely no justice, mix tactile physical materials with fine drawing techniques and digital compositing to illuminate the relentlessly wondrous realities of our intertwined existence: The water in your sink once quenched the thirst of dinosaurs; with every sneeze, wind blasts out of your nose faster than a cheetah’s sprint; the electricity that powers every thought in your brain is stronger than lightning.

But rather than dry science trivia, the message is carried on the wings of poetic admiration for these intricate relationships:

Be still. Listen.

Like you, the Earth breathes.

Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers.

Each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant.

The book is nonetheless grounded in real science. Kelsey notes:

I wrote this book as a celebration — one to honor the extraordinary ways in which all of us simply are nature. Every example in this book is backed by current science. Every day, for instance, you breathe in more than a million pollen grains.

But what makes the project particularly exciting is that, in the face of the devastating gender gap in science education, here is a thoughtful, beautiful piece of early science education presented by two women, the most heartening such example since Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive.

A companion iPad app features sound effects, animation, an original score by Paul Aucoin, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Kim’s process in creating her stunning 3D dioramas, and even build-your-own-diorama adventures.

Originally featured in March — see more here.

3. THE HOLE

The Hole (public library) by artist Øyvind Torseter, one of Norway’s most celebrated illustrators, tells the story of a lovable protagonist who wakes up one day and discovers a mysterious hole in his apartment, which moves and seems to have a mind of its own. Befuddled, he looks for its origin — in vain. He packs it in a box and takes it to a lab, but still no explanation.

With Torseter’s minimalist yet visually eloquent pen-and-digital line drawings, vaguely reminiscent of Sir Quentin Blake and Tomi Ungerer yet decidedly distinctive, the story is at once simple and profound, amusing and philosophical, the sort of quiet meditation that gently, playfully tickles us into existential inquiry.

What makes the book especially magical is that a die-cut hole runs from the wonderfully gritty cardboard cover through every page and all the way out through the back cover — an especial delight for those of us who swoon over masterpieces of die-cut whimsy. In every page, the hole is masterfully incorporated into the visual narrative, adding an element of tactile delight that only an analog book can afford. The screen thus does it little justice, as these digital images feature a mere magenta-rimmed circle where the die-cut hole actually appears, but I’ve tried to capture its charm in a few photographs accompanying the page illustrations.

Originally featured in September, with lots more illustrations.

4. MY BROTHER’S BOOK

For those of us who loved legendary children’s book author Maurice Sendak — famed creator of wild things, little-known illustrator of velveteen rabbits, infinitely warm heart, infinitely witty mind — his death in 2012 was one of the year’s greatest heartaches. Now, half a century after his iconic Where The Wild Things Are, comes My Brother’s Book (public library; UK) — a bittersweet posthumous farewell to the world, illustrated in vibrant, dreamsome watercolors and written in verse inspired by some of Sendak’s lifelong influences: Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, and the music of Mozart. In fact, a foreword by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt reveals the book is based on the Bard’s “A Winter’s Tale.”

It tells the story of two brothers, Jack and Guy, torn asunder when a falling star crashes onto Earth. Though on the surface about the beloved author’s own brother Jack, who died 18 years ago, the story is also about the love of Sendak’s life and his partner of fifty years, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, whose prolonged illness and eventual loss in 2007 devastated Sendak — the character of Guy reads like a poetic fusion of Sendak and Glynn. And while the story might be a universal “love letter to those who have gone before,” as NPR’s Renee Montagne suggests in Morning Edition, it is in equal measure a private love letter to Glynn. (Sendak passed away the day before President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, but Sendak fans were quick to honor both historic moments with a bittersweet homage.)

Indeed, the theme of all-consuming love manifests viscerally in Sendak’s books. Playwright Tony Kushner, a longtime close friend of Sendak’s and one of his most heartfelt mourners, tells NPR:

There’s a lot of consuming and devouring and eating in Maurice’s books. And I think that when people play with kids, there’s a lot of fake ferocity and threats of, you know, devouring — because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely.

My Brother’s Book ends on a soul-stirring note, tender and poignant in its posthumous light:

And Jack slept safe
Enfolded in his brother’s arms
And Guy whispered ‘Good night
And you will dream of me.’

Originally featured in February.

5. DOES MY GOLDFISH KNOW WHO I AM?

In 2012, I wrote about a lovely book titled Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds, in which some of today’s greatest scientists, writers, and philosophers answer kids’ most urgent questions, deceptively simple yet profound. It went on to become one of the year’s best books and among readers’ favorites. A few months later, Gemma Elwin Harris, the editor who had envisioned the project, reached out to invite me to participate in the book’s 2013 edition by answering one randomly assigned question from a curious child. Naturally, I was thrilled to do it, and honored to be a part of something as heartening as Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? (public library) — a compendium of primary school children’s funny, poignant, innocent yet insightful questions about science and how life works, answered by such celebrated minds as rockstar physicist Brian Cox, beloved broadcaster and voice-of-nature Sir David Attenborough, legendary linguist Noam Chomsky, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach, stat-showman Hans Rosling, Beatle Paul McCartney, biologist and Beagle Project director Karen James, and iconic illustrator Sir Quentin Blake. As was the case with last year’s edition, more than half of the proceeds from the book — which features illustrations by the wonderful Andy Smith — are being donated to a children’s charity.

The questions range from what the purpose of science is to why onions make us cry to whether spiders can speak to why we blink when we sneeze. Psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond, who recently explained the fascinating science of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets all warped while we’re on vacation in one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2013, answers the most frequently asked question by the surveyed children: Why do we cry?

It’s normal to cry when you feel upset and until the age of twelve boys cry just as often as girls. But when you think about it, it is a bit strange that salty water spills out from the corners of your eyes just because you feel sad.

One professor noticed people often say that, despite their blotchy faces, a good cry makes them feel better. So he did an experiment where people had to breathe in over a blender full of onions that had just been chopped up. Not surprisingly this made their eyes water. He collected the tears and put them in the freezer. Then he got people to sit in front of a very sad film wearing special goggles which had tiny buckets hanging off the bottom, ready to catch their tears if they cried. The people cried, but the buckets didn’t work and in the end he gathered their tears in tiny test tubes instead.

He found that the tears people cried when they were upset contained extra substances, which weren’t in the tears caused by the onions. So he thinks maybe we feel better because we get rid of these substances by crying and that this is the purpose of tears.

But not everyone agrees. Many psychologists think that the reason we cry is to let other people know that we need their sympathy or help. So crying, provided we really mean it, brings comfort because people are nice to us.

Crying when we’re happy is a bit more of a mystery, but strong emotions have a lot in common, whether happy or sad, so they seem to trigger some of the same processes in the body.

(For a deeper dive into the biological mystery of crying, see the science of sobbing and emotional tearing.)

Joshua Foer, who knows a thing or two about superhuman memory and the limits of our mind, explains to 9-year-old Tom how the brain can store so much information despite being that small:

An adult’s brain only weighs about 1.4 kilograms, but it’s made up of about 100 billion microscopic neurons. Each of those neurons looks like a tiny branching tree, whose limbs reach out and touch other neurons. In fact, each neuron can make between 5,000 and 10,000 connections with other neurons — sometimes even more. That’s more than 500 trillion connections! A memory is essentially a pattern of connections between neurons.

Every sensation that you remember, every thought that you think, transforms your brain by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, you will have created a new memory, which means your brain will have physically changed.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, who has previously studied why our brains are wired for optimism, answers 8-year-old Maia’s question about why we don’t have memories from the time we were babies and toddlers:

We use our brain for memory. In the first few years of our lives, our brain grows and changes a lot, just like the rest of our body. Scientists think that because the parts of our brain that are important for memory have not fully developed when we are babies, we are unable to store memories in the same way that we do when we are older.

Also, when we are very young we do not know how to speak. This makes it difficult to keep events in your mind and remember them later, because we use language to remember what happened in the past.

In answering 8-year-old Hannah’s question about what newspapers do when there is no news, writer and journalist Oliver Burkeman, author of the excellent The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, offers a primer on media literacy — an important caveat on news that even we, as alleged grown-ups, frequently forget:

Newspapers don’t really go out and find the news: they decide what gets to count as news. The same goes for television and radio. And you might disagree with their decisions! (For example, journalists are often accused of focusing on bad news and ignoring the good, making the world seem worse than it is.)

The important thing to remember, whenever you’re reading or watching the news, is that someone decided to tell you those things, while leaving out other things. They’re presenting one particular view of the world — not the only one. There’s always another side to the story.

And my answer, to 9-year-old Ottilie’s question about why we have books:

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, know how the world works, and, in the process, know ourselves more deeply in a way that has nothing to with what you read them on and everything to do with the curiosity, integrity and creative restlessness you bring to them.

Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.

And though the body and form of the book will continue to evolve, its heart and soul never will. Though the telescope might change, the cosmic truths it invites you to peer into remain eternal like the Universe.

In many ways, books are the original internet — each fact, each story, each new bit of information can be a hyperlink to another book, another idea, another gateway into the endlessly whimsical rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit — because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.

Originally featured in November — read more here.

6. LITTLE BOY BROWN

“I didn’t feel alone in the Lonely Crowd,” young Italo Calvino wrote of his visit to America, and it is frequently argued that hardly any place embodies the “Lonely Crowd” better than New York, city of “avoid-eye-contact indifference of the crowded subways.” That, perhaps, is what children’s book writer Isobel Harris set out to both affirm and decondition in Little Boy Brown (public library) — a magnificent ode to childhood and loneliness, easily the greatest ode to childhood and loneliness ever written, illustrated by the famed Hungarian-born French cartoonist and graphic designer André François. Originally published in 1949, this timeless story that stirred the hearts of generations has been newly resurrected by Enchanted Lion.

This is the story of a four-year-old boy living with his well-to-do mother and father in a Manhattan hotel, in which the elevator connects straight to the subway tunnel below the building and plugs right into the heart of the city. And yet Little Boy Brown, whose sole friends are the doormen and elevator operators, feels woefully lonely — until, one day, his hotel chambermaid Hilda invites him to visit her house outside the city, where he blossoms into a new sense of belonging.

Underpinning the charming tale of innocence and children’s inborn benevolence is a heartwarming message about connection across the lines of social class and bridging the gaps of privilege with simple human kindness.

Hilda’s mother kissed me before she even knew who I was!

[…]

Hilda’s family is smarter than we are. They can all speak two different languages, and they can close their eyes and think about two different countries. They’ve been on the Ocean, and they’ve climbed high mountains. They haven’t got quite enough of anything. It makes it exciting when a little more comes!

The story itself, at once a romantic time-capsule of a bygone New York and a timeless meditation on what it’s like feel so lonesome in a crowd of millions, invites us to explore the tender intersection of loneliness and loveliness. François, who studied with Picasso, illustrated a number of iconic New Yorker covers, and belongs to the same coterie of influential mid-century creative legends as Sir Quentin Blake, Tomi Ungerer, and his close friend and collaborator of Ronald Searle, brings all this wonderful dimensionality to life in his singular illustrations, all the more special given that this was his first children’s book.

Originally featured in November — see more here.

7. THE MIGHTY LALOUCHE

The more you win, the more you win, the science of the “winner effect” tells us. The same interplay of biochemistry, psychology and performance thus also holds true of the opposite — but perhaps this is why we love a good underdog story, those unlikely tales of assumed “losers” beating the odds to triumph as “winners.” Stories like this are fundamental to our cultural mythology of ambition and anything-is-possible aspiration, and they speak most powerfully to our young and hopeful selves, to our inner underdogs, to the child who dreams of defeating her bully in blazing glory.

That ever-alluring parable is at the heart of The Mighty Lalouche (public library), written by Matthew Olshan, who famously reimagined Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with an all-girl cast of characters, and illustrated by the inimitable Sophie Blackall, one of the most extraordinary book artists working today, who has previously given us such gems as her drawings of Craigslist missed connections and Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book. It tells the heartening story of a humble and lithe early-twentieth-century French postman named Lalouche, his profound affection for his pet finch Geneviève, and his surprising success in the era’s favorite sport of la boxe française, or French boxing.

One day, at the height of Parisians’ infatuation with the novelty of electric cars, Lalouche’s boss at the post office informs him that a new electric autocar is replacing all walking postmen, who are too slow by comparison. Desperate to provide for himself and Geneviève, Lalouche sees a flyer offering cash to any sparring partners willing to fight the champions at the Bastille Boxing Club. Though Lalouche is small and “rather bony,” his hands are nimble and strong from handling weighty packages, and his feet are fast from racing up apartment stairs in his deliveries — so he signs up.

One should never underestimate a man who loves his finch.

Thanks to his agility and love for the birdie, to everyone’s astonishment, he goes on to defeat each of the champions in turn — even the formidable Anaconda, “the biggest, baddest beast the city has ever seen,” infamous for his deadly sleeper hold. But when the postal service chief realizes the autocar is just a gimmick good for nothing and asks whether Lalouche is willing to take his job back, the tiny champ gladly agrees, for his heart is in the joy he brings people as their mail arrives.

Underpinning the simple allegory of unlikely triumph is a deeper reflection on our present-day anxieties about whether or not machines — gadgets, robots, algorithms — will replace us. The story gently assuring us that the most quintessential of human qualities and capacities — courage, integrity, love — will always remain ours and ours alone.

But what makes the book particularly exceptional are the curious archival images uncovered in the research, presented here exclusively alongside the soulful and expressive illustrations Blackall reincarnated them into:

Boxer trading cards, 1895

Boxer pose II, early 1900s

Three boxers, early 1900s

Originally featured n May — see more here.

8. GOBBLE YOU UP

For nearly two decades, independent India-based publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a collective of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautiful books based on regional folk traditions, producing such gems as Waterlife, The Night Life of Trees, and Drawing from the City. A year after I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail — one of the best art books of 2012, a magnificent 17th-century British “trick” poem adapted in a die-cut narrative and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe — comes Gobble You Up (public library), an oral Rajasthani trickster tale adapted as a cumulative rhyme in a mesmerizing handmade treasure released in a limited edition of 7,000 numbered handmade copies, illustrated by artist Sunita and silkscreened by hand in two colors on beautifully coarse kraft paper custom-made for the project. What makes it especially extraordinary, however, is that the Mandna tradition of tribal finger-painting — an ancient Indian art form practiced only by women and passed down from mother to daughter across the generations, created by soaking pieces of cloth in chalk and lime paste, which the artist squeezes through her fingers into delicate lines on the mud walls of village huts — has never before been used to tell a children’s story.

And what a story it is: A cunning jackal who decides to spare himself the effort of hunting for food by tricking his fellow forest creatures into being gobbled up whole, beginning with his friend the crane; he slyly swallows them one by one, until the whole menagerie fills his belly — a play on the classic Meena motif of the pregnant animal depicted with a baby inside its belly, reflecting the mother-daughter genesis of the ancient art tradition itself.

Indeed, Sunita herself was taught to paint by her mother and older sister — but unlike most Meena women, who don’t usually leave the confines of their village and thus contain their art within their community, Sunita has thankfully ventured into the wider world, offering us a portal into this age-old wonderland of art and storytelling.

Gita Wolf, Tara’s visionary founder, who envisioned the project and wrote the cumulative rhyme, describes the challenges of adapting this ephemeral, living art form onto the printed page without losing any of its expressive aliveness:

Illustrating the story in the Meena style of art involved two kinds of movement. The first was to build a visual narrative sequencing from a tradition which favored single, static images. The second challenge was to keep the quality of the wall art, while transferring it to a different, while also smaller, surface. We decided on using large sheets of brown paper, with Sunita squeezing diluted white acrylic paint through her fingers.

Originally featured in October — see more here.

9. BALLAD

The best, most enchanting stories live somewhere between the creative nourishment of our daydreams and the dark allure of our nightmares. That’s exactly where beloved French graphic artist Blexbolex transports us in Ballad (public library) — his exquisite and enthralling follow-up to People, one of the best illustrated books of 2011, and Seasons.

This continuously evolving story traces a child’s perception of his surroundings as he walks home from school. It unfolds over seven sequences across 280 glorious pages and has an almost mathematical beauty to it as each sequence exponentially blossoms into the next: We begin with school, path, and home; we progress to school, street, path, forest, home; before we know it, there’s a witch, a stranger, a sorcerer, a hot air balloon, and a kidnapped queen. All throughout, we’re invited to reimagine the narrative as we absorb the growing complexity of the world — a beautiful allegory for our walk through life itself.

The frontispiece makes a simple and alluring promise:

It’s a story as old as the world — a story that begins all over again each day.

The dark whimsy of Blexbolex’s unusual visual storytelling sings to us a ballad of danger and delight, serenading with the enchantment of fairy tales, the starkness of graphic novels, and the liberation of choose-your-own-adventure stories. And this is precisely where Blexbolex’s singular talent springs to life: Trained as a painter in the 1980s but having left art school to find himself as a silk-screen artist, he blends the charisma of vintage graphic design and traditional printing techniques with the dynamic mesmerism of contemporary graphic novels and experimental narratives to create an entirely new, wholly different form of bewitching visual storytelling, where a few carefully chosen words invite perpetual reinterpretation of layered and expressive scenes.

Originally featured in October — see more here.

10. THE DARK

Daniel Handler — beloved author, timelessly heartening literary jukeboxer — is perhaps better-known by his pen name Lemony Snicket, under which he pens his endlessly delightful children’s books. In fact, they owe much of their charisma to the remarkable creative collaborations Snicket spawns, from 13 Words illustrated by the inimitable Maira Kalman to Who Could It Be At This Hour? with artwork by celebrated cartoonist Seth. Snicket’s 2013 gem, reminiscent in spirit of Maya Angelou’s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, is at least as exciting — a minimalist yet magnificently expressive story about a universal childhood fear, titled The Dark (public library) and illustrated by none other than Jon Klassen.

In a conversation with NPR, Handler echoes Aung San Suu Kyi’s timeless wisdom on freedom from fear and articulates the deeper, more universal essence of the book’s message:

I think books that are meant to be read in the nighttime ought to confront the very fears that we’re trying to think about. And I think that a young reader of The Dark will encounter a story about a boy who makes new peace with a fear, rather than a story that ignores whatever troubles are lurking in the corners of our minds when we go to sleep.

Originally featured in June.

11. JANE, THE FOX AND ME

“Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality,” Nora Ephron wrote. “If I can’t stand the world I just curl up with a book, and it’s like a little spaceship that takes me away from everything,” Susan Sontag told an interviewer, articulating an experience at once so common and so deeply personal to all of us who have ever taken refuge from the world in the pages of a book and the words of a beloved author. It’s precisely this experience that comes vibrantly alive in Jane, the Fox, and Me (public library) — a stunningly illustrated graphic novel about a young girl named Hélène, who, cruelly teased by the “mean girls” clique at school, finds refuge in Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane, she sees both a kindred spirit and aspirational substance of character, one straddling the boundary between vulnerability and strength with remarkable grace — just the quality of heart and mind she needs as she confronts the common and heartbreaking trials of teenage girls tormented by bullying, by concerns over their emerging womanly shape, and by the soul-shattering feeling of longing for acceptance yet receiving none.

Written by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault — the artist behind the magnificent Virginia Wolf, one of the best children’s books of 2012 — this masterpiece of storytelling is as emotionally honest and psychologically insightful as it is graphically stunning. What makes the visual narrative especially enchanting is that Hélène’s black-and-white world of daily sorrow springs to life in full color whenever she escapes with Brönte.

Originally featured in November — see more here.

12. MY FIRST KAFKA

Sylvia Plath believed it was never too early to dip children’s toes in the vast body of literature. But to plunge straight into Kafka? Why not, which is precisely what Brooklyn-based writer and videogame designer Matthue Roth has done in My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs (public library) — a magnificent adaptation of Kafka for kids. With stunning black-and-white illustrations by London-based fine artist Rohan Daniel Eason, this gem falls — rises, rather — somewhere between Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and the Graphic Canon series.

The idea came to Roth after he accidentally started reading Kafka to his two little girls, who grew enchanted with the stories. As for the choice to adapt Kafka’s characteristically dark sensibility for children, Roth clearly subscribes to the Sendakian belief that grown-ups project their own fears onto kids, who welcome rather than dread the dark. Indeed, it’s hard not to see Sendak’s fatherly echo in Eason’s beautifully haunting black-and-white drawings.

Much like Jonathan Safran Foer used Street of Crocodiles to create his brilliant Tree of Codes literary remix and Darwin’s great-granddaughter adapted the legendary naturalist’s biography into verse, Roth scoured public domain texts and various translations of Kafka to find the perfect works for his singsong transformations: the short prose poem “Excursion into the Mountains,” the novella “The Metamorphosis,” which endures as Kafka’s best-known masterpiece, and “Josefine the Singer,” his final story.

“I don’t know!”
I cried without being heard.

“I do not know.”

If nobody comes,
then nobody comes.

I’ve done nobody any harm.
Nobody’s done me any harm.
But nobody will help me.

A pack of nobodies
would be rather fine,
on the other hand.

I’d love to go on a trip — why not? –
with a pack of nobodies.

Into the mountains, of course.
Where else?

In a way, the book — like most of Kafka’s writing — also bears the odd mesmerism of literary history’s letters and diaries, the semi-forbidden pleasure of which swells under the awareness that their writers never meant for us to read the very words we’re reading, never sought to invite us into their private worlds. Kafka wished for his entire world to remain private — he never finished any of his novels and burned the majority of his manuscripts; the rest he left with his closest friend and literary executor, Max Brod, whom he instructed to burn the remaining diaries, sketches, manuscripts, and letters. It was out of love that Brod chose not to, possibly displeasing his friend but eternally pleasing the literary public.

Originally featured in July — see more here.

13. MY FATHER’S ARMS ARE A BOAT

The finest children’s books have a way of exploring complex, universal themes through elegant simplicity and breathless beauty. From my friends at Enchanted Lion, collaborators on Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls and makers of some of the most extraordinary picture-books you’ll ever encounter, comes My Father’s Arms Are a Boat (public library) by writer Stein Erik Lunde and illustrator Øyvind Torseter. This tender and heartening Norwegian gem tells the story of an anxious young boy who climbs into his father’s arms seeking comfort on a cold sleepless night. The two step outside into the winter wonderland as the boy asks questions about the red birds in the spruce tree to be cut down the next morning, about the fox out hunting, about why his mother will never wake up again. With his warm and assuring answers, the father watches his son make sense of this strange world of ours where love and loss go hand in hand.

Lunde, who also writes lyrics and has translated Bob Dylan into Norwegian, is a masterful storyteller who unfolds incredible richness in few words. Meanwhile, Torseter’s exquisite 2D/3D style combining illustration and paper sculpture, reminiscent of Soyeon Kim’s wonderful You Are Stardust, envelops the story in a sheath of delicate whimsy.

Above all, My Father’s Arms Are a Boat is about the quiet way in which boundless love and unconditional assurance can lift even the most pensive of spirits from the sinkhole of existential anxiety.

Originally featured in April.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by legendary graphic designer Chip Kidd, Night Light by New York Times art director and illustrator Nicholas Blechman, and Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Caldecott Honor artist Peter Brown.

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