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Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Darkest, Most Controversial Yet Most Hopeful Children’s Book

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A moving cry for mercy, for light, and for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of hopeless darkness.

One of Maurice Sendak‘s most misunderstood qualities, yet also arguably the very same one that rendered him one of the most innovative and influential storytellers of all time, was his deep faith in children’s resilience and his unflinching refusal to allow the fears and self-censorship of grownups to sugarcoat the world for children, who he believed possess enormous emotional intelligence in processing the dark — an evolution of Tolkien’s assertion that there is no such thing as writing “for children,” which Sendak echoed in his final interview, indignantly telling Stephen Colbert: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!'”

But while many of Sendak’s books have been deemed controversial precisely out of this misunderstanding, from the banning of In the Night Kitchen to the outrage over his sensual illustrations of Melville, no book of his has drawn a thicker cloud of controversy than the 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (public library) — an unusual fusion of two traditional Mother Goose nursery rhymes, “In the Dumps” and “Jack and Gye,” reimagined and interpreted by Sendak’s singular sensibility, with enormously rich cultural and personal subtext.

Created at the piercing pinnacle of the AIDS plague and amid an epidemic of homelessness, it is a highly symbolic, sensitive tale that reads almost like a cry for mercy, for light, for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of incomprehensible heartbreak and grimness. It is, above all, a living monument to hope — one built not on the denial of hopelessness but on its delicate demolition.

On a most basic level, the story follows a famished black baby, part of a clan of homeless children dressed in newspaper and living in boxes, kidnapped by a gang of giant rats. Jack and Guy, who are strolling nearby and first brush the homeless kids off, witness the kidnapping and set out to rescue the boy. But the rats challenge them to a rigged game of bridge, with the child as the prize. After a series of challenges that play out across a number of scary scenes, Jack and Guy emerge victorious and save the boy with the help of the omniscient Moon and a mighty white cat that chases the rats away.

But the book’s true magic lies in its integration of Sendak’s many identities — the son of Holocaust survivors, a gay man witnessing the devastation of AIDS, a deft juggler of darkness and light.

St. Paul’s Bakery and Orphanage, where the story is set, is a horrible place reminiscent of Auschwitz. In the game of bridge, “diamonds are trumps,” a phrase with a poignant double meaning, subtly implicating the avarice of the world’s diamond-slingers and Donald Trumps in the systemic social malady of homelessness — something reflected in the clever wordplay of the book’s title itself, suggesting that homelessness isn’t limited to the homeless but is a problem we’re all in together, equally responsible for its solution.

Jack and Guy appear like a gay couple, and their triumph in rescuing the child resembles an adoption, two decades before that was an acceptable subject for a children’s book. “And we’ll bring him up / As other folk do,” the final pages read — and, once again, a double meaning reveals itself as two characters are depicted with wings on their backs, lifting off into the sky, lending the phrase “we’ll bring him up” an aura of salvation. In the end, the three curl up as a makeshift family amidst a world that is still vastly imperfect but full of love.

We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are thumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Without walls

Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do

In many ways, this is Sendak’s most important and most personal book. In fact, Sendak would resurrect the characters of Jack and Guy two decades later in his breathtaking final book, a posthumously published love letter to the world and to his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. Jack and Guy, according to playwright Tony Kushner, a dear friend of Sendak’s, represented the two most important people in the beloved illustrator’s life — Jack was his real-life brother Jack, whose death devastated Sendak, and Guy was Eugene, the love of Sendak’s life, who survived him after half a century of what would have been given the legal dignity of a marriage had Sendak lived to see the dawn of marriage equality. (Sendak died thirteen months before the defeat of DOMA.)

All throughout, the book emanates Sendak’s greatest lifelong influence — like the verses and drawings of William Blake, Sendak’s visual poetry in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is deeply concerned with the human spirit and, especially, with the plight of children.

Complement this many-layered gem with more of Sendak’s lesser-known work, including his beautiful posters celebrating the joy of reading, his unreleased drawings, his formative, rare vintage illustrations for William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and his provocative art for Melville’s Pierre.

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05 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Book of Miracles: Rare Medieval Illustrations of Magical Thinking

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A visual record of humanity’s most eternal fears and our immutable longing for grace, mercy, and the miraculous.

In 1552, a curious and lavishly illustrated manuscript titled Augsburg Book of Miraculous Signs appeared in the Swabian Imperial Free City of Augsburg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, located in present-day Germany. It exorcised, in remarkable detail and wildly imaginative artwork, Medieval Europe’s growing obsession with signs sent from “God” — a testament to the basic human propensity for magical thinking, with which we often explain feelings and phenomena beyond the grasp of our logic. This unusual Roman manuscript was recently discovered and published for the first time as The Book of Miracles (public library) — a sumptuous box-sized trilingual tome in English, French, and German, produced in Taschen‘s typical fashion of pleasurable aesthetic bombast. Somewhere between Salvador Dalí’s illustrations of Montaigne, the weird and wonderful Codex Seraphinianus, and the visual history of Gotham’s imaginary apocalypse, the book is a singular shrine to some of the most eternal of human hopes and fears, and, above all, our immutable longing for grace, for mercy, for the miraculous.

What makes the book particularly notable is that its vibrant artwork, while strikingly beautiful, also illustrates religion’s heavy reliance on magical thinking. The word “religion” itself originates in the Latin for “binding together,” suggesting a sense not only of creating community but also of bridging complex things we don’t understand with simple ideas we do, via storytelling — something Carl Sagan famously explored.

The manuscript also offers a record of how word-of-mouth propagates the building blocks of belief and, eventually, the belief itself — the history of miracle-sighting is essentially a history of media, as “wonders” were first transmitted via regular letter correspondence and became a news item after the surge in broadsheets and pamphlets made possible by the invention of the Gutenberg press.

Complement the formidable Book of Miracles with other Taschen masterworks of visual delight and cultural history, including the best illustrations from 150 years of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, the life and legacy of infographics godfather Fritz Kahn, a Victorian reimagining of Euclid’s elements, and the visual history of magic.

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book: Grown-up Advice on Modern Life from Vintage Children’s Books

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A charming compendium of little reminders about what it takes to live a happy and fulfilling life today.

As an enormous lover of vintage children’s books, I was instantly smitten with Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book (public library) — a semi-serious, playful and practical guide to life culling wisdom for modern grown-ups from the iconic Little Golden Books series of mid-century children’s books. From mental and physical health to money to relationships, this charming compendium captions and reframes vibrant vintage illustrations — many by artists whose talent was cultivated under legendary children’s book champion Ursula Nordstrom’s magnanimous wing — as little reminders about what it takes to live a happy and fulfilling life today.

The project is in many ways an organic extension of the Little Golden Book ethos, which has sustained generations through troubled times with creative nourishment for young souls. This compendium offers heartening solace for those weary of the hardships our world is currently facing. Diane Muldrow, longtime editor of the beloved children’s series, writes in the introduction:

We’ve been forced to look at ourselves and how we’re living our lives. Ironically, in this health-conscious, ecologically aware age of information, many of us have overborrowed, overspent, overeaten, and generally overdosed on habits or ways of life that aren’t good for us — or for our world. The chickens have come home to roost, and their names are Debt, Depression, and Diabetes.

How did we get here? How, like Tootle the Train, did we get so off track? Perhaps it’s time to revisit these beloved stories and start all over again. Trying to figure out where you belong, like Scuffy the Tugboat? Maybe, as time marches on, you’re beginning to feel that you resemble the Saggy Baggy Elephant.

Or perhaps your problems are more sweeping. Like the Poky Little Puppy, do you seem to be getting into trouble rather often and missing out on the strawberry shortcake in life? Maybe this book can help you! After all, Little Golden Books were first published during the dark days of World War II, and they’ve been comforting people during trying times ever since — while gently teaching us a thing or two. And they remind us that we’ve had the potential to be wise and content all along.

From 'Circus Time' by Marion Conger, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, 1948

From 'The Seven Sneezes' by Olga Cabral, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, 1948

From 'Duck and His Friends' by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, illustrated by Richard Scarry, 1949

From 'Animal Gym' by Beth Greiner Hoffman, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, 1956

From 'I Can Fly' by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Mary Blair, 1951

From 'The Friendly Book' by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Garth Williams, 1954

From 'The Three Bears,' illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky, 1948

From 'The Color Kittens' by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, 1949

From 'Tawny Scrawny Lion' by Kathryn Jackson, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, 1952

From 'The Little Red Hen,' illustrated by J. P. Miller, 1954

From 'The Musicians of Bremen,' adapted from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, illustrated by J. P. Miller, 1954

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book is an absolute delight. Complement it with some actual Golden Books, including I Can Fly by the great Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Disney’s Mary Blair, a lovely adaptation of Homer for young readers by creative power duo Alice and Martin Provensen, and perhaps the best of the bunch, The Little Golden Book of Words.

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