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21 NOVEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Illustrated Children’s and Picture Books of 2011

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From evil stepmothers to Edward Gorey, or what Richard Dawkins has to do with Hindu deities.

It’s that time of year, the time I turn around and start sifting through the year behind with my best-of fine tooth comb in an exercise of meta-meta-curation. Having a well-documented soft spot for children’s books, I’ve decided to begin with my favorite 2011 treats for young readers, ranging from the classic to the quirky to the impossibly charming. Enjoy — you might find it hard not to feel like you want to be a kid again.

THE FAIRY TALES OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register for the preservation of cultural documents, have been delighting and terrifying children since 1812, transfixing generations of parents, psychologists, and academics. The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm is an astounding new volume from Taschen editor Noel Daniel bringing together the best illustrations from 130 years of The Brothers Grimm with 27 of the most beloved Grimm stories, including Cinderella, Snow White, The Little Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty, amidst artwork by some of the most celebrated illustrators from Germany, Britain, Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and the United States working between the 1820s and 1950s.

The new translation is based on the final 1857 edition of the tales, and stunning silhouettes from original publications from the 1870s and 1920s grace the tome’s pages, alongside brand new silhouettes created bespoke for this remarkable new volume.

An introduction by Daniel explores the Grimms’ enduring legacy, from the DNA of fairy-tale scholarship to the shadow play and shape-shifting at the heart of the stories, and a preface to each tale frames it in its historical and sociocultural context.

The Grimms’ were a vital engine for a whole new caliber of artistic activity […] Suddenly, artists across the Western world could make a living illustrating books, and they found a solid foundation for new work in the heroes and princesses, talking animals, dwarfs, and witches of fairy tales. The tales were an important part of each technological advancement along the way, and the best of this visual iconography still influences artist, art directors, filmmakers, and animators today […] Even as our modes of reading continue to change with new technologies, taking a measure of the interactivity of text and image in past treasures helps us understand the changing landscape of reading in the future.”

And in case you were wondering why Taschen, purveyors of high-end and often risque art and design books, are doing a children’s book, they’ve got a thoughtful answer:

Taschen recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. We have many readers who have come of age with us and are now have their own families. These readers are interested in beautifully produced children’s books that take seriously a child’s exposure to stories and images with depth and historical meaning. We wanted The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm to embody our mission to create meaningful books that are timeless yet original, modern but classic.”

Full review, with more images, here.

I LIKE CATS

Earlier this year, we featured The Night Life of Trees — an incredible handmade book based on Indian mythology, crafted by a commune of artists, designers and writers in South Indian independent publisher Tara Books’ fair-trade workshop in Chennai. Among Tara’s many other treats is the exceptional I Like Cats — part lovely children’s picture book, part priceless showcase of work by some of the best-known tribal and folk artists from various Indian traditions. Each rich, textured page is screen-printed by hand and features a different cat. (In the vein of this week’s inadvertent running theme of cats — as a piece of Edison’s marketing genius, a key to the future of computing, and now an ambassador of Indian artisanal culture.)

Alongside the images are simple but clever verses of author Anushka Ravishankar for a light touch of playful poetry.

As if the book itself wasn’t enough of a jewel, each copy comes with a frameable screenprint.

Like other Tara Books gems, I Like Cats comes in several limited-edition runs of 2000 copies, each hand-numbered on the back and featuring a different artwork on the front cover.

Original review here.

UPDATE: I Like Cats is now sold out in the U.S. — the fine folks at Tara have put together an offset version in its stead.

STUCK

Who doesn’t love Oliver Jeffers, illustrator extraordinaire and maker of favorite children’s books? This season, he’s back with another treat: Stuck, an absurdly funny “tale of trying to solve a problem by throwing things at it.”

And as with all of Jeffers’ books, buried in his childlike illustrations and light-hearted storytelling is a deeper metaphor for the blessings and curses of the human condition.

In this lovely trailer, Jeffers reads the book himself:

via Swiss Miss

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

The Phantom Tollbooth isn’t merely one of the most celebrated children’s books of all time, it’s also one of those rare children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, its map of The Kingdom of Wisdom a profound metaphor for curiosity and the human condition. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beloved classic and there’s hardly a better celebration than The Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition — a magnificent volume featuring brief essays from renowned authors, educators, and artists, including Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, Jeanne Birdsall, and Mo Willems, alongside the complete original text and illustrations of the book and the now-legendary 35th anniversary essay by Where The Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak.

Packaged in the classic original art, stamped and debossed on the case with a transparent acetate jacket, the book is an absolute treasure to touch and to hold, exuding in a tactile way the intangible magic that fueled a half-century of heart-warming enchantment.

Here’s a lovely short documentary about the book’s masterminds, author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer, reminiscing about the unusual spark of their collaboration and the original creative process behind the work:

Juster’s new picture book, Neville, is also out this year and absolutely delightful.

PEOPLE

From French illustrator Blexbolex — whose poetic meditation on time, impermanence and the seasons you might recall from earlier this month — comes People, a continued exploration of the world building on Seasons. Each charmingly matte and papery double-page spread features a full-bleed illustrated vignette that captures the human condition in its diversity, richness and paradoxes. From mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies, Blexbolex’s signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing.

People, available in English for the first time, is part Mark Laita’s Created Equal, part Guess Who?: The Many Faces of Noma Bar, part something entirely new and entirely delightful, certain to make you smile, make you think, and make you wish you were a snake charmer.

Original review, with trailer, here.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

EVERY THING ON IT

Shel Silverstein is one of the most beloved children’s authors and illustrators of our time, his masterpiece The Giving Tree one of those rare gems of children’s literature with timeless philosophy for grown-ups.

Every Thing On It is a lovely new book of 137 never-before-seen poems and drawings, only the second posthumous anthology published since Silverstein’s passing in 1999. (We originally featured it the day it launched, alongside a rare 1973 animated adaptation of The Giving Tree narrated by Silverstein himself.)

A spider lives inside my head
Who weaves a strange and wondrous web
Of silken threads and silver strings
To catch all sorts of flying things,
Like crumbs of thought and bits of smiles
And specks of dried-up tears,
And dust of dreams that catch and cling
For years and years and years . . .

THE MAGIC OF REALITY

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — who in 1976 famously coined the term “meme” in his seminal, must-read book The Selfish Gene — is nowadays best-known as the world’s most celebrated atheist. This year, Dawkins brought us his first sort-of-children’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True — a scientific primer for the world, its magic, and its origin, teaching young readers how to replace creationist mythology with science, and a fine addition to our favorite soft-of-children’s nonfiction.

With beautiful illustrations by graphic artist Dave McKean, Dawkins’ volume is as accessible as it is illuminating, covering a remarkable spectrum of subjects and natural phenomena — from who the very first person was to how earthquakes work to what dark matter is — in a way that infuses reality with the kind of fascination and whimsy we’re used to finding in myth and folklore. Each chapter begins with a famous myth from one of the world’s religions or folklore traditions, which Dawkins proceeds to myth-bust by examining the actual scientific processes and phenomena that these stories try to explain.

Here’s an introduction from Dawkins himself:

BBC has a great short segment, in which Dawkins explores the relationship between comfort and truth, and explains why evolution is the most magical, spellbinding story of all, more poetic than any fable or fairy tale:

When you think about it, here we are, we started off on this planet — this fragment of dust spinning around the sun — and in 4 billion years we gradually changed form bacteria into us. That is a spellbinding story.” ~ Richard Dawkins

The book comes with a companion immersive iPad app.

In an age when we’re still struggling to convince the powers that be of the value of public science and some public schools still perpetuate the mythology of creationism, Dawkins delivers a sober yet wildly absorbing and magical dose of reality in The Magic of Reality — one that brings to mind Jonah Lehrer’s reformulation of the famous Picasso quote: “Every child is a natural scientist. The problem is how to remain a scientist once we grow up.”

Originally reviewed here.

THE BIG POSTER BOOK OF HINDU DEITIES

In 2006, Pixar animator Sanjay Patel self-published The Little Book of Hindu Deities — an impossibly charming illustrated almanac of gods and goddesses, which we revisited earlier this year and it quickly became one of the most popular books on Brain Pickings in 2011. (How’s that for a pick to follow Dawkins?) In August, he followed up with The Big Poster Book of Hindu Deities — not so much a “book” per se as a stunning large-format portfolio of 12 removable full-color posters, each bringing a revered ancient deity into the modern Technicolor world in Sanjay’s signature anime-inspired vibrant graphic style. Equal parts playful, iconic, and irreverently subversive, the prints are less about reinforcing religious ideology — okay, they’re actually not about that at all — than they are about exploring cultural storytelling and tradition from a fresh, unusual angel meant to delight and inspire.

Images courtesy of Sanjay Patel

GOODNIGHT IPAD

Last month, the web watched with equal parts amazement, amusement, and sheer horror as a one-year-old thought a magazine was an iPad. And just last week, while attending the Futures of Entertainment 5 summit for my MIT fellowship, I was unsurprised to learn that a presenter’s toddler cousin walked up to a TV screen and tried to “swipe” it like a giant iPad. So I find myself delighted by the release of Goodnight iPad — “a parody for the next generation” by Ann Droyd (get it?), winking at the long-gone quiet era of the Goodnight Moon classic and “adapting” it for the age of LCD WiFi HD TVs and Facebook.

Whether Goodnight iPad will go the viral way of its conceptual ilk (hey there, Go the F**k to Sleep) and become a hipster darling is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: at the heart of this irreverent nursery rhyme, still made very much of paper, is a playful reminder for all of us eternal kids that when the moon goes up, it’s not an entirely terrible idea for the power to go down.

HOW THE WORLD WORKS

Christoph Niemann, whose I LEGO N.Y. topped our favorite children’s books last year, is back this year with another gem: That’s How! — an absolutely lovely invitation to explore the inner workings of the world visually, though the pursuit of what we hold as our highest ideal for navigating life: Reckless, indiscriminate curiosity.

Playful, quirky, and irreverent, the book is a cover-to-cover treat for parents, kids, and eternal children of all ages, tickling our fancy as we imagine a whimsical alternate reality behind our worn mundanity.

Originally reviewed here.

WHY WE HAVE DAY AND NIGHT

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Edward Gorey’s, mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Eleven years after his death, Gorey still manages to charm us with his signature style of darkly delightful illustrations with Why We Have Day and Night. In three dozen beautifully minimalist black-and-white illustrations, with plenty of design-nerd-friendly negative space, Gorey and collaborator Peter F. Neumeyer illuminate young readers on the mystery of why we have darkness and light.

Gorey used this lovely envelope, part of his fascinating illustrated correspondence with Neumeyer, as the basis for the book:

The envelope, alongside 37 others, 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends between September 1968 and October 1969, can be found in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — not only the second most popular book amongst Brain Pickings readers this year, but also one of my personal all-time favorite tomes.

Images ©The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, courtesy of Pomegranate

* * *

One of the most wonderful things about great children’s books is how timeless they are — why not catch up on last year’s best?

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15 NOVEMBER, 2011

Celestial Navigations: 5 Conceptual Vintage Science Films by Al Jarnow

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Education meets entertainment in experimental animation, or what Big Bird has to do with the dawn of computing.

Last week, Jason Kottke reminded me of how much I love the vintage short films of painter, educator, museum designer, and software developer Al Jarnow. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Jarnow created short segments for PBS’s 3-2-1 Contact series, Sesame Street, and various other children’s television programs, using stop-motion, timelapse, cell animation, and other experimental at the time techniques to bring everyday objects to life and illustrate scientific concepts by blending education and entertainment. (Sound familiar?) The films are now collected in Celestial Navigations: Short Films of Al Jarnow — an absolute gem restored from the original 16mm prints, featuring remastered sound, a 30-minute documentary about Jarnow’s work, and a beautiful 60-page book.

For a taste, here are five of my favorite Jarnow films:

COSMIC CLOCK

Cosmic Clock compresses a billion years of time into two delightfully vintage animated minutes.

FACE FILM

Face Film explores human behavior through the computational operations of a typewriter, using a large canvas to tease our inability to recognize an image using incomplete data.

ARCHITECTURE

Architecture was one of Jarnow’s most elaborate and labor-intensive shoots — which makes this photo of the set getting destroyed upon completion all the more mischievously delightful.

TONDO

In Tondo, Jarnow places rectangles on grids made of meticulously measured horizon lines, then moves the camera or leaves each rectangle still for a near-impossible to achieve 3D effect. In fact, this technique is rarely used in animation precisely due to its tedious and time-consuming nature — doing away with the familiar shortcuts of cell animation, Jarnow had to come up with an entirely new kind of shortcut to fill out the 24 frames per second of traditionally projected films … in 1973.

CUBITS

In 1978, Jarnow created one of his most ambitious and groundbreaking films. Far from a mere mesmerizing meditation on the craft of animation itself, Cubits was also essentially a paper model of a computer — the cube sheet on which the film is based consists of a horizontal cubic rotation and a diagonal pan for diagonal rotation, combining these primary moves into complex rotations to explore the relationship between animation procedure and logical numerical operations.

A time-capsule of incredible visual and conceptual innovation, Celestial Navigations is the kind of cultural treasure that makes you sigh with appreciation.

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14 NOVEMBER, 2011

Animals Like You’ve Never Seen Them Before

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From armadillos to zebras, or what championship chickens have to do with a giant octopus.

It’s easy to take this amazing planet we inhabit for granted. While National Geographic‘s school of nature photography may have its place, there’s something remarkable and whimsical that happens when a fine art photographer takes her lens to Earth’s creatures — they become poetry. Today, we turn to five such photographers, whose portraits of animals — unusual, otherworldly, kooky, tender, charismatic — make the eye swoon and the heart sing.

ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: CREATURE

Andrew Zuckerman is one of my absolute favorite photographers working today, his Wisdom and Music projects priceless time-capsules of contemporary culture and his thoughts on curiosity and rigor as the key to creativity a beautiful articulation of my own credo. In Creature, Zuckerman brings his exquisite signature style, crisp yet tender, to Earth’s beings. With equal parts detail and delight, he captures the spirt of these diverse creatures, from panthers to fruit bats to bald eagles, in a way makes them seem familiar and fresh at once, and altogether breathtaking.

Asian Elephant

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Six banded armadillo

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Mandrill Monkey

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Grant's Zebra

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Common Dove

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Canary

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

African Crested Porcupine

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Blue and Yellow Macaw

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

Reticulated Giraffe

Image courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman

The project also features a companion children’s alphabet book (and we know how much I love those) titled Creature ABC. In 2008, Zuckerman followed up with the equally exquisite Bird.

TIM FLACH: DOGS

From photographer Tim Flach and Creative Review editor Lewis Blackwell comes Dogs — a series of incredibly artful, soulful portraits of man’s best friend, first featured here several months ago.

With a potent blend of playfulness and profound respect, Flach captures the remarkable diversity of dogs, both of appearance and of character, and our complex, 150-century-old relationship with them in a poetic and spellbinding visual narrative.

From shelter dogs to show-winners to dogs who sniff out explosives, the book spans an incredible range of personalities, portrayed in beautiful images generously stretched across full-bleed double-page spreads and lined with insightful commentary on everything from dog racism (did you know that there are more black dogs in shelters than any other fur color?) to historical background on how different breeds came to be and curious facts about them.

They can entertain us, protect us, teach us how to love, do what they are told, and tell us what is going to happen next. They can even extend our lives. We think we train them to do the work, but they have in turn found a way for us to provide for them. This great form that has forged so many different kinds of dog is the inspiration for this book. The result is an unprecedented insight and visualization of what dogs are and can be.”

TAMARA STAPLES: FAIREST FOWL

Humans have the beauty pageants. Dogs have the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. But who knew chickens, too, had their own line of competitive narcissism? In The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens, which you might recall, photographer Tamara Staples documents the fascinating and glamorous world of poultry fanciers and their prized barnyard beauties, from the surprisingly elaborate judging process to the distinct personalities of individual birds. Printed on appropriately lavish paper and garnished with a delicious essay by NPR’s Ira Glass illuminating the intricacies of chicken portraiture, the book is equal parts rich anthropology of a curious subculture and remarkable feat of photographic brilliance.

Chickens this amazing don’t just happen. People help them along — breed them, nurture them, take them from the humble coop to the top of the poultry world. In what’s left of rural America, there is a poultry world. And it’s bigger than you think. At a recent national competition, 12,000 birds showed up.”

In the world of championship chickens, there’s a 100-point scale, and every feature counts. […] The American Standard of Perfection is regularly linked to the Bible. Almost every breeder or judge speaks of the book in such exalted terms. The Standard exhaustively discusses every possible nuance of a show chicken, and there is little to no ambiguity between its covers.”

All images copyright Tamara Staples

SHARON MONTROSE: MENAGERIE

Fresh off the press just last week, Menagerie by photographer Sharon Montrose is a stunning collection of her most evocative images that will make you see at even the most familiar animals with equal parts astonishment, awe, and endearment.

From lambs to baby porcupines to giraffes, these tender, minimalist portraits exude a certain nakedness that makes the creatures in them appear at once more vulnerable and more relatable.

MARK LAITA: SEA

From photographer Mark Laita, whose superb “parallel portraits” of subcultures you might recall, comes Sea — a masterful piece of visual poetry that captures the creatures of the deep with equal parts cutting-edge photographic technique and imaginative whimsy to explore the extraordinary wonderland that lives beneath the surface of the world’s water. From iridescent jellyfish to playful sea horses to prepossessing but deadly puffer fish, the 104 images in the collection reveal the astounding grace, colors, and personalities of these marine characters with unprecedented artistry and passion.

North Pacific Giant Octopus

Blue Blubber Jellyfish

Golden Butterfly

Green Chromis

Humpback Anglerfish

Red Feather Starfish

Blue Spot Stingray

Miniatus Grouper

Full review, along with more images, here.

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