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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

29 DECEMBER, 2014

Pioneering Children’s Book Author, Artist, and Early Twentieth-Century Female Entrepreneur Wanda Gág Reimagines the Brothers Grimm

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A visionary take on classic stories that continue to give us “a tingling, anything-may-happen feeling… the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear.”

Although the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have a long history of creative reimaginings — from quirky vintage interpretations by David Hockney in 1970 and Edward Gorey in 1973 to recent gems like Andrea Dezsö’s enchanting black-and-white illustrations and Neil Gaiman’s wonderful retelling of Hansel and Gretel — few have been as pivotal in the creative history as those by pioneering artist, author, printmaker, and translator Wanda Gág (March 11, 1893–June 27, 1946).

By the time she turned to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm in 1936, Gág — who would go on to be a major influence for such storytelling legends as Maurice Sendak — was already an icon in her own right. By her early twenties, she was one of only twelve young artists in the entire United States to receive a scholarship to New York’s legendary Art Students League, at the time the country’s most important art school. She was soon making a living as a successful commercial artist, supporting herself by illustrating fashion magazines and painting lampshades, and even became a partner in a toy company.

But if being a financially independent young woman and female entrepreneur in the early 20th century wasn’t already daring enough, in 1923 Gág — who had just been given a one-woman exhibition by the New York Public Library, more than twenty years before Georgia O’Keeffe’s MoMA retrospective prompted the press to hail her as America’s first female artist — decided to give up commercial illustration and try making a living solely by her art. She moved to an abandoned farm in Connecticut and began to paint for her own pleasure, eventually turning to children’s storytelling. Her 1928 book Millions of Cats, which predated the internet’s favorite meme by many decades and earned Gág the prestigious Newbery Honor and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, is the oldest American picture-book still in print and has been translated into multiple languages, including Braille.

But it was her visionary 1935 picture-book Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework — Gág’s retelling of a proto-feminist folktale she learned from her Austro-Hungarian grandmother — that first sparked her interest in translating and reimagining folktales for children. The following year, she set out to translate and illustrate Tales from Grimm (public library) — a remarkable fusion of Gág’s own peasant heritage and her masterful skills as a fine artist.

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel: 'A little bird sat in a tree.'

Hansel and Gretel: 'Hansel and Gretel followed gladly enough, and all at once they found themselves in a fair flowery clearing, at the edge of which stood a tiny cottage. The children stood hand in hand and gazed at it in wonder. 'It’s the loveliest house I ever saw,' gasped Gretel, 'and it looks good enough to eat.''

In the introduction, Gág writes of her approach to these familiar stories, or Märchen, which she tells as her grandmother had told them to her over and over:

The magic of Märchen is among my earliest recollections. The dictionary definitions — tale, fable, legend — are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say, “Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I’ll read you a Märchen.” Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-may-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear…

Spindle, Shuttle and Needle

Spindle, Shuttle and Needle: 'It was just as though fairy fingers were at work.'

Gág began by reading the Grimm tales in their original German, “in order to be influenced as directly as possible by the real spirit of these stories,” and although she at first had no intention of writing her own adaptation, she felt compelled to do so once she realized a literal translation rendered only a few “practically as fresh and lively as they were in the original,” but most “thin, lifeless and clumsy.” She considers her intent to preserve the peculiar magnetism of these stories, many of which are not exclusively German and are “composed by such widely different people as peasants and scholars.” (The story of Cinderella, she points out, “exists in one form or another in the folklore of many countries, such as the English, French, Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, Serbian and Egyptian.”) Gág writes:

I hoped it might be possible — and thought it worth trying — to carry over into the English some of their intimate me-to-you quality, and that comforting solidity which makes their magic more, rather than less, believable.

The fairy world in these stories, though properly weird and strange, has a convincing, three-dimensional character. There is magic, wonder, sorcery, but no vague airy-fairyness about it. The German witches are not wispy wraiths flying in the air — they usually live in neat cottages and wear starched bonnets and spotless aprons.

Cinderella

Cinderella: 'Shake yourself, my little tree, shower shiny clothes on me.'

Cinderella

Doctor Know-It-All

The Musicians of Bremen

The Musicians of Bremen

She makes a special point of setting her adaptation apart from the then-popular simplified and sanitized versions of the originally gory Grimm tales. In a sentiment that J.R.R. Tolkien would come to second decades later in arguing that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Neil Gaiman would echo in asserting that it is inadvisable to protect children from the dark, Gág writes:

True, the careless use of large words is confusing to children; but long, even unfamiliar, words are relished and easily absorbed by them, provided they have enough color and sound-value… A certain amount of “goriness,” if presented with a playful and not too realistic touch, is accepted calmly by the average child. In this way sanguinary passages can be rendered harmless, without depriving them of their salt and vigor.

Six Servants

Six Servants

Six Servants

Six Servants: 'His way took him over a wide heath, and as he was riding along, he saw something in the distance which puzzled him. Was it a haystack? Was it a hill? He could not tell, but coming closer, he saw it was neither a hill nor a haystack. It was the big fat paunch of a big fat man who lay there on his back and gazed lazily at the sky.'

Six Servants: 'By and by they saw a pair of big feet stretched out on the ground. There were legs on the feet too, but they extended so far into the distance that it was impossible to see the full length of them. The Prince and The Fat One walked on, and now the calves, next the knees, then the thighs of those legs came into view. After a while they came to the man’s body and at last they reached his head.'

The Three Brothers

The Three Brothers: 'Then, just as the rabbit ran past them at top speed, he lathered the little animal’s chin and shaved it, leaving enough fur for a stylish pointed beard. All this time the rabbit had been running as fast as he could, and yet he wasn’t cut or hurt in any way.'

The Dragon and His Grandmother

The Dragon and His Grandmother

For all her prescience and genius, Gág makes one remark that renders itself misguided in history’s hindsight:

At fourteen I was still avidly reading fairy tales and hopefully trying out incantations; but in this sophisticated age of the movies, radio, tabloids, and mystery stories, one cannot set the fairy tale age limit over eleven or twelve.

In our era of renewed interest in fairy tales as a literary genre for grownups, it’s hard not to appreciate Gág’s advantageous imprudence — it is, after all, to the benefit of her own book that she was wrong about the age appeal if we modern grownups cherish it today. It makes one wonder, too, whether it is precisely this explosion of media — with so many more new forms since Gág’s heyday — that sparked a counterrevolutionary return to such older storytelling traditions. And it’s a comforting thought: So much is said today about the alleged death of books in the merciless hands of digital media — and yet here is one of the greatest storytellers of her era, making similar predictions about the dismal fate of her medium’s displacement by movies and radio, and being wonderfully wrong.

Clever Elsie

Clever Elsie

The Fisherman and His Wife

The Fisherman and His Wife

The Fisherman and His Wife: 'So the man stood and said, 'Wife, are you now Emperor?''

The Fisherman and His Wife: ''Wife,' said the man, and looked at her right well, 'are you now Pope?''

The Fisherman and His Wife: 'The man slept right well and soundly—he had done much running that day—but the wife could not sleep and tossed herself from one side to the other all through the night and wondered what else she could become, but could think of nothing higher. With that the sun began to rise, and as she saw the rosy dawn she leaned over one end of the bed and looked out of the window. And when she saw the sun coming up: 'Ha!' she thought, 'couldn’t I, too, make the sun and moon go up?''

Gág’s Tales from Grimm is irreplaceably and timelessly wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with the little-known first edition of the Grimm tales, then revisit Gág’s terrific Gone Is Gone and this year’s best children’s books.

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14 OCTOBER, 2014

The Best Infographics of the Year: Nate Silver on the 3 Keys to Great Information Design and the Line Between Editing and Censorship

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“More isn’t always better: no more in information design than in poetry…”

Once again this year, I was delighted to serve on the “Brain Trust” for an annual project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who culls the best, most thoughtful and illuminating infographics published each year, online and off, and invites the bearer of a sharp mind to contextualize both the individual selections and the premise of the project. Alongside the inaugural crop of infographic exemplars was David Byrne’s excellent essay on cultivating the ability to experience the “geeky rapture” of metaphorical thinking and pattern recognition. Now comes the second installment, The Best American Infographics 2014 (public library | IndieBound), with an introduction by master-statistician Nate Silver and fifty-eight examples of stellar information design shedding light on such diverse topics as the history of space exploration, the sleep habits of famous writers, the geography of where gay people stay in the closet, the comparative shapes and sizes of major baseball parks, and the social network of jazz musicians in the 1920s. (“American” is somewhat a misnomer, as many of the contributions come from artists, designers, and writers — myself included — who are not U.S. citizens and/or reside outside the country.)

Silver, the author of The Signal and the Noise, considers the two factors that make an infographic compelling — providing a window into its creator’s mind and telling a story that “couldn’t be told in any other way.” He writes:

Design has traditionally been seen as a field for “right-brained” types: those who think visually and spatially rather than with symbols like words and numbers. But modern information design is equal parts art and science, form and function, architecture and engineering. It combines the best of at least three fields of achievement: aesthetics, technology, and journalism.

By aesthetics, I mean all the usual things, but especially proportionality. For information designers, this quality is not so abstract as it might be in other mediums. Their goal is tangible: to convey as much information as possible given some set of constraints.

Silver points out that at the dawn of information design — as, for instance, in the heyday of the discipline’s little-known godfather, Fritz Kahn — these constraints were largely practical, imposed by factors like the cost of materials and the availability of physical space for printing the infographic. But with the rise of the internet, the chief constraint became the audience’s attention. Pointing to the legacy of anti-“chartjunk” crusader Edward Tufte, Silver writes:

Tufte and others have long spoken to the importance of minimalism in information design. But it proved to be more important as design was translated onto the web, where attention spans are measured in seconds and the next graphic is but a mouse-click or hand-swipe away. More isn’t always better: no more in information design than in poetry, or painting, or product design. A superfluous axis on a chart, an extra dimension of information, can distract from the focal point just as much as an extraneous word in a sonnet or an unnecessary button on a tablet. It can reduce the signal-to-noise ratio and leave the viewer less well informed.

Successful examples of information design can sometimes be highly intricate, but these cases usually involve a layered approach. The most essential elements of the graphic — the most essential parts of the story — jump out immediately.

The opening visualization, reminiscent of designer Toby Ng’s World of 100 project from several years ago, makes Silver’s point perfectly:

Who We Are

'When I was a boy in the '90s, my mother had a printout of a chain email pinned to the wall in our kitchen. It was called 'The World as 100 People,' and it was just a simple list. I never forgot it because it was a simple but clever idea—a child could understand it without knowing the concept of percentages. One day, I didn't have any other work to do and I was sitting in my studio. The idea and the method came to me very quickly. I knew that I wanted to make it round, like the world. I wanted to use colors that might remind people of flags. I made the first draft in the morning and it was on the Internet by the afternoon.' (Jack Hagley, graphic designer, London)

The storytelling aspect of the genre, meanwhile, shines brilliantly in this example from Wendy MacNaughton and Caroline Paul’s immeasurably soul-stretching Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology, one of the best books of 2013:

Lost Cat

'Our cat Tibby disappeared suddenly, and we were devastated. Then, five weeks later he returned, fat and happy. We were overjoyed he was back, but where had he gone? We decided to strap a GPS unit to his collar and find out where he spent his days.' (Caroline Paul, writer, and Wendy MacNaughton, illustrator)

Silver also speaks to the importance of editorial point of view in infographics and outlines the three essential advantages of visual storytelling over the strictly verbal:

Great works of information design are also great works of journalism.

[…]

At the core of journalism is the mission of making sense of our complex world to a broad audience. Newsrooms … place emphasis on gathering information. But they’re also in the business of organizing that information into forms like stories. Visual approaches to organizing information also tell stories, but have a number of potential advantages against purely verbal ones:

  • Approachability. Human beings have strong visual acuity. Furthermore, our visual language is often more universal than our words. Data presented in the form of an infographic can transcend barriers of class and culture. This is just as important for experts as for laypersons: a 2012 study of academic economists found that they made much more accurate statistical inferences from a graphic presentation of data than when the same information was in tabular form.
  • Transparency. The community of information designers has an ethos toward sharing their data and their code — both with one another and with readers. Well-executed examples of information design show the viewer something rather than telling her something. They can peel away the onion, build trust, and let the reader see how the conclusions are drawn.
  • Efficiency. I will not attempt to tell you how many words a picture is worth. But surely visualization is the superior medium in some cases. In trying to figure out how to get from King’s Cross to Heathrow Airport on the London Tube, would you rather listen to a fifteen-minute soliloquy from the bloke at the pub — or take a fifteen-second glance at Beck’s map?

But alongside the tremendous power of information design in making sense of the world is also a dark side of potentially equal magnitude, which Silver captures elegantly:

That information design is part and parcel of journalism also means that it inherits journalism’s burdens. If it’s sometimes easier to reveal information by means of data visualization, that can make it easier to deceive… What one journalist thinks of as organizing information, the next one might call censorship.

But it’s long past time to give information designers their place at the journalistic table. The ones you’ll see in this book are pointing the way forward and helping the rest of us see the world a little more clearly.

To my great delight, included in the volume as a large fold-out spread is also my homegrown collaboration with Italian information design team Accurat and San Francisco-based artist extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, visualizing the relationship between famous writers’ sleep habits and their literary productivity — a labor of love project years in the brewing and months in the making:

Writers, Sleep, and Productivity

An exploration of whether authors' sleep habits might affect their creative output, based on my highlights from a decade's worth of reading the diaries, letters, and autobiographies of celebrated writers. (Concept and direction by Maria Popova. Design by Accurat: Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, and Gabriele Rossi with Davide Ciufi, Federica Fragapane, and Francesco Majno. Illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton.)

In fact, Accurat is the only team with multiple entries in the volume — deservingly so. Also included is their visualization of the 100 “geniuses” of language and literature, based on Harold Bloom’s book Genius and originally published in English right here on Brain Pickings:

The Varieties of Genius

Great minds from Harold Bloom's 'Genius,' visualized according to Jewish esoteric thought. (Davide Ciufi, Federica Fragapane, and Francesco Majno, Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, Gabriele Rossi)

As both a lover of unusual twists on Harry Beck’s classic London Tube map and someone infinitely fascinated by synesthesia, I was particularly taken with this synesthetic taste map of London:

Underground Taste Map

A synesthesia tour of London: 'This map is a graphic representation of each of the tastes and textures I experience as I travel around deep beneath the streets of London. I have synesthesia, a neurological trait that blends or mixes my sense of sound and sight with my sense of taste. Every time I stop at or pass through a Tube station on the London Underground subway system, I experience an involuntary taste and texture, a real mouthfeel, specific to that particular station name. Over five decades I visited every station on the network and made a note of the tastes and textures specific to each station name. The journey began in January 1964 at Dollis Hill, and reached the end of the line at Woolwich Arsenal in August 2013.' (James Wannerton, president of the UK Synesthesia Association)

One piece calls to mind, rather viscerally, C.S. Lewis’s prescient assertion that “it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail.”

Email: Not Dead, Evolving

Accompanying a Harvard Business Review article, this infographic visualizes survey data indicating that three-quarters of all email is junk, and that we're wasting a great deal of time answering minutia. (Bonnie Scranton, artist, James de Vries, creative director, Scott Berinato, senior editor, and Christina Bortz, articles editor, at the Harvard Business Review)

Another favorite comes from Taschen’s altogether excellent book Jazz: New York in the Roaring Twenties:

Social Network of Jazz in 1920s New York City

For each of these 24 leading jazz musicians working in New York during the Roaring Twenties, the size of the silhouette depicts the number of recording sessions by that musician during his or her lifetime. The connecting lines show joint recording sessions — a sort of sociogram of Gotham's jazz scene. (Idea, research, illustration and design by Robert Nippoldt; additional design by Christine Goppel and Tobias Glasmacher; research by the Bavarian Jazz Institute's Sylke Mehrbold.)

One of the most quietly piercing visualizations in the volume juxtaposes its soft, elegant imagery with its hard, ghastly subject. London-based multidisciplinary artist and author Valentina D’Efilippo explores the casualties of twentieth-century via poppies — a flower used to commemorate soldiers who perished at war — in a breath-stopping piece titled Fields of Commemoration, part of her book The Infographic History of the World:

Fields of Commemoration

Each poppy depicts a war in the 20th century, growing from the year the war started and blooming above the year it ended. The size of the blossom reflects the number of deaths—95 million in total over the course of the century. (Valentina D'Efilippo)

Among the most fiercely original contributions is designer Kelli Anderson’s ingenious Existential Calculator:

Existential Calculator

'A hand-held interactive infographic decision-making tool that helps the reader decide whether or not to take a job. It organizes the spectrum of possible work outcomes—from pleasurable to spiritually degrading, from well-paying to debt-enhancing, from exciting to 'meh'—and shows where the reader is likely to land, based on what they tell it about the potential job.' (Kelli Anderson)

Many more masterworks of information design, as well as a broader lens of what makes them so, can be found in The Best American Infographics 2014. Complement it with David Byrne on how to be an educated consumer of infographics, then take a trip back to 1930s Germany, where it all began.

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20 MARCH, 2014

Neil Gaiman on Why Scary Stories Appeal to Us, the Art of Fear in Children’s Books, and the Most Terrifying Ghosts Haunting Society

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“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.”

Neil Gaiman — prolific author, champion of the creative life, disciplined writer, sage of literature — is one of the greatest storytellers of our time. At TED 2014 in Vancouver, he hosted a semi-secret late-night event where he read a ghost story and a brilliant short essay titled “Ghost in the Machine,” contemplating the psychology of why scary stories speak to us so powerfully, followed by a brief Q&A. With Gaiman’s permission, here is his beautiful reading of a beautiful thought-piece. Special thanks to two friends: WNYC producer extraordinaire Alex Goldmark, who kindly helped edit the audio I recorded, and Gaiman’s better half, the amazing Amanda Palmer (yes, her). Please enjoy — transcribed highlights below.

Why tell ghost stories? Why read them or listen to them? Why take such pleasure in tales that have no purpose but, comfortably, to scare?

I don’t know. Not really. It goes way back. We have ghost stories from ancient Egypt, after all, ghost stories in the Bible, classical ghost stories from Rome (along with werewolves, cases of demonic possession and, of course, over and over, witches). We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive.

Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.

And this time of year is best for a haunting, as even the most prosaic things cast the most disquieting shadows.

The things that haunt us can be tiny things: a Web page; a voicemail message; an article in a newspaper, perhaps, by an English writer, remembering Halloweens long gone and skeletal trees and winding lanes and darkness. An article containing fragments of ghost stories, and which, nonsensical although the idea has to be, nobody ever remembers reading but you, and which simply isn’t there the next time you go and look for it.

One of the things that makes Gaiman’s sensibility so singular is that he is among the few contemporary writers unafraid to explore darker psychoemotional themes in “children’s books” — I put this in quotations with the intended caveat that Tolkien so memorably articulated in asserting that there is no such thing as writing “for children”, which Maurice Sendak also expressed and which Gaiman himself has echoed. After the reading, I asked Gaiman how he relates to that adult construct of “children-appropriate” literature, in culture and in his own work:

In order for stories to work — for kids and for adults — they should scare. And you should triumph. There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary.

Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by the great Lorenzo Mattotti — the artist behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven — will be released in October and is now available for pre-order.

In responding to the final question, Gaiman considers the things that terrify him, today. His answer couldn’t have been any more poignant:

The ghosts of today that terrify me mostly are actually ideas that are uninspected and continue to haunt us. It’s like the feeling, sometimes, that you’d start talking to people and you’re going, “I don’t know if what you’re saying is true. It may have been true once, a long time ago. But it died. And you don’t know. And you’re walking around being haunted by dead ideas… Look around and see where you are today.” I think those are the ghosts that haunt me the most.

Complement with Gaiman on where ideas come from and his sage advice on the creative life.

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