Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

23 APRIL, 2014

Upside Down Day: Rare and Wonderful Vintage Children’s Book by the Head of NASA’s Public Affairs Office

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An ode to those times when everything seems backwards.

In 1968, less than a year before the iconic NASA moon landing, a charming children’s book titled Upside Down Day (public library) made its debut. What made it special weren’t just the vibrant illustrations by artist Kelly Oechsli, but that it was written by Julian Scheer — the head of NASA’s Public Affairs Office, responsible for enchanting Americans with the space program. There is something immeasurably wonderful about knowing that the person in charge of tickling the public imagination into embracing the pursuit of space exploration — a pursuit subject to tragic neglect today — was himself an imaginative storyteller who knew how to inhabit that delicate intersection of whimsy and irreverence.

Given Scheer’s background, it is quite likely that the story of a day where nothing works as expected was inspired by and teases children into considering the physics of space, which pays no heed to earthly expectations — from the way gravity warps the notions of up and down to the soundlessness of space, which makes the mooing of cows and the ring of a bell inaudible amid the cosmic ether.

Julian Scheer (left) and Kelly Oechsli

Though the book, sadly, rests in the cemetery of out-of-print vintage gems, I was able to hunt down a copy — here is a peek inside for our shared delight:

Should you be so fortunate to track down a surviving copy, Upside Down Day is a treat well worth the hunt. Complement it with Weight and Weightlessness, another spacetastic illustrated gem from the same era, and the story of how Scheer and his team marketed the moon.

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18 APRIL, 2014

Mr. Bliss: Tolkien’s Little-Known Children’s Book for His Own Kids, Lovingly Handwritten and Illustrated by the Author Himself

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“‘What color?’ said Mr. Binks. ‘Bright yellow,’ said Mr. Bliss, ‘inside and out.’”

J.R.R. Tolkien firmly believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and yet, unbeknownst to most, he joined the ranks of famous authors of literature for grown-ups who wrote little-known children’s books — including Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein — and actually penned a book specifically for kids. He wrote Mr. Bliss (public library) for his own two children when they were small — much like the fairy tales E.E. Cummings wrote for his only daughter, Sylvia Plath’s verses for her kids, and the controversial story Faulkner penned for the daughter of the woman he’d later marry. Though it is unclear precisely when Tolkien created Mr. Bliss, the tale was inspired by his first car, which he purchased in 1932. It was published posthumously exactly fifty years later. Tolkien went on to use two of the character names from the book, Gaffer Gamgee and Boffin, in The Lord of the Rings.

The book, affectionately handwritten and illustrated by Tolkien himself — who, also unbeknownst to many, was a dedicated artist — tells the story of Mr. Bliss, a lovable eccentric known for his exceptionally tall hats and his “girabbits,” the giraffe-headed, rabbit-bodied creatures that live in his backyard. One day, Mr. Bliss decides to buy his very first motor car (and to my personal delight, as someone strongly partial to yellow, he proclaims to the salesman that he wants it to be “bright yellow, inside and out.”) But his first drive en route to a friend’s house soon turns into a Rube Goldberg machine of disaster as he collides with nearly everything imaginable, then gets kidnapped by three bears.

The ending, of course, is equal parts joyful and quirky.

As far as lesser-known children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature go, Mr. Bliss is a winner. Complement it with Tolkien’s gorgeous art, then revisit some more fairly obscure children’s books by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

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17 APRIL, 2014

I Can Fly: A Heartening Vintage Gem by Ruth Krauss, with Illustrations by Celebrated Disney Artist Mary Blair

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Simple verses with a thoughtful message.

Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993) is one of the most inspired and imaginative children’s storytellers of the twentieth century. Under the great Ursula Nordstrom‘s wing — who had a special gift for nurturing young talent — Krauss went on to write nearly fifty books, including two tender collaborations with young Maurice Sendak. Among her loveliest is I Can Fly (public library), originally published in 1951 as part of the beloved Little Golden Book series. A seemingly simple, wonderfully uplifting rhyme by Krauss, with illustrations by the celebrated Disney artist Mary Blair (who developed the concept art for such Disney classics as Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland) the book was mercifully resurrected from the cemetery of out-of-print treasures and republished in a crisp new edition, which is even available in digital form.

A bird can fly.
So can I.

A cow can moo.
I can too.

Underneath the light verses is a playful but profound reminder of our connection with the natural world and the notion that we aren’t so different from our fellow nonhuman beings, with whom we share a reality in an intricate mesh of belonging.

I’m merrier
than a terrier.

Pitter pitter pat
I can walk like a cat.

But Krauss’s most important message wasn’t an overt one. In fact, what makes her books especially exceptional is that she frequently featured female protagonists — far from the norm at the time and, sadly, still an exception half a century later when only 31% of books feature female lead characters. It may seem like a simple thing — the seemingly benign choice of hero or heroine in a children’s story — but to offer a quietly dissenting alternative to a fragment of hegemonic culture is no small gift. Krauss was a generous gift-giver.

Howl howl howl
I’m an old screech owl.

Short as it may be, I Can Fly is infinitely delightful in its entirety. Complement it with Open House for Butterflies, Krauss’s final and loveliest collaboration with Sendak.

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