Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

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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26 MARCH, 2014

A Picture-Book Like No Other

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The gloriously illustrated story of an errand turned adventure turned existential parable.

The Moomin series by Swedish-Finn artist, writer, comic strip creator, and children’s book author Tove Jansson (1914–2001), recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal, is among the most imaginative storytelling of the past century. Partway between children’s books and comics, her lovable family of roundish white hippopotamus-like creatures have captivated generations since their birth in 1945. The crown jewel of the series is arguably the 1952 picture-book The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My (public library) — a playful and philosophical tale that falls somewhere between Øyvind Torseter’s The Hole (which was possibly inspired by Jansson) and Dr. Seuss, with a touch of Edward Goreyesque creaturely magic and Alice in Quantumland mind-bending. Parallels notwithstanding, Jansson’s singular sensibility makes this vintage treasure one of the greatest children’s books of all time, so unlike anything else that ever existed before or since that it inhabits a wholly different yet timelessly welcoming universe.

The story is driven by a clever what-comes-next guessing game as we follow little Moomintroll on an errand that turns into an adventure that turns into an existential parable. Moomintroll, brimming with the boundless optimism typical of Jansson’s Moomin family, sets out to help the distraught Mymble find her sister, Little My — an irreverent, independent-minded, sharp- and even acerbic-witted heroine who stands as the naughty but necessary anchor to the Moomin buoyancy. That dynamic — the eternal tussle between skepticism and openness that keeps life in balance — is one of the story’s powerful underlying themes, and yet it only amplifies rather than detracting from the joyful hopefulness of the overall message.

Beautifully illustrated and hand-lettered in rhythmic verse, the book features gorgeous and brilliantly placed die-cut holes, reminiscent of I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, which lend the story an enchanting quality that plays into our human restlessness for knowing what’s around the corner, cleverly reminding us that what we think we see is often a distortion of what actually is.

And while the book was Jansson’s first to be adapted for iPad, what screen could possibly replace the immeasurable tactile magic of this beautifully, thoughtfully designed paper masterpiece?

Tove Jansson with her Moomins in 1956. Photograph by Reino Loppinen.

The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My, translated into English by Sophie Hannah, is impossibly wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with a contemporary counterpart of Scandinavian storytelling sensibility, Øyvind Torseter’s The Hole, one of the best “children’s” books of 2013 (with scare-quotes for the reasons Tolkien so memorably outlined).

Thanks, Jad

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