Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

03 MAY, 2013

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me: Maya Angelou’s Courageous Children’s Verses, Illustrated by Basquiat

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A priceless primer on poetry and contemporary art for little ones, and a timeless reminder of the power of courage in all of us.

Fear is the enemy of creativity, the hotbed of mediocrity, a critical obstacle to mastering life. Few embody the defiance of fear with greater dignity and grace than reconstructionist Maya Angelou, who has overcome remarkable hardships — childhood rape, poverty, addiction, bereavement — to become one of today’s most celebrated writers. Like a number of other celebrated “adult” poets and novelists who have also written for children — including Sylvia Plath, Mark Twain, Anne Sexton, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Mary Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes — so has Angelou: The 1993 gem Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (public library), conceived and edited by Sara Jane Boyers, pairs Angelou’s simple, strong words with drawings by legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose signature style of child-like fancy and colorful emotional intensity offers a perfect match for Angelou’s courageous verses.

Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don’t frighten me at all.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Hear Angelou read the poem herself, which she says she wrote “for all children who whistle in the dark and who refuse to admit that they’re frightened out of their wits”:

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me is an absolute treat in its entirety, a priceless primer on poetry and contemporary art for little ones and a timeless reminder of the power of courage in all of us. Complement it with Angelou’s stirring meditation on home, belonging, and (never) growing up.

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25 APRIL, 2013

The First Book of Firemen, 1951

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A whimsically illustrated vintage homage to the men and women of The Red Menace.

“If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity,” professed mid-century writer and illustrator Jeanne Bendick, who tirelessly bridged the gender gap in science through the dozens of children’s books about science and technology. Though Bendick both wrote and illustrated many of them — like her endlessly wonderful 1953 cosmic primer, The First Book of Space Travel — she also did artwork for stories by other writers. Such is the case of the equally delightful 1951 gem The First Book of Firemen (public library) — a whimsically illustrated homage to the men and women of The Red Menace, written by Benjamin Brewster and researched in close collaboration with the New York City Fire Department.

From a taxonomy of firemen’s tools to the evolution of firefighting techniques to an anthropological tour of firefighters around the world, this vintage treat is at once a charmingly illustrated time-capsule of a bygone era and a timeless tribute to the heroic vocation countless little kids dream about.

Though long out of print — as is the fate of a sad many vintage gems — used copies of The First Book of Firemen can be found here and there, or borrowed from your local library.

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18 APRIL, 2013

The First Book of Space Travel: How a Female Author & Illustrator Got Kids Into Science in 1953

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“If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity.”

Vintage science illustrations hold a special charm, and illustrated children’s science books by women are a (heartening) rarity even today, so a woman who got kids excited about science half a century ago is nothing short of a cultural hero. Such is the case of Jeanne Bendick, who authored and illustrated more than one hundred mid-century children’s books about science and technology. An advocate of questions over answers as the key to the scientific mind and a champion of combinatorial creativity who recognized that all ideas build on those that came before, she articulated her ethos with inspiring eloquence:

One part of the job I set for myself is to make those young readers see that everything is connected to everything — that science isn’t something apart. It’s a part of everyday life. It has been that way since the beginning. The things the earliest scientists learned were the building blocks for those who came after. Sometimes they accepted earlier ideas. Sometimes they questioned them and challenged them. I want to involve readers directly in the text so they will ask themselves questions and try to answer them. If they can’t answer, that’s not really important… Questions are more important than answers… If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity.

In 1953, half a decade before the dawn of the Space Race and cosmic optimism, sixteen years before the first human on the moon, and more than half a century before space exploration took a tragic nosedive to the bottom of government priorities, Bendick penned and illustrated The First Book of Space Travel (public library) — a whimsical and illuminating primer on astro-exploration and the known universe. From the physics of how rockets work to the scale of the solar system to the essentials of astronaut lingo, her charming illustrations and rigorously researched yet clear text live at the intersection of curiosity and wonder.

Decades before Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and the youngest astronaut to ever launch into the cosmos, shared her first-hand account of what it’s like to launch on a space shuttle, Bendick illustrated the experience:

A quarter century before Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury pondered the possibility of life on Mars, Bendick envisioned extraterrestrial life:

And because every budding astronaut should know how to space-talk, she broke down the essentials:

Fifteen years before the birth of the revolutionary Apollo space suit, Bendick presented a surprisingly accurate design anatomy:

The First Book of Space Travel is sadly long out of print, but used copies are not yet impossible to find. Complement it with this wonderful modern-day, vintage-inspired illustrated chronicle of the Space Race and Diane Ackerman’s vintage verses for the planets.

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