Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

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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11 APRIL, 2013

T. S. Eliot’s Iconic Vintage Verses About Cats, Illustrated and Signed by Edward Gorey

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Two grand masters of delight, together.

Until the wonderful Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology came out, the great Edward Gorey had the corner on feline art with his timeless illustrations for the 1982 edition of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (public library) by T. S. Eliot, a documented cat-lover, who penned these whimsical verses about feline psychology and social order in a series of letters to his godchildren in the 1930s. The poems were first collected and published in 1939, adding Eliot to the ranks of other famous “adult” authors who wrote for children, and eventually became the basis for the famed Broadway musical Cats.

Some time ago, I had the good fortune of tracking down an original edition of this tiny treasure, signed by Gorey himself — please enjoy:

THE NAMING OF CATS

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey –
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter –
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum –
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover –
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

THE SONG OF THE JELLICLES

Jellicle Cats come out to-night
Jellicle Cats come one come all:
The Jellicle Moon is shining bright -
Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats are rather small;
Jellicle Cats are merry and bright,
And pleasant to hear when they caterwaul.
Jellicle Cats have cheerful faces,
Jellicle Cats have bright black eyes;
They like to practise their airs and graces
And wait for the Jellicle Moon to rise.

Jellicle Cats develop slowly,
Jellicle Cats are not too big;
Jellicle Cats are roly-poly,
They know how to dance a gavotte and a jig.
Until the Jellicle Moon appears
They make their toilette and take their repose:
Jellicle Cats wash behind their ears,
Jellicle dry between their toes.

Jellicle Cats are white and black,
Jellicle Cats are of moderate size;
Jellicle Cats jump like a jumping-jack,
Jellicle Cats have moonlit eyes.
They’re quitet enough in the morning hours,
They’re quitet enough in the afternoon,
Reserving their terpsichorean powers
To dance by the light of the Jellicle Moon.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats (as I said) are small;
If it happends to be a stormy night
They will practise a caper or two in the hall.
If it happens the sun is shining bright
You would say they had nothing to do at all:
They are resting and saving themselves to be right
For the Jellicle Moon and the Jellicle Ball.

BUSTOPHER JONES: THE CAT ABOUT TOWN

Bustopher Jones is not skin and bones –
In fact, he’s remarkably fat.
He doesn’t haunt pubs — he has eight or nine clubs,
For he’s the St. James’s Street Cat!
He’s the Cat we all greet as he walks down the street
In his coat of fastidious black:
No commonplace mousers have such well-cut trousers
Or such an impeccable back.
In the whole of St. James’s the smartest of names is
The name of this Brummell of Cats;
And we’re all of us proud to be nodded or bowed to
By Bustopher Jones in white spats!
His visits are occasional to the Senior Educational
and it is against the rules
For any one cat to belong both to that
And the Joint Superior Schools.
For a similar reason, when game is in season
He is found, not at Fox’s, but Blimp’s;
But he’s frequently seen at the gay Stage and Screen
Which is famous for winkles and shrimps.
In the season of venison he gives his ben’son
To the Pothunter’s succulent bones;
And just before noon’s not a moment too soon
To drop in for a drink at the Drones.
When he’s seen in a hurry there’s probably curry
At the Siamese — or at the Glutton;
If he looks full of gloom then he’s lunched at the Tomb
On cabbage, rice pudding and mutton.
So, much in this way, passes Bustopher’s day –
At one club or another he’s found.
It can cause no surprise that under our eyes
He has grown unmistakably round.
He’s a twenty-five pounder, or I am a bounder,
And he’s putting on weight every day:
But he’s so well preserved because he’s observed
All his life a routine, so he’ll say.
And (to put it in rhyme) `I shall last out my time’
Is the word of this stoutest of Cats.
It must and it shall be Spring in Pall Mall
While Bustopher Jones wears white spats!

Complement Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with Lost Cat and Gay Talese on the social order of New York’s cats, and consider supporting Gorey’s legacy with a donation to the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust.

Donating = Loving

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