Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

16 JULY, 2013

Alice and Martin Provensen’s Stunning Vintage Illustrations for Twelve Classic Fairy Tales

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From “The Happy Prince” to “The Beauty and the Beast,” by way of feminism and art history.

As a hopeless fan of Alice and Martin Provensen and a lover of fairy tales, especially ones featuring exquisite illustrations and beautiful reimaginings of the classics, I was delighted to come across The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales (public library) — an out-of-print gem published in 1971, in which the creative duo bring their singular whimsy to twelve beloved fairy tales. From classics like “The Beauty and the Beast” to literary tales like Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” to a recasting of Grimm’s goose girl as a heroine driven by the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, it is at once a timeless treasure trove of storytelling and a subtle time-capsule of cultural history.

'The Swan Maiden' by Howard Pyle

'The Swan Maiden' by Howard Pyle

'The Forrest Bride' by Parker Fillmore

'The Forrest Bride' by Parker Fillmore

'Feather O' My Wing' by Seamus MacManus

'Feather O' My Wing' by Seamus MacManus

In the foreword, Joan Bodger makes an important distinction, which Philip Pullman would come to echo in his retelling of The Brothers Grimm:

The stories in this book are literary fairy tales and thus may seem both familiar and unfamiliar. They are literary fairy tales because they are consciously created pieces of literature. The folk fairy tale is much more ancient, handed along through time (inheritance) and space (diffusion). Folk tales are so transformed by many tellings that no one knows for sure where they began, or how, or why. Certain it is that men and women in every time and every place have tried to impart what is most powerful or complicated or downright funny about the human condition by making up stories to explain the inexplicable.

The literary tale borrows shamelessly from the folk tale but gives it a new twist or dimension… Literary tales are filched from the seething cauldron of folklore, but the best bits and pieces of them are thrown back into the pot to be used again and again.

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince Rabbit' by A. A. Milne

'The Prince and the Goose Girl' by Elinor Mordaunt

'The Happy Prince' by Oscar Wilde

'The Lost Half-Hour' by Henry Beston

'The Nightingale' by Hans Christian Andersen

'The Seven Simons' by Ruth Manning-Sanders

'The Beauty and the Beast' by Arthur Rackham

Martin Provensen died of a heart attack in 1987, but Alice has continued to write and illustrate well into her nineties. Their artwork has inspired generations of children and its influence quietly reverberates through styles of some of today’s most celebrated artists and illustrators like Vladimir Radunsky. (That their Wikipedia page is so incomplete and out-of-date is truly a shame.)

Complement The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales with Edward Gorey’s take on three classic fairy tales and Kay Nielsen’s stunning 1914 illustrations for Scandinavian fairy tales.

Thanks, Gjela

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11 JULY, 2013

I’ll Be You and You Be Me: A Vintage Ode to Friendship and Imagination, Illustrated by Sendak

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“Indescribably lovely and absolutely perfect and — well, pure in the best sense.”

In 1952, more than a decade before Where the Wild Things Are catapulted him into creative celebrity, the inexhaustibly brilliant Maurice Sendak began collaborating with beloved children’s book author Ruth Krauss, of whom Sendak is cited to have said, “Prior to the commercialization of children’s books, there was Ruth Krauss.” He illustrated eight of her books during her lifetime, as well as a posthumous edition of one of her earliest books in 2005, twelve years after Krauss died. Perhaps the most delightful of their collaborations is I’ll Be You and You Be Me (public library) — a heart-warming and witty ode to the empathic bonds of friendship and a celebration of children’s wild and whimsical imagination, originally published in 1954.

Though this gem was reprinted in 1982, it is sadly long out of print — why is this so often the case with yesteryear’s treasures? — but used copies can still be found with some looking. I’ve managed to get a hold of an original first edition. Please enjoy.

Among Krauss’s delightful verses is also this wonderful addition to history’s finest definitions of love, reminiscent of the Peanuts classic Love Is Walking Hand in Hand:

shoes shoes
little black shoes
little black shoes
with little black bows —
someday someday
little black shoes
with little black bows
on the toes –

A year after I’ll Be You and You Be Me was published, the great Ursula Nordstrom, who had been not only Sendak’s editor but also his confidante, therapist, loving friend, and greatest champion, wrote in a letter to 27-year-old Maurice about his illustrations for another Krauss book, which could just as easily apply to this one:

There are a few peaks in an editor’s life, and seeing those pictures of yours has been a peak of mine. They are indescribably lovely and absolutely perfect and — well, pure in the best sense.

How perfectly and purely put, and how sorely Nordstrom’s passionate spirit is missed.

Complement this with Sendak’s little-known and lovely illustrations of Tolstoy and his posthumous love letter to the world.

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04 JULY, 2013

A Child’s Calendar: John Updike’s Little-Known Vintage Book, Updated to Celebrate Diversity

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Delightful verses for every season and every child.

As a lover of little-known children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature — such as previously uncovered gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes — I was delighted to find out that John Updike, who counted among his accolades such high honors as two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, a National Medal of the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, was never too big to write for children.

In 1965, he penned a lovely volume of children’s verses for every day of the year, the young reader’s poetry equivalent of Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom. Titled A Child’s Calendar (public library), it was originally published with illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert and reissued in 1999 with tender artwork by Trina Schart Hyman. In fact, it was that beautiful later edition that reminded me of this gem, after a recent study found that contemporary children’s literature is sorely lacking in diversity — Hyman’s illustrations, depicting children of various and mixed ethnicities, offer a heartening antidote.

Here is a sample taste of some of the wonderful verses and drawings, starting with a seasonally appropriate choice:

JULY

Bang-bang! Ka-boom!
We celebrate
Our national
Independence date,

The Fourth, with
Firecrackers and
The marching of
The Legion Band

America:
It makes us think
Of hot dogs, fries,
And Coke to drink.

The shade is hot
The little ants
Are busy, but
Poor Fido pants

And Teddy dozes
In a pool
Of fur she sheds
To keep her cool.

AUGUST

The sprinkler twirls.
The summer wanes.
The pavement wears
Popsicle stains.

The playground grass
Is worn to dust.
The weary swings
Creak, creak with rust.

The trees are bored
With being green.
Some people leave
The local scene

And go to seaside
Bungalows
And take off nearly
All their clothes.

JANUARY

The says are short,
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.

Fat snowy footsteps
Track the floor,
And parkas pile up
Near the door.

The river is
A frozen place
Held still beneath
The trees’ black lace.

The sky is low.
The wind is gray.
The radiator
Purrs all day.

To appreciate the Hyman’s intentional diversity upgrade, here is some of her artwork (top) compared to its counterpart in the Burkert edition (bottom):


Another noteworthy revision in the 1999 edition is that it accommodates a less religious notion of spirituality. The second verse of the April poem in the original edition reads:

Each flower, leaf
And blade of sod –
Small letters sent
To her from God.

In 1999, it becomes:

Each flower, leaf,
And blade of turf –
Small love-notes sent
From air to earth.

Of the five children’s books Updike wrote in his lifetime, A Child’s Calendar is the only one composed entirely of original material. The others — three adaptations of Warren Chappell’s music series, The Magic Flute (1962), The Ring (1964) and Bottom’s Dream (1969), and A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects (1995) — were based on existing work.

To take grown-up delight in Updike, see his meditations on the meaning of life and why the world exists, and his soul-stirring poem on the death of his beloved dog.

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