Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

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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21 JUNE, 2013

James Gandolfini Reads Maurice Sendak’s Most Controversial Book

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Two creative icons on the precipice of mortality.

On the evening of June 19, I attended a wonderful event at New York’s Society of Illustrators celebrating the inimitable Maurice Sendak and the taboos explored in his work. Among the many memorable insights was a passing mention of a reading from Sendak’s 1970 classic In The Night Kitchen (public library) Sopranos star James Gandolfini had done at a 92Y tribute for Sendak’s 80th birthday in 2008. Little did any of us at the event know that mere hours earlier, Gandolfini had been been pronounced dead in an Italian hospital while on vacation with his 13-year-old son. In an even more eerie strike of tragic coincidence, one of the taboos discussed at the lecture was the notion of mortality in Sendak’s books. Thus, for reasons that are threefold obvious, there is hardly a better way to honor both Gandolfini and Sendak than with the original recording of the acclaimed actor’s exquisitely expressive reading of the Sendak classic:

At the lecture, Steven Heller quoted Sendak as having once told him in an interview:

Primarily, my work was an act of exorcism… so I could have peace of mind as an artist.

(How reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s timeless advice to his teenage son, in which he argued that “the point of being an artist is that you may live” and added, “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”)

But In The Night Kitchen, which was a Caldecott honor book in 1971, has a story particularly emblematic of both Sendak’s defiant spirit and the generous, steadfast support of his editor and creative champion, the great Ursula Nordstrom. In 1972, when a school librarian burned a copy of the book in an act of micro-censorship against Sendak’s depiction of his fictional little boy in the nude, a righteously outraged Nordstrom sent said librarian this colorful letter, found in the ever-excellent Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — a fine addition to literary history’s most poignant meditations on censorship:

January 5, 1972

Dear [Redacted]:

Your letter about Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen was delayed in reaching my desk as you sent it to our Scranton, Pennsylvania, division. I am sorry not to have written you more promptly.

I am indeed distressed to hear that in the year 1972 you burned a copy of a book. We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children. I assume it is the little boy’s nudity which bothers you. But truly, it does not disturb children! Mr. Sendak is a creative artist, a true genius, and he is able to speak to children directly. For children—at least up to the age of 12 or 13—are usually tremendously creative themselves. Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses? To me as editor and publisher of books for children, that is one of my greatest and most difficult duties. Believe me, we do not take our responsibilities lightly! I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.

I will send you a few positive comments on this book within the next few days, and I hope you will read them and that you will give the children in your school a chance to enjoy Mr. Sendak’s book.

Yours sincerely,

(Signed)

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