Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

05 NOVEMBER, 2013

Little Boy Brown: The Loveliest Ode to Childhood and Loneliness Ever Written, Illustrated by Legendary Graphic Designer André François

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A timeless story of humanity and belonging, wrapped in a charming time-capsule of a bygone era.

“I didn’t feel alone in the Lonely Crowd,” young Italo Calvino wrote of his visit to America, and it is frequently argued that hardly any place embodies the “Lonely Crowd” better than New York, city of “avoid-eye-contact indifference of the crowded subways.” That, perhaps, is what children’s book writer Isobel Harris set out to both affirm and decondition in Little Boy Brown (public library) — a magnificent ode to childhood and loneliness, easily the greatest ode to childhood and loneliness ever written, illustrated by the famed Hungarian-born French cartoonist and graphic designer André François. Originally published in 1949, this timeless story that stirred the hearts of generations has been newly resurrected by the wonderful Claudia Zoe Bedrick, whose Brooklyn-based indie picture-book publisher Enchanted Lion has given us such heartening gems as Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Blexbolex’s Ballad, Seasons, and People, the breathtaking My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, and the boundlessly soul-stirring Little Bird.

This is the tale of a four-year-old boy living with his well-to-do mother and father in a Manhattan hotel, in which the elevator connects straight to the subway tunnel below the building and plugs right into the heart of the city. And yet Little Boy Brown, whose sole friends are the doormen and elevator operators, feels woefully lonely — until, one day, his hotel chambermaid Hilda invites him to visit her house outside the city, where he blossoms into a new sense of belonging.

Underpinning the charming tale of innocence and children’s inborn benevolence is a heart-warming message about connection across the lines of social class and bridging the gaps of privilege with simple human kindness.

Hilda’s mother kissed me before she even knew who I was!

[…]

Hilda’s family is smarter than we are. They can all speak two different languages, and they can close their eyes and think about two different countries. They’ve been on the Ocean, and they’ve climbed high mountains. They haven’t got quite enough of anything. It makes it exciting when a little more comes!

The story itself, at once a romantic time-capsule of a bygone New York and a timeless meditation on what it’s like to feel so lonesome in a crowd of millions, invites us to explore the tender intersection of loneliness and loveliness. François, who studied with Picasso, illustrated a number of iconic New Yorker covers, and belongs to the same coterie of influential mid-century creative legends as Sir Quentin Blake, Tomi Ungerer, and his close friend and collaborator of Ronald Searle, brings all this wonderful dimensionality to life in his singular illustrations, all the more special given this was his first children’s book.

Little Boy Brown is immeasurably wonderful and, without exaggeration, one of the loveliest picture-books of all time — layer upon layer of meaning, discovered and rediscovered with every read and with each new look at François’s infinitely expressive illustrated vignettes, to which the screen does absolutely no justice.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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23 OCTOBER, 2013

Vintage Illustrations for the Fairy Tales E. E. Cummings Wrote for His Only Daughter, Whom He Almost Abandoned

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What elephants and butterflies have to do with the failures and redemptions of fatherhood.

In 1916, at the peak of WWI and shortly after graduating from Harvard, beloved poet E. E. Cummings penned an epithalamion — a poem celebrating nuptials — for his classmate and close friend Scofield Thayer’s marriage to his fiancé Elaine Orr. The newlyweds moved to Chicago and Cummings was drafted to serve in France, where he spent some months in prison for his unapologetic anti-war views. By the time he returned to New York in 1918, the Thayers were living in two separate apartments at Washington Square. Cummings’s old friend, who had risen to an influential position in literary circles, became the poet’s patron, supporting his poetry and even purchasing his paintings — a context that makes the affair Cummings undertook with Elaine all the more morally suspect, even though the poet knew his friend’s insistence on wanting to focus on work was merely a veil for his loss of interest in his wife. In May of 1919, Elaine became pregnant with Cummings’s child — something that threw an even more destabilizing curveball in what was already a triangle of impending disaster. To make matters worse, Cummings shirked his responsibility as a father and abandoned Elaine. Thayer, even though he knew the truth of paternity, stepped in to raise little Nancy once she was born on December 20, 1919. It took Cummings nearly a year to come around — in October of 1920, once it became clear that the Thayers were divorcing, he rekindled his relationship with Elaine and began seeing his daughter, who came to call him Mopsy, daily. The following year, the three moved to Paris, but Elaine, supported by Thayer’s alimony, lived comfortably in a large apartment, while Cummings, having lost his patron but bent on keeping the remnants of his dignity, lived the classic poor-writer’s life in his own humble quarters. He did, however, set out to build a relationship with his baby daughter, his only child, which he did the best way he knew how — by telling her original stories he made up for her.

In 1965, three years after Cummings’s death, four of these stories — “The Elephant & the Butterfly,” “The Little Girl Named I,” “The House That Ate Mosquito Pie,” and “The Old Man Who Said ‘Why?'” — were collected in a slim volume simply titled Fairy Tales (public library) — a fine addition to the little-known children’s books of famous authors, including gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

The stories, while closer to fables than to fairy tales, are nonetheless charming and doubly so thanks to the gorgeous illustrations by Canadian artist John Eaton. I’ve tracked down a surviving copy of the original edition for our shared enjoyment:

Complement Cummings’s Fairy Tales with 17 whimsical songs based on his poetry.

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10 OCTOBER, 2013

Need a House, Call Ms. Mouse: Progressive Vintage Children’s Book Starring a Female Architect

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“Henrietta is a world famous home decorator, which means she is — an artist, a designer, a dreamer, a builder, a creator, all that and more, too.”

As a lover of exquisite vintage children’s books, especially ones with irreverent messages that encourage creative endeavors and those empowering little girls to transcend confining social expectations, my heart leapt at the 1981 gem Need A House? Call Ms. Mouse (public library) — a lovely story aiming to awaken in kids a passion for architecture, starring a female protagonist. Written by George Mendoza, it features vibrant illustrations by Doris Susan Smith that fall somewhere between Maurice Sendak and the Provensens.

The story begins with an infinitely heartening “job description”:

Henrietta is a world famous home decorator, which means she is — an artist, a designer, a dreamer, a builder, a creator, all that and more, too.

But with great fame comes great responsibilities: Henrietta gets all kinds of requests, requiring increasing degrees of creative vision and architectural complexity — a spaceship-inspired treehouse for Squirrel (because what’s more mid-century-modern than that?), an elaborate Atlantis-like underwater residence for Trout, a modernist LA beach house for Lizard, even an intricate pear interior for Worm.

The twist, however, is that despite her architectural accomplishments, Henrietta herself — like Thoreau, whose famous philosophy of simple living inspired another lovely children’s book — prefers the simple life:

Why a treasure like Need A House? Call Ms. Mouse would perish in the mausoleum of out-of-print books is beyond me — used copies, while findable, cost a fortune. Thankfully, that’s just another reason to love public libraries.

A million thanks to Sharon for the discovery

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