Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

26 MARCH, 2014

A Picture-Book Like No Other

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The gloriously illustrated story of an errand turned adventure turned existential parable.

The Moomin series by Swedish-Finn artist, writer, comic strip creator, and children’s book author Tove Jansson (1914–2001), recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal, is among the most imaginative storytelling of the past century. Partway between children’s books and comics, her lovable family of roundish white hippopotamus-like creatures have captivated generations since their birth in 1945. The crown jewel of the series is arguably the 1952 picture-book The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My (public library) — a playful and philosophical tale that falls somewhere between Øyvind Torseter’s The Hole (which was possibly inspired by Jansson) and Dr. Seuss, with a touch of Edward Goreyesque creaturely magic and Alice in Quantumland mind-bending. Parallels notwithstanding, Jansson’s singular sensibility makes this vintage treasure one of the greatest children’s books of all time, so unlike anything else that ever existed before or since that it inhabits a wholly different yet timelessly welcoming universe.

The story is driven by a clever what-comes-next guessing game as we follow little Moomintroll on an errand that turns into an adventure that turns into an existential parable. Moomintroll, brimming with the boundless optimism typical of Jansson’s Moomin family, sets out to help the distraught Mymble find her sister, Little My — an irreverent, independent-minded, sharp- and even acerbic-witted heroine who stands as the naughty but necessary anchor to the Moomin buoyancy. That dynamic — the eternal tussle between skepticism and openness that keeps life in balance — is one of the story’s powerful underlying themes, and yet it only amplifies rather than detracting from the joyful hopefulness of the overall message.

Beautifully illustrated and hand-lettered in rhythmic verse, the book features gorgeous and brilliantly placed die-cut holes, reminiscent of I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, which lend the story an enchanting quality that plays into our human restlessness for knowing what’s around the corner, cleverly reminding us that what we think we see is often a distortion of what actually is.

And while the book was Jansson’s first to be adapted for iPad, what screen could possibly replace the immeasurable tactile magic of this beautifully, thoughtfully designed paper masterpiece?

Tove Jansson with her Moomins in 1956. Photograph by Reino Loppinen.

The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My, translated into English by Sophie Hannah, is impossibly wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with a contemporary counterpart of Scandinavian storytelling sensibility, Øyvind Torseter’s The Hole, one of the best “children’s” books of 2013 (with scare-quotes for the reasons Tolkien so memorably outlined).

Thanks, Jad

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21 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Hating Book: A Vintage Illustrated Parable About What Every Friendship Needs

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“You’re ugly and dumb. Being with you was never fun.”

In 1961, young Maurice Sendak illustrated Let’s Be Enemies — a charming lesson in friendship via reverse psychology by writer Janice May Urdy, published by Harper’s children’s division. Eight years later, the same publisher, overseen by Sendak’s remarkable editor and patron-saint Ursula Nordstrom, came out with The Hating Book (UK; public library) by Charlotte Zolotow, the beloved children’s writer whom we recently lost and with whom Sendak frequently collaborated — a story strikingly similar in its ethos to Let’s Be Enemies, only featuring two little girls rather than two little boys, and illustrated by a very young Ben Shecter in a style akin to Sendak’s.

Whether the parallel was intentional or just the product of creative happenstance, we’ll never know. But Zolotow’s story and Shecter’s illustrations stand on their own not only as a lovely vintage treasure, but also an endearing, light-hearted yet poignant reminder that we invent our attitudes towards friends and foes, that a great deal of how we interpret another person’s behavior and intentions is merely a projection of the stories we’ve constructed about them, and that open communication is the glue of true friendship.

I hate, hate, hated my friend.

When I moved over in the school bus, she sat somewhere else.

When her point broke in arithmetic and I passed her my pencil, she took Peter’s instead.

What if she should say
Oh, please, just go away.
You’re ugly and dumb.
Being with you
was never fun.

Oh, I hated my friend.

When it was her turn to wash the board,
she didn’t ask me to help.

Oh, I hated my friend.

When I went to walk home with her,
she had already gone.

When she took her dog out
and I whistled to him,
she put him on a leash
and led him away.

Oh, I hated my friend.

After a few more spreads of inner turmoil, the snubbed little girl eventually decides to take her mother’s advice and confront her friend.

“You’ve been so rotten,” I said.
“Why?”
She looked as though she’d cry.
“It’s you,” she said. “Last week
when I wore my new dress,
Sue said Jane said you said
I looked like a freak.”
“I did not!
I said you looked neat!”

Both girls, it turns out in the heartwarming end, had succumbed to the Benjamin Franklin Effect in inventing their “hate” for the other.

She looked straight at me for a while,
and then we both began to smile.
My friend said, “Hey
maybe tomorrow we can play?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, “OKAY!”

I didn’t hate her anyway.
I wish it were tomorrow.

Mercifully, The Hating Book was reprinted in 1989 and remains in circulation — treat yourself to it, then revisit I’ll Be You and You Be Me, the lovely 1954 ode to friendship by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Sendak.

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06 FEBRUARY, 2014

David Hockney Illustrates the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

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The beauty of ugly and the whimsy of negative space.

As a lover of fairy tales — especially little-known gems like those E.E. Cummings wrote for his only daughter or beloved classics illustrated by creative legends like Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and Alice and Martin Provensen — I was delighted to discover Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm with illustrations by David Hockney (public library), in which the celebrated contemporary artist and pop art icon adds to history’s finest visual takes on the Grimm tales. This tiny treasure, originally published in 1970 by the British Royal Academy of Arts and reissued in 2012, features Hockney’s weird and wonderful drawings for The Little Sea Hare, Fundevogel, Rapunzel, The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear, Old Rinkrank, and Rumpelstilzchen.

What makes Hockney’s visual interpretation especially enchanting is that while traditional fairy tale images tend to rely on beauty and color to create magic and contrast the beautiful and the ugly to distinguish between good and evil, even the princesses in his black-and-white illustrations are unassuming, ugly even; where ornate, detailed imagery would ordinarily fill the traditional visual vignette, Hockney’s ample use of negative space invites the imagination to roam freely. Perhaps above all, his haunting, scary, architectural illustrations serve as a testament to J.R.R. Tolkien’s assertion that, even if they might appeal to the young, fairy tales are not written “for children.”

Here are a few favorite etchings.

'The Princess in her tower' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The boy hidden in an egg' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The boy hidden in a fish' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The Princess searching' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The cook' (Fundevogel)

'The older Rapunzel' (Rapunzel)

'The tower had one window' (Rapunzel)

'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair' (Rapunzel)

'A black cat leaping' (The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear)

'Inside the castle' (The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear)

'Pleading for the child' (Rumpelstilzchen)

'Riding around on a cooking spoon' (Rumpelstilzchen)

'He tore himself in two' (Rumpelstilzchen)

Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm with illustrations by David Hockney is an absolutely wonderful little tome, doubly so for the gorgeous fabric-bound red cover and the elegant, minimalist black-white-and-red typesetting of the story text. Pair it with the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales and how Hans Christian Andersen changed storytelling.

For more famous artists’ illustrations for literary classics, see Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, Milton Glaser’s art for Lord Byron’s “Don Juan,” Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, William Blake’s paintings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975.

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