Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

12 JUNE, 2014

Iconic Italian Graphic Artist Bruno Munari’s Rare Vintage “Interactive” Picture-Books

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Pioneering visual storytelling that endures as a manifesto for the magic of paper books.

In 1968, two years after he published his hugely influential book Design as Art, legendary Italian graphic artist Bruno Munari applied his principles to a different medium — children’s picture-books — with the same boldness of vision and hunger for thoughtful creative experimentation. Nella nebbia di Milano [In the Mist of Milan] (public library) was born — a masterwork of visual storytelling and a graphic arts classic that doubles as a beautiful manifesto for the mesmerism of paper books. In vibrant mid-century colors and a cleverly engineered sequence of die-cut holes that guide the story, Munari tells the story of a foggy day that envelops the crazy world of the circus. Parchment-paper pages layer illustrations over one another for a foggy feel and different vignettes tickle the curiosity as the reader peeks from either side of each die-cut hole.

The message seems to be a sweet and gentle reminder that the world is perpetually shrouded in opacity and we only see the parts of it on which we choose to shine our attention, the “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” that it is.

The screen does little justice to the book’s analog magic, but I’ve photographed my own copy to offer a sense of the book’s timeless whimsy, along with the above animated GIF of a six-page sequence I couldn’t resist making.

But Nella nebbia di Milano wasn’t actually Munari’s first foray into this singular form of storytelling. More than a decade earlier, in 1956, he had created a long-out-of-print gem titled Nella notte buia [In the Dark of the Night] (public library), experimenting with a more textured version of the same tactile techniques.

Printed on black and gray paper, this book features similar die-cut storytelling, but adds to the round holes some wonderfully jagged-edged ones, as if clawed and gnawed-through by the creatures — ants, birds, grasshoppers, fish — that take over the world after nightfall.

Complement Munari’s gems with more die-cut magic from other parts of the world — The Hole from Norway, The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My from Sweden, and I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail from India.

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28 MAY, 2014

The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Donald Barthelme’s Irreverent Vintage Children’s Book

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“Mysteries are not to be avoided. Rather they are a locus of hope, they enrich and complicate. That is why we have them.”

What a wonderful surprise to find out that the great Donald Barthelme, upon turning forty, joined the ranks of award-winning authors of “grown-up” literature who also wrote generally little-known and invariably lovely children’s books — a phenomenon that gave us gems by Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, Carson McCullers, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Gertrude Stein.

In 1971, Barthelme penned The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (public library), a quirky tale illustrated with Victorian engravings that straddle the spectrum from the earnest to the sarcastic.

It tells the story of young Mathilda who, one fine morning in 1887, strolls into the backyard to discover that “a mysterious Chinese house, only six feet high, had grown there overnight.” Having wished for a fire engine instead, she finds herself intrigued by the Chinese house nonetheless — in no small part because emanating from it are strange growls, howls, whispers, and trumpeting. Once she walks in, Mathilda encounters all sorts of oddities — an enormous popcorn-popping machine, an elephant that falls downhill once a day and, like a high-end Manhattan restaurant, is “closed on Mondays,” a despondent captured pirate, and all in all “every kind of flawless flourishy footlooseness,” governed by a “hithering tithering djinn.”

When her nurse calls for her, Mathilda scurries back out and returns indoors. The next morning, she awakes to find the Chinese house gone, but the djinn has left her one final surprise, the fire engine she so desired — except “instead of being sparkling red, it was bright green.”

“The djinn must not know too much about fire engines,” Mathilda thought. “But green is a beautiful color too.”

And Mathilda’s father and mother, that gay and laughing couple, were very glad to have a bright green fire engine to ride in when they went out for an evening, and Mathilda lent it to them whenever they wished.

Like Mark Twain, whose signature witty irreverence in writing for adults springs equally alive in his writings for children, Barthelme takes great care not to insult children’s inherent intelligence by talking down to them from the podium of the All-Knowing Adult or boring them with the predictable patterns of classic children’s tales — the journey, the miracle, the happily-ever-after. More than that, Barthelme tickles a meta-awareness of these patterns and instead invites children to play with them, to engage the story as a game not of make-believe but of playful parody. The coupling of traditional Victorian engravings with wryly ironic captions that wink at society’s hypocrisies only amplifies Barthelme’s bold invitation.

The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine won the National Book Award that year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barthelme concluded his acceptance speech with one of his signature packets of subtle, soul-expanding wisdom.

Mysteries are not to be avoided. Rather they are a locus of hope, they enrich and complicate. That is why we have them. That is perhaps one of the reasons we have children.

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20 MAY, 2014

Lisbeth Zwerger’s Rare and Soulful 1984 Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant”

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A bittersweet tale of transformation and self-transcendence through a single act of kindness.

From Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger — who also gave us those impossibly imaginative illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz — comes a rare 1984 illustrated edition of The Selfish Giant (public library), one of the five short stories in Oscar Wilde’s 1888 collection for children, The Happy Prince and Other Tales.

The story was written at a pivotal time in Wilde’s life: professionally, it was wedged between his foray into professional journalism in 1887 as editor of The Woman’s World and his only novel, the 1890 classic The Picture of Dorian Gray; personally, it was nestled between the peak of his marital troubles and his intense love affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

In that turbulent context, it is perhaps befitting that Wilde would gravitate toward something soulful, symbolic, and ultimately bittersweet: When the selfish giant bans the children from playing in his garden, Spring refuses to come and the garden sinks into an unending winter. One day, the giant is awakened to discover that the children have found a way to sneak in through a hole in the wall. He is gripped with regret over his surly behavior and vows to demolish the wall, but as he emerges from his castle to welcome the children, they all run for their lives — except one little boy in the midst of trying to climb a tree. Rather than scold, the giant helps the child climb the tree and gets a hug and a kiss in return, which melts his heart. But then, the giant disappears, only to come back many years later, as an old man returning to die under the tree, covered in white spring blossoms.

It’s a simple yet immeasurably sweet story — the story of transformation and self-transcendence through one’s own single act of kindness, and Zwerger’s subtle yet infinitely expressive illustrations add beautiful dimension to Wilde’s wistful hopefulness.

Zwerger’s The Selfish Giant is long out of print, but surviving copies can still be found online and at some libraries. Complement it with Oscar Wilde on art, then revisit Zwerger’s enchanting reimaginings of Wonderland and Oz.

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