Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

13 JUNE, 2014

Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit from Around the World

By:

A visual voyage there and back again.

Writing about the allure of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” — that’s perhaps why his stories continue to enchant generations and attract admirers of all ages. Tolkien’s first major work, The Hobbit (public library) — the prequel to his epic novel The Lord of the Rings, which made its debut nearly 20 years later — was published in 1937 and in the years since has drawn remarkable international acclaim. Because the story is driven by visual whimsy, it has also produced a number of vibrant illustrated editions from all around the world, beginning with Tolkien’s own artwork for the original edition, which I wrote about some years ago. Here are a few favorites.

J.R.R. TOLKIEN (GREAT BRITAIN, 1937)

In October of 1936, Tolkien delivered to his publisher the manuscript of The Hobbit, in which he included more than 100 illustrations — Tolkien, unbeknownst to many, was a rather gifted and prolific artist. These manuscript drawings were recently released in The Art of the Hobbit (public library) — a magnificent volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit with 110 beautiful, many never-before-seen illustrations by Tolkien, ranging from pencil sketches to ink line drawings to watercolors.

In creating the artwork for The Hobbit, Tolkien borrowed from a short story he had written for his son Michael, titled “Roverandom.”

Also included are conceptual sketches for the now-iconic dust jacket cover painting of the mountains Bilbo Baggins transverses in his adventures.

See more of Tolkien’s art here.

TOVE JANSSON (SWEDEN, 1962)

In 1962, shortly before she received the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen award, beloved Swedish-speaking Finnish artist, writer, and Moomin creator Tove Jansson illustrated a Swedish edition of The Hobbit. Janssen was at the peak of her career and brought to the Tolkien classic her signature touch of subtly wistful whimsy.

Alas, this gem is now severely out of print, practically unfindable online, but available at some better-stocked public libraries.

RIYÛICHI TERASHIMA (JAPAN, 1965)

In 1965, artist Ryûichi Terashima illustrated a Japanese edition of The Hobbit, notable not only for its delicate line drawings but also for the exquisite production of the book itself, which mirrors the sensibility of Terashima’s art with lavish paper and luxury binding. It has been reprinted several times, as recently as 2008.

The book is currently out of print, but used copies can be found online; alas, not at the library.

MIKHAIL BELOMLINSKY (RUSSIA, 1976)

In 1976, Russian — then Soviet — artist Mikhail Belomlinsky took on the Tolkien classic shortly after graduating from an MFA program in painting, architecture, and sculpture. The opportunity kicked off Belomlinsky’s career as he turned to political cartooning and children’s books. He went on to illustrate more than 100 of the latter, both in Soviet Russia and in the United States after his move to New York City in 1989.

JIRI SALAMOUN (CZECH REPUBLIC, 1979)

In 1979, when he was forty-four — the same age Tolkien was when he published The Hobbit — the Czech artist, graphic designer, and illustrator Jiri Salamoun was commissioned to illustrate a Czech edition of the book. He brought his eclectic background in visual storytelling and the graphic arts — spanning film poster design, typography, book illustration, and silk-screen printing — to the project.

This vintage gem is also a rarity, but some libraries do have it.

BONUS: MAURICE SENDAK (UNITED STATES, 1967)

In 1967, six years after legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom had nurtured his creative direction and four years after his iconic Where the Wild Things Are, 39-year-old Maurice Sendak was commissioned to illustrate a 30th anniversary edition of The Hobbit. But the project fell through, leaving behind only a single surviving drawing, which Open Culture unearthed.

A realized edition would’ve been unimaginably wonderful, judging by Sendak’s artistic interpretations of literary classics like William Blake’s Song of Innocence, which he illustrated the same year as the failed Tolkien project, and Tolstoy’s Nikolenka’s Childhood, completed four years earlier.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

12 JUNE, 2014

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

By:

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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

28 MAY, 2014

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

By:

“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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.