Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

29 JANUARY, 2014

Let’s Be Enemies: A Vintage Maurice Sendak Treasure

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A delightful lesson in reverse psychology from the greatest children’s illustrator of all time.

Everything Maurice Sendak touched had an immutable aura of wonderfulness to it, from his beloved children’s books to his little-known posters on the joy of reading to his energy as an educator. Among his earliest and loveliest gems is Let’s Be Enemies (public library), written by Janice May Udry and published in 1961 — the same year that young Sendak received that remarkable letter of encouragement from his editor and patron saint, the great Ursula Nordstrom, and also the year that he created his magnificent Tolstoy illustrations.

This endearing reverse-psychology story about the silliness of quarreling as a lose-lose proposition is in some ways the mirror image of Ruth Krauss’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me, which Sendak illustrated seven years earlier. Here, 33-year-old Sendak exercises his faux-curmudgeonly side through the tale of two little boys who decide to be enemies, only to realize how much richer life is when they’re friends — a charming reminder for all of us that self-righteous indignation is never an appropriate, or a soul-satisfying, response.

Complement Let’s Be Enemies with the immeasurably wonderful I’ll Be You and You Be Me and Open House for Butterflies.

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24 JANUARY, 2014

Sir Quentin Blake’s Quirky Illustrated Alphabet Book

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“A is for apples, some green and some red, B is for breakfast we’re having in bed.”

As a lover of unusual alphabet books — including ones by Gertrude Stein, Maurice Sendak, and Edward Gorey — I was delighted to come across a new edition of the 1989 gem Quentin Blake’s ABC (public library) by the great Sir Quentin Blake who, besides being famous for illustrating many of Roald Dahl’s stories and the first Dr. Seuss book not illustrated by Geisel himself, also illustrated Sylvia Plath’s little-known, charming children’s book.

Blake’s quirky watercolor-and-ink drawings and zany verses emanate his irreverent humor, enchanting young readers as much as they tickle grown-up imaginations.

Quentin Blake’s ABC is an absolute treat from A-Z. Complement it with advice to kids on becoming an artist from Blake, Sendak, Carle, and other illustrators.

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20 JANUARY, 2014

I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!

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“Boys fix things. Girls need things fixed.”

In 1970, when the second wave of feminism was reaching critical mass and women were raising their voices for equality across the “social media” of the day decades before the internet as we know it, when even Pete Seeger was rallying for a gender-neutral pronoun, an odd children’s book titled I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl! (public library) began appearing in bookstores.

It began innocently enough:

Hmm, okay… (But still.):

And then it straddled the gender-normative continuum between the appalling and the absurd:

At first glance, it appears to be the most sexist book ever printed, made all the worse for the fact that it was aimed at the next generation. In fact, many reviewers at the time took it for just that, and cursory commentary across the web even today treats it as a laughable fossil of a bygone era, handling it with equal parts outraged indignation and how-far-we’ve-come relief.

But what many missed, even in 1970, is that the man who wrote and illustrated the book was Whitney Darrow, Jr., whose father founded Princeton University Press and whose satirical cartoons graced the New Yorker for nearly fifty years between 1933 and 1982. When Darrow died in 1999, a New York Times obituary called him “a witty, gently satiric cartoonist” and “one of the last of the early New Yorker cartoonists,” part of the same milieu as James Thurber, Charles Addams, and Peter Arno.

Which is all to say: It’s highly likely, if not almost certainly the case, that Darrow, a man of keen cultural commentary wrapped in unusual humor, intended the book as satire. It came, after all, at a time when girls were beginning to be rather un-glad to be “girls” in the sense of the word burdened by outdated cultural expectations and boggled in an air of second-class citizenry. It’s entirely possible that Darrow wanted to comment on these outdated gender norms by depicting them in absurd cartoonishness precisely so that their absurdity would shine through.

Of course, we can never be certain, as there is no record of Darrow himself ever discussing his intentions with the book. All we have is speculation — but let’s at least make it of the contextually intelligent kind. Sure, he was born in the first decade of the twentieth century — a time when those absurd gender norms were very much alive and well, a time not too long after it was perfectly acceptable for a wholly non-sarcastic Map of Woman’s Heart to exist and a list of don’ts for female bicyclists could be published in complete seriousness. And he came of age in a culture where those same norms very much mandated the rules of love and gender relations. But that’s perhaps all the more reason for a man who dedicated his creative career to our era’s smartest institution of cultural commentary to poke fun at society’s ebb and flow of values the best way he knew how — through his satirical cartoons.

Sadly, I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl! rests in the cemetery of out-of-print gems — but it might well be worth a trip to the local library.

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