Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

24 OCTOBER, 2014

How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself: A Timely Vintage Field Guide to Self-Reliant Play and Joyful Solitude

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A celebration of makers and hackers from half a century before they were called makers and hackers.

Legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written beautifully about why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life and Susan Sontag contemplated the creative purpose of boredom. Perhaps we understand this intellectually, but we — now more than ever, it seems — have a profound civilizational anxiety about being alone. And the seed for it is increasingly planted in childhood — in an age when play is increasingly equated with screens and interfaces, being alone with a screen is not quite being alone at all, so the art of taking joy in one’s own company slips further and further out of reach.

In 1958, a self-described 42-year-old kid named Robert Paul Smith penned a little book titled How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself (public library), which his wife Elinor, an accomplished author herself, illustrated — a delightful field guide to hacking household objects and making mischievous contraptions from nature’s gifts, long before the rise of hacker culture and the modern Maker Movement. Before working as a broadcaster in Manhattan in the 1930s, an era prior to the dawn of television and many decades before the web, Smith had grown up at a time when icemen filled ice-boxes by horse and wagon and every house had a hatstand and “all mothers sewed,” producing a steady supply of empty spools for kids to play with — and yet his book is timeless and remarkably timely in both spirit and hands-on ingenuity.

With a wink — perhaps inadvertent — to the existential value of philosophy, Smith writes:

I understand some people get worried about kids who spend a lot of time all alone, by themselves. I do a little worrying about that, but I worry about something else even more; about kids who don’t know how to spend any time all alone, by themselves. It’s something you’re going to be doing a whole lot of, no matter what, for the rest of your lives. And I think it’s a good thing to do; you get to know yourself, and I think that’s the most important thing in the whole world.

He offers how-to guidance on a wealth of simple yet imaginative playthings — indoor boomerangs, pin pianos, broken umbrella bow-and-arrows, pussy-willow bees, peach pit turtles, clamshell bracelets “for your sister, if you’ve got a sister, or your girl, if you’ve got a girl, or if not, just for the fun of making them,” a quirky prank-ready contraption made out of “a chicken or a turkey wishbone, some chewing gum, a burnt kitchen match and a rubber band.” Today, when even LEGO bricks come as kits of pre-imagined possibilities, these unstructured activities — “There are no kits to build these things,” Smith cautions — come as welcome assurance that there are enormous rewards in what Richard Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”

Indoor boomerang: 'Get a piece of very thin cardboard. If your father uses business cards, that’s exactly the right kind of cardboard, and the right size. The top flap of a matchbook will do, too. Now just cut a boomerang shape out of it, just about the same size and shape as in the drawing. Now put it on a book, so that one arm sticks out just a little bit. Flick it with your fingernail and it’ll go sailing out just like an Australian boomerang, and after very little practice, you’ll find out how to make it whirl so that it will come back to you. A good way to do it is to hold the book in one hand, tipped up a little, so that the boomerang goes up in the air at an angle, and slides back at just about the same angle, like a ball going almost to the top of a hill, and then rolling down again.'

There is also subtle, charming humor:

These days, you see a kid lying on his back and looking blank and you begin to wonder what’s wrong with him. There’s nothing wrong with him, except he’s thinking… He is trying to arrive at some conclusion about his thumb.

Pin piano: 'If you can get a piece of wood and ten pins you can make a piano. Oh, not a big piano like the one you have. You’d need a lot more wood and pins for that. This is a pin-piano, and it’s a musical instrument, and it plays very piano. The word piano means soft. The real name for a piano is pianoforte, and all it means is an instrument that can play loud or soft. Well, this is a pin-piano and it just plays soft. All you do is stick the pins into the piece of wood, each one a little further in than that first one. If you take a nail and hit the pin, you’ll hear a certain note. By pushing the next pin in a little further, you’ll hear a higher note. And so on. Tune as you go, do re mi fa sol la ti do. But that’s only eight pins. Why did I say ten? Because you’re going to bend at least two of the pins trying to get them in to the right depth. '

But tucked inside Smith’s practical manifesto for self-reliant play is also a love letter to public libraries, the merits of which he extolls throughout the book as he encourages the reader to find out more about obscure subjects and hobbies at the library. He writes:

If you don’t know what a willow tree looks like, go to the public library and get out a book about trees. You’ll notice that all through this book, I advise you to go to the library when you want to find out something. I think just plain going to the library and getting out a book is a swell thing to do. It’s something to do, when you’ve got nothing to do, all by yourself. It’s a thing I still do when I’ve got nothing special to do. I just wander around until I find a book that looks interesting; let’s say, a book about ship-building, or rockets, or a story by some author I’ve never heard of before. Now, chances are I’ll never build a ship, or ride in a rocket, and maybe I won’t like the way the author I never heard of writes. But it’s interesting to know how someone else builds a ship, or plans to fly in a rocket, or how the author feels about things.

This adds another layer of timeliness and wistful urgency to Smith’s book — today, as the web continues to grow better at giving us more of what we’re looking for, it also grows exponentially worse at helping us discover what we don’t yet know we ought to know, those invaluable unknown-unknowns. The internet is a magnificent and vitalizing medium in so many ways, but also an unforgiving one in others — amid this echo chamber of our existing convictions and interests, we are nursed on the belief that what isn’t online either doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist at all. And yet the vast majority of human knowledge, what Vannevar Bush memorably called “the common record” as he envisioned the web in 1945, lives in out-of-print books and archives and other materials of which the web makes no mark and thus takes no notice. The public library is the closest thing we have to a time machine of human wisdom, to say nothing of its essential role in democracy.

The Globe Chandelier at the Los Angeles Public Library, from Robert Dawson's book 'The Public Library.' Click image for more.

Smith later adds:

I’m really serious about the library: that’s the best place to learn more. We did lots of other things when we were kids, like collecting bugs, and wild flowers, and frogs, and snakes, and stones—and in the library I promise you there will be a really expert book on each of these, and on many other subjects, written by people who’ve made a life study of those special things. There will be books about trees and radio sets and telescopes and badminton and Indian crafts and metal work, about how to make bows and arrows, how to swim, how to — oh, there’s no end. There’s even a book on how to find a how-to book.

Some silly grownup has even written a book on how to read a book.

The most memorable such silly grownup, of course, was Virginia Woolf, whose meditation on how to read a book is an infinitely rewarding classic.

Some of Smith’s ideas might raise a few cautious eyebrows, but they spring from a place of sincere trust in children’s innate goodness and intelligence. In one such controversial section, he counsels, “You should learn how to sharpen a knife,” adding: “Something else that you’re just going to have to argue out with your mother; I did with my mother, my kids did with their mother. A sharp knife is safer than a dull knife.” Knives, in fact, play a prominent role in many of the activities — from carving patterns into pencils to various versions of flipping an actual pocket knife.

'Take one of the hexagonal pencils (hexagonal means six-sided, as a square is four-sided). These are usually painted yellow. Now, cut a very thin sliver, like this, so you’ve lifted off a little square of paint. Now on the side of the pencil right next to the side you’ve cut, cut another little square of paint that you can sliver off. Now the next side, and so on all around the pencil, making a checkerboard effect.'

In addition to the knives, there are also guns — but the type that would disarm even those of us most uneasy about the notion of kids play-pretending with lethal weapons. Smith’s make-shift “guns” aren’t today’s chillingly realistic plastic replicas, but ones made of wood and rubber bands. They wink at Freud’s assertion that “the opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real” — somehow, it’s hard to imagine such contraptions correlating with fantasies of actual deathly violence.

Wood and rubber band gun: 'The simplest way to make one is just to cut a piece of wood, somewhere between a quarter of an inch and half an inch thick, into a pistol shape. On the top, just jam the point of your knife in so that it makes a flat hole. Then cut a piece of cardboard into little half-inch squares. Put a rubber band on the gun, a rubber band big enough so that when you pull it back over the top of the handle, it’s good and stretched. You can put a thumbtack through the rubber band where it comes over the front end of the pistol. Now jam one of the little cardboard squares into the flat hole, like this. Now if you’ll hold the gun, you’ll find that by rubbing your thumb up, you’ll push the rubber band up over the end of the handle and it will spring forward and flick the card.'

While much of the book’s charm comes from its encouragement of an active, joyful engagement with the natural world — horse chestnuts, for instance, are quite simply “fun to get and fun to open the burrs and fun to look at and fun to shine” — there is also a great deal of fun to be had by the city child. New Yorkers, for instance, might find particular delight in Smith’s bow-and-arrow transformation of broken umbrellas, a common seasonal feature of our urban wilderness.

Alongside the playful projects are also illuminating asides on the imperceptible innovations that underpin modern life. Noting that busted umbrellas are harder to find than they used to be, Smith writes:

In those days, the olden days, umbrellas were made of cotton, or, if you were rich, silk. And people used to walk a lot more then, because there weren’t so many cars, and the umbrellas got used more, and cotton and silk, after a while, rot. Nowadays, umbrellas aren’t used so much, and I imagine they’re made out of nylon, and that doesn’t rot.

Indeed, playful as Smith’s premise is, he also makes a handful of rather poignant asides that often apply to life well beyond childhood play — like this perceptive remark on the perils of public opinion:

If some of the things sound a little childish, figure it out: do you think they’re too childish, or do you think that if someone else saw you doing it, he would think it was childish?

How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself is a treat in its totality. Complement it with The Little Red Schoolbook, a controversial instigator of independent thinking in teens from the same era, then revisit this fantastic grown-up field guide to the art of solitude.

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17 OCTOBER, 2014

A Stocking for a Kitten: Beautiful Vintage Children’s Book Illustrations of Domestic Life in Eastern Europe

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Entitlement, empathy, and ethics, with a large helping of grandmotherly love.

Every summer during my childhood, my parents would ship me off to my maternal grandmother in rural Bulgaria — a land of colorful rugs and handcrafted pottery and grandmothers constantly knitting mittens and stockings and scarves. It seems like a different lifetime now, but those memories were brought back with vitalizing vividness when I chanced upon the 1965 gem A Stocking for a Kitten (public library) — a sweet out-of-print children’s book by Helen Kay, featuring exquisite illustrations of Eastern European domestic life by New York City-born artist Yaroslava.

The story follows little Tanya, who watches her Babushka sit knitting stockings for the grandchildren all day long. As Christmas approaches, one of Tanya’s sisters, Olga, grows impatient — entitled, even — and demands that Babushka hurry up with the knitting so her new stockings would be done already. Babushka takes this as a good opportunity to teach the little girl about patience — a recurring theme in children’s books from that era, it seems — by refusing to complete the stockings until Olga has learned some forbearance and humility. (And as anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe can tell you, negative reinforcement is the name of the game in disciplining there — whether by grandparents or by the government.)

Meanwhile, Tanya puts Babushka’s strike to constructive use and convinces the grandmother to teach her to knit, so that the little girl could make a pair of stockings for her kitten.

In the end, Tanya is overcome with compassion for her sister and stays up all night, finishing Olga’s stockings herself. But in the meantime, the kitten does what kittens do, producing a series of entertaining domestic misadventures.

While the story is decidedly heartwarming — there is entitlement and empathy and even ethics, alongside a large helping of grandmotherly love — it is Yaroslava’s striking art, shaped by her lifelong interest in Slavic folklore, that makes the book so captivating. It is also a gentle reminder that so much of human culture has historically taken place in the domestic sphere, where women make things in rooms, with selflessness, with passion, with quiet integrity.

A Stocking for a Kitten is out of print but well worth the hunt. Complement it with the delightful Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book.

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03 OCTOBER, 2014

Joey and the Birthday Present: Wonderful Vintage Illustrations from Anne Sexton’s Little-Known 1971 Children’s Book

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Two Pulitzer-winning poets tell a sweet story of friendship, compassion, and perspective.

I have a longstanding soft spot for celebrated authors of “grown-up” literature who also wrote generally little-known and invariably lovely children’s books — gems like Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain, Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig by Carson McCullers, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou, The Cats of Copenhagen by James Joyce, The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley, Nurse Lugton’s Curtain by Virginia Woolf, The Bed Book by Sylvia Plath, and To Do by Gertrude Stein, and The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine by Donald Barthelme.

Among their ranks was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, who collaborated with poet and novelist Maxine Cumin, a Pulitzer recipient herself, on a series of four children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971, a decade after their first collaboration, the duo wrote Joey and the Birthday Present (public library), featuring charming vintage illustrations by Caldecott-winning artist Evaline Ness. It tells the story of Joey the brown field mouse, who lives with his large family in nests all over an abandoned farmhouse. After people move in for the summer, Joey is surprised to find a little white mouse named Prince in a cage in their son’s bedroom. The two become unlikely friends, learning about each other’s worlds.

There is wonderfully subtle humor, too. When Joey creeps into the boy’s bedroom, he is baffled to see Prince scurrying on the hamster wheel, “as though he were running away from an invisible cat.” Their first exchange is imbued with equal parts absurdism and indignation, perhaps the two most common mechanisms by which we keep ourselves on our own hamster wheel of approval and achievement:

“You poor thing,” Joey said. “Are you in trouble? What are you running away from?”

“In the first place, I’m not a thing,” said the white mouse.

It is a sweet story of friendship, compassion, and perspective, but is also remarkably bittersweet in the context of Sexton’s reality: the book was published shortly before she took her own life a month before her 46th birthday.

But it is Ness’s enchanting four-color illustrations that make the book immeasurably wonderful its message one of optimism and hope, perhaps the kind Sexton tried so tirelessly to summon, by the very act of writing children’s books, despite her tragic pathology.

Complement Joey and the Birthday Present with Sexton’s letter of motherly advice, then revisit her inaugural collaboration with Kumin, the playful Eggs of Things.

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29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Too-ticky’s Guide to Life: Wisdom on Uncertainty, Presence, and Self-Reliance from Beloved Children’s Book Author Tove Jansson

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“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is among the most imaginative, important, and influential children’s book creators of all time, an artist and writer of unparalleled creative vision and great sensitivity to life’s ineffable nuances. A recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, she had the courage to turn down Walt Disney and build her own creative empire. From her beloved Moomins characters to her spectacular vintage illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit, her stories exude the metaphorical magic of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh tales, the fanciful whimsy of Baum’s Oz world, the contemplative introspection of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and the enchanting symbolism of Carroll’s Wonderland. Philip Pullman has aptly called her “a genius of a very subtle kind” and Neil Gaiman considers her work “a surrealist masterpiece.”

Tove Jansson in 1967 (photograph by Hans Gedda)

Jansson’s singular sensibility springs from her own unusual life. Born to an artistic and rather eccentric family from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, young Tove was raised by wildly creative parents — her father was one of Finland’s greatest sculptors and her mother designed books and postage stamps, illustrated book jackets, and created punchy political cartoons. Jansson completed her formal training in art and graphic design in various institutions across Sweden, Finland, and France, but the origin of her iconic Moomin characters was rooted in an affectionate family joke rather than in her formal training — while studying in Stockholm in her late teens and living with relatives there, Jansson would regularly sneak into the kitchen for treats; her uncle would tease her that a “Moomintroll” lived in the kitchen pantry, ready to breathe cold air down stealthy snackers’ necks.

Tove Jansson: self-portrait © Moomin Characters™

Moominvalley’s main protagonist, Moomintroll, is thus a self-portrait of sorts, but perhaps Jansson’s most interesting character is also the one based on the most intimate part of her life. Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley who solves even the most existential of problems with equal parts practicality and wisdom, was inspired by the love of Jansson’s life — the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, Jansson’s spouse. The two women met in art school during their twenties and remained together until Jansson’s death more than six decades later, collaborating on a lifetime of creative projects — all at a time when queer couples were straddling the impossible line between anguishing invisibility and dangerous visibility.

Jansson and Pietilä crafting characters for the television adaptation of the Moomin series.

Although Too-ticky, clad in her signature red-and-white sweater, appears in a number of the Moomin books, her spirit blossoms most vibrantly in the 1957 gem Moominland Midwinter (public library), where “her common sense often restores order in the valley.” More than mere common sense, however, Too-ticky’s laconic sagacity and aphoristic reflections are full of invaluable wisdom on life.

The book tells the story of Moomintroll who, unlike his family that hibernated from November to April every year, wakes up early and decides to stay up through the harsh Scandinavian winter. He grows angry at the sun’s absence, angry at the raging blizzards, angry at those who seem able to enjoy rather than resent the season of snow and ice. It is a tale of learning to live with the vital discomfort of uncertainty, to get lost in order to find oneself, to surrender to the rhythms of life rather than agonizing in resistance.

Lost in the forest, Moomintroll comes upon a warm light emanating from a cozy hole someone had dug for shelter — “someone who lay looking up at the serene winter sky and whistling very softly to herself.” It is, of course, Too-ticky. When Moomintroll inquires about the song she is whistling, she replies, Whitman-like, with a wonderfully metaphorical answer:

It’s a song of myself… The refrain is about the things one can’t understand. I’m thinking about the aurora borealis. You can’t tell if it really does exist or if it just looks like existing. All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.

This theme of uncertainty and of finding joy in questioning reality is a recurring one for Too-ticky. Echoing the first of Bertrand Russell’s ten famous commandments of teaching, learning, and life“Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” — she offers comforting solidarity in Moomintroll’s lament that he doesn’t understand the snow:

I don’t either… You believe it’s cold, but if you build yourself a snowhouse it’s warm. You think it’s white, but at times it looks pink, and another time it’s blue. It can be softer than anything, and then again harder than stone. Nothing is certain.

In many ways, Too-ticky’s wisdom seems almost Zen Buddhist in nature. In addition to championing the ability to be at peace with uncertainty, she also advocates a minimalist approach to material possessions — when Moomintroll discovers, distraught and indignant, that someone is secretly smuggling things out of his sleeping family’s house, Too-ticky responds:

That’s nice, isn’t it? You’ve got too many things about you. As well as things you remember, and things you’re dreaming about.

Too-ticky is also a sage of the “slow churn” and wise champion of the idea that “anything worthwhile takes a long time.” (Janssen would certainly know — she wrote her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, in 1939 and published it in 1945, but it was not a success; her first critical acclaim arrived in 1946, nearly a decade after she had created the Moomins, with the publication of Comet in Moominland.) When Moomintroll grows angry and impatient with the sun’s refusal to rise, Too-ticky reminds him that hurrying is a toxic way of trying to resist the present:

Don’t be in such a hurry… Soon now. Sit down and wait.

When the sun does appear, it flits across the horizon for a fleeting moment, only to set back down. Moomintroll is even more frustrated, but Too-ticky assures him that the sun, like the myth of the overnight success, follows an incremental rise to brilliance:

He’ll return tomorrow… And then he’ll be a tiny bit bigger, about like a piece of cheese rind. Take it easy.

The story is also a gentle primer on evolution. When Moomintroll, against Too-ticky’s instruction, opens her secret cabinet and finds a strange creature living there, he tells her it was “only a sort of old rat,” but she corrects him:

That was no rat. It was a troll. A troll of the kind you were yourself before you became a Moomin. That was how you looked a thousand years ago.

Moomintroll is so unsettled by the notion that he is related to a mere rat — an elegant allegory for why some people are drawn to such defensive fancies as Young Earth creationism — he storms into the attic to look for an old family album. Janssen writes:

Page after page of dignified Moomins, most often reproduced standing in front of porcelain stoves, or on fret-worked verandahs. Not a single one of them resembled the cupboard troll. “Must be a mistake,” Moomintroll thought. “He can’t be any relation of mine.”

Slowly, Moomintroll makes peace with Too-ticky’s knowledge:

He went down and looked at his sleeping Pappa. Only the nose bore some resemblance to the troll’s. But possibly, a thousand years ago.

There is almost a cosmology element to this undercurrent — a reminder that, however discomfiting this too may be to most humans, we are indeed a cosmic accident. Janssen traces the evolution of Moomintroll’s understanding:

Suddenly he felt very proud of having an ancestor. And it cheered him no little to think that Little My [Moomintroll’s sister] had no pedigree at all, but rather had come into the world by chance.

But perhaps her most profound wisdom deals with our quintessential struggle to make peace with death, which stems from an inability to recognize the comforting interconnectedness of life. When the Lady of the Cold — the beautiful but formidable priestess of the Great Cold, capable of turning into an icicle any fool so bewitched as to look straight into her eyes — freezes the cheerful little squirrel Moomintroll had befriended, Too-ticky sighs:

It’s very hard to tell if people take any pleasure in their tails when they’re dead.

Death, too, is part of nature’s necessary cycles of growth and decay. When Moomintroll and Little My remonstrate the very mention of death, Too-ticky responds:

When one’s dead, then one’s dead. This squirrel will become earth all in his time. And later on still there’ll grow trees from him, with new squirrels skipping about in them. Do you think that’s so very sad?

Too-ticky’s greatest gift, it appears, is a certain quality of presence — the kind she cultivated in “her own private winter world that had followed its own strange rules year after year” — that allows her to feel one with the world. It is from that standpoint that, when spring finally arrives, she responds to Moomintroll’s accusation that she hadn’t comforted him during the long winter by offering assurance that spring will come, but instead focused on what the world had to offer right there and then. Too-ticky’s answer, emanating a kind of Emerson-like ideal of self-reliance, rings with extraordinary, if uncomfortable, poignancy:

One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.

Moomintroll imbibes Too-ticky’s existential lesson. Soon, when his friend the Snork Maiden comes across “the first brave nose-tip of a crocus” shyly trying to push through snow, she suggests they put a glass over it to protect it from the frost at night. But Moomintroll objects:

No, don’t do that. Let it fight it out. I believe it’s going to do still better if things aren’t so easy.

Decades before the groundbreaking research on why cultivating grit is the greatest key to success, Jansson made the same point with great subtlety and wisdom.

Moominland Midwinter is an immeasurably wonderful read in its entirety, as are all of Jansson’s Moomin books. For another taste, see my favorite one.

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