Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

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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08 MAY, 2014

Visionary Vintage Children’s Book Celebrates Gender Equality, Ethnic Diversity, and Space Exploration

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“The blackness of space was dotted with stars.”

For all their immeasurable delight, children’s books also have a serious cultural responsibility — they capture young minds and plant in them the seeds that blossom into beliefs about what is socially acceptable, what is right and wrong, and what is possible. This weight of possibility is both a blessing and a burden, given the terrible track record children’s books have of celebrating diversity — both ethnically and in terms of gender norms. Only 31 percent of children’s books feature female heroines, and even those consistently purvey limiting gender expectations; of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, a mere 93 were about black people. The ones that fully embrace cultural diversity or empower girls are few and far between, to say nothing of those rare specimens that get girls excited about science.

One of the most heartening antidotes to this lamentable state of affairs comes from 1973. Four years after the historic moon landing, as the world was falling in love with space exploration, the education arm of the Xerox Corporation published Blast Off (public library) — an extraordinarily imaginative little book by two women writers, Linda C. Cain and Susan Rosenbaum, illustrated by the legendary duo Leo and Diane Dillon, best-known for illustrating the most popular edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

It is a story of space flight, whose protagonist is not only a girl but a black girl — and not a girl who is being mansplained about the way of the world, but a girl who does the explaining herself.

“For as long as she could remember, Regina Williams wanted to become an astronaut,” the story begins. One day, as Regina is drawing a diagram of a rocket on the sidewalk by her house, two of her friends come by and inquire about the “funny-shaped thing.”

She explains that it’s a spaceship and shares her dream of flying on a real one someday:

I’ll zoom through the sky into space. I’ll find new worlds and maybe meet new people, and I’ll come back and be famous!

Her friends just laugh at her and walk away, which leaves Regina all the more determined to pursue her dream. She sets out to build her very own spaceship out of junk — a few boxes and an old trash can become her space capsule — as she wonders whether her dream of becoming an astronaut will ever come true.

The story continues and, being a children’s tale, has a happy ending — but at its heart is a proposition both bittersweet and truly visionary: It would be exactly a decade until Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, and nearly twenty years until Mae Jemison launched into the cosmos as the first African American astronaut.

Though long out of print and somewhat dated in its details, Blast Off endures as a heartening antidote to a culture that all too frequently contains and confines children’s dreams by selling them lesser visions of the possible, failing to cultivate in them the essential capacity to imagine immensities.

What might a contemporary version of this spirit look like? Perhaps the most heartening example today remains Carla Torres’s Larry and Friends.

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01 MAY, 2014

Carson McCullers’s Little-Known 1964 Illustrated Children’s Book

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Refreshingly direct verses with a strong existential bend and an undercurrent of science and astronomy.

As a lover of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups — including these gems by Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and J.R.R. Tolkien — I was thrilled to discover that in 1964, Carson McCullers penned Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig (public library), a charming collection of short verses for young readers illustrated by the acclaimed German set designer and painter Rolf Gérard.

Written three years before her death, by which point McCullers had suffered multiple strokes and had lived with the entire left side of her body paralyzed for more than 15 years, the refreshingly direct poems straddle a peculiar balance between innocent optimism and wistful contemplation.

Many of the poems not only have an existential bend, concerned with such contemporary questions of science and philosophy as the nature of nothingness and why the world exists, but they also exude a palpable enchantment with science, astronomy, and cosmology — no doubt due to being written during the golden age of space exploration.

HOW HIGH IS THE SKY

The sky is higher than a tree I know.
I know it’s higher than an airplane
But when at night there is a starry sky —
I wonder which is higher
Stars or sky?

I SOMETIMES WONDER

I do not wonder where everything is.
Everywhere is shops and children, trees and air,
Our gate, our garden, these are everywhere.
But Mama darling, Papa dear, I sometimes wonder
Where is nowhere?

THE UNSEEN

I’ve seen a mountain,
I’ve seen the shore,
I’ve seen so many, many things more;
I’ve seen fireflies who light up in the dark,
I’ve even seen Yellowstone Park.
But the thing that I, and anybody else has
Never seen, I swear,
Neither I nor anybody else has ever seen air.

ASTRONAUT

I’m not afraid of space ships or orbital flights
Where the lights are blue and purple and
There is a zooming sound.
I lie in my space suit important and brave
While zip zing the world goes round.

Today at recess Buddy dared me to fly
To the moon, dared and double dared.
While I was thinking he called me chicken.
I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.

I am afraid of the black-patched pirate.
I am afraid of Captain Hook
And of dares and double dares,
While I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.

Others pull into question the seeming absurdities of adult conventions:

A RAT AND A RAINBOW

This afternoon the sun shone while it showered.
This afternoon there was a rainbow —
Bands of orange, gold and red, like many-colored flowers
Bent in a big bow across the sky.
Children ran across wet grass, pointing at the
Rainbow shouting, “Look, oh my!”
Why is it rude to point at people,
But not to point at a rat or a rainbow?

Others still are bittersweet, even decidedly wistful, exploring such darker subjects as loneliness, hopelessness, and the interplay between badness and sadness:

GIRAFFE

At the zoo I saw: A long-necked, velvety Giraffe
Whose small head, high above the strawy, zoo-y smells
Seemed to be dreaming
Was she dreaming of African jungles and African plains
That she would never see again?

SPORT WILLIAMS

I knew Sport Williams in second grade
He was a bad boy.
He was a repeater.
Failed in his number work,
Scribbled in his reader.
He threw spitballs.
He stole money,
And always lied and said
He had not done it.

When Betty had a sore toe
And had to go to school
With a cut-out bedroom slipper
Sport jumped into the air
And stayed there
Until he landed on Betty’s sore toe
In the cut-out bedroom slipper
On Purpose!

Oh! Sport was a bad boy.
No one loved him but his mother.
And when he was suspended, she said, “He was not
A bad boy,
But a sad boy…” because
No one loved him but her, his mother.

PANDORA’S BOX

There was a little girl called Pandora
Who opened a magic box.
The magic box was a tragic box,
So look what happened to poor Pandora.

SWEET AS A PICKLE AND CLEAN AS A PIG

When you’re sweet as a pickle
And clean as a pig —
I’ll give you a nickel
And dance you a jig.

Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig, should you be so lucky to track down a surviving copy, is an absolute treasure. Complement it with Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s verses, Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.

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