Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Darkest, Most Controversial Yet Most Hopeful Children’s Book

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A moving cry for mercy, for light, and for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of hopeless darkness.

One of Maurice Sendak‘s most misunderstood qualities, yet also arguably the very same one that rendered him one of the most innovative and influential storytellers of all time, was his deep faith in children’s resilience and his unflinching refusal to allow the fears and self-censorship of grownups to sugarcoat the world for children, who he believed possess enormous emotional intelligence in processing the dark — an evolution of Tolkien’s assertion that there is no such thing as writing “for children,” which Sendak echoed in his final interview, indignantly telling Stephen Colbert: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!'”

But while many of Sendak’s books have been deemed controversial precisely out of this misunderstanding, from the banning of In the Night Kitchen to the outrage over his sensual illustrations of Melville, no book of his has drawn a thicker cloud of controversy than the 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (public library) — an unusual fusion of two traditional Mother Goose nursery rhymes, “In the Dumps” and “Jack and Gye,” reimagined and interpreted by Sendak’s singular sensibility, with enormously rich cultural and personal subtext.

Created at the piercing pinnacle of the AIDS plague and amid an epidemic of homelessness, it is a highly symbolic, sensitive tale that reads almost like a cry for mercy, for light, for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of incomprehensible heartbreak and grimness. It is, above all, a living monument to hope — one built not on the denial of hopelessness but on its delicate demolition.

On a most basic level, the story follows a famished black baby, part of a clan of homeless children dressed in newspaper and living in boxes, kidnapped by a gang of giant rats. Jack and Guy, who are strolling nearby and first brush the homeless kids off, witness the kidnapping and set out to rescue the boy. But the rats challenge them to a rigged game of bridge, with the child as the prize. After a series of challenges that play out across a number of scary scenes, Jack and Guy emerge victorious and save the boy with the help of the omniscient Moon and a mighty white cat that chases the rats away.

But the book’s true magic lies in its integration of Sendak’s many identities — the son of Holocaust survivors, a gay man witnessing the devastation of AIDS, a deft juggler of darkness and light.

St. Paul’s Bakery and Orphanage, where the story is set, is a horrible place reminiscent of Auschwitz. In the game of bridge, “diamonds are trumps,” a phrase with a poignant double meaning, subtly implicating the avarice of the world’s diamond-slingers and Donald Trumps in the systemic social malady of homelessness — something reflected in the clever wordplay of the book’s title itself, suggesting that homelessness isn’t limited to the homeless but is a problem we’re all in together, equally responsible for its solution.

Jack and Guy appear like a gay couple, and their triumph in rescuing the child resembles an adoption, two decades before that was an acceptable subject for a children’s book. “And we’ll bring him up / As other folk do,” the final pages read — and, once again, a double meaning reveals itself as two characters are depicted with wings on their backs, lifting off into the sky, lending the phrase “we’ll bring him up” an aura of salvation. In the end, the three curl up as a makeshift family amidst a world that is still vastly imperfect but full of love.

We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are thumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Without walls

Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do

In many ways, this is Sendak’s most important and most personal book. In fact, Sendak would resurrect the characters of Jack and Guy two decades later in his breathtaking final book, a posthumously published love letter to the world and to his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. Jack and Guy, according to playwright Tony Kushner, a dear friend of Sendak’s, represented the two most important people in the beloved illustrator’s life — Jack was his real-life brother Jack, whose death devastated Sendak, and Guy was Eugene, the love of Sendak’s life, with whom the artist shared half a century of what would have been given the legal dignity of a marriage had the couple lived to see the dawn of marriage equality. (Glynn died in 2007, and Sendak thirteen months before the defeat of DOMA.)

All throughout, the book emanates Sendak’s greatest lifelong influence — like the verses and drawings of William Blake, Sendak’s visual poetry in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is deeply concerned with the human spirit and, especially, with the plight of children.

Complement this many-layered gem with more of Sendak’s lesser-known work, including his beautiful posters celebrating the joy of reading, his unreleased drawings, his formative, rare vintage illustrations for William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and his provocative art for Melville’s Pierre.

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08 AUGUST, 2014

The ABC Bunny: A Sweet and Unusual Alphabet Book from 1934

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“X is for eXit — off, away!”

In 1934, six years after creating the oldest American picture-book still in print and a year before her brilliant proto-feminist children’s book, pioneering artist, author, illustrator, and translator Wanda Gág released The ABC Bunny (public library). Given my enormous soft spot for alphabet books and my deep admiration for Gág’s influential work, I was instantly taken with this Newbery Medal-winning vintage gem.

But perhaps most endearing of all is the fact that the project was a true family affair — written and illustrated by Wanda, it was hand-lettered by her brother Howard and featured a music score composed by her sister Flavia. As such, it carries a subtle meta-reminder of how important it is not only to equip young minds with, say, the mechanics of the alphabet but also to envelop them in the kind of parenting that nurtures creativity and encourages children to develop their different abilities. (For another famous creative family, see Virginia Woolf’s collaboration with her teenage nephews, the sons of her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, as well as Bell’s woodcuts for one of Woolf’s lesser-known collections.)

Pair The ABC Bunny with Gág’s Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework, then treat yourself to more lovely and unusual alphabet books by Edward Gorey, Gertrude Stein, Quentin Blake, Maurice Sendak, and more Edward Gorey.

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23 JULY, 2014

How a Vintage Children’s Book Illustrated by Lynd Ward Saved New York’s Iconic Little Red Lighthouse

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A timeless testament to the power of stirring the collective imagination.

In 1880, a little lighthouse was erected on New Jersey’s Sandy Hook to guide arriving ships into New York Harbor. But by 1917, this friendly nocturnal sherpa had become obsolete, so it was dismantled and put in storage. Four years later, it was reassembled on the Hudson River, in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, where it warned sailors along this vital industrial route about a fiercely dangerous part of the shore called Jeffrey’s Hook. The relocated lighthouse, renamed Jeffrey’s Hook Light, stood forty feet tall, proud of its responsibility and it status as the only lighthouse on the island of Manhattan.

Its glory days, however, lasted only a decade. The formidable George Washington Bridge was built to tower over it in 1931 and the steel giant’s bright lights rendered the little lighthouse obsolete once more. But it had already captured the hearts and imagination of the community and, eventually, the nation: In 1942, children’s book author Hildegarde Swift (1890–1977) wrote The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (public library) — a charming homage to the lonesome landmark that portrays the lighthouse as the dutiful and intrepid guardian of the river, featuring gorgeous illustrations by none other than the great Lynd Ward (1905–1985), godfather of the graphic novel.

Once upon a time a little lighthouse was built on a sharp point of the shore in the Hudson Valley.

It was round and fat and red.

It was fat and red and jolly.

And it was VERY, VERY PROUD.

In 1951, after decommissioning the lighthouse and extinguishing its lamp, the U.S. Coast Guard moved to dismantle it and auction off the parts, but a public outcry bubbled up and people flooded city officials with letters and money seeking to save the iconic lighthouse — all thanks to the book, which had by then become beloved by a generation.

On July 23, 1951, the Coast Guard surrendered to the public outpour of love and gave the property to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1979, it was inducted into the National Register of Historic Parks. In 2000, it received a fresh coat of red paint, true to its historic color in The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, which was itself restored and republished in 2003 and remains a heartening testament to the fact that whenever the collective imagination is stirred in a meaningful way, social good invariably results.

Today, the little red lighthouse stands as an iconic piece of New York’s history, as well as a spectacular biking destination.

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08 JULY, 2014

The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework: A Proto-Feminist Children’s Book from 1935

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A visionary fable about equality delivered through a comic Rube Goldberg machine of domestic disaster.

In 1928, nearly a century before the internet cat memes reached their crescendo, pioneering artist, author, illustrator, and translator Wanda Gág won the prestigious Newbery and Lewis Carroll Shelf awards for her children’s book Millions of Cats, the oldest American picture-book still in print. But Gág’s visionary storytelling presaged social phenomena far more consequential than Buzzfeed. Her most prescient book was her penultimate one, Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework (public library) — a proto-feminist story published in 1935, two decades before the second wave of feminism and more than 75 years before Lean In.

Gág, who inspired beloved artists like Maurice Sendak and who did for picture-books what Nellie Bly did for journalism, tells an old fable-like story relayed to her by her grandmother — a witty parable about gender equality in work and housework, written mere months before George Orwell contemplated the subject.

Wanda Gág

Gág tells the story of the peasant Fritzl, who works the fields all day long, and his wife Liesi, who tends to their humble house:

They both worked hard, but Fritzl always thought that he worked harder. Evenings when he came home from the field, he sat down, mopped his face with his big red handkerchief, and said: “Hu! How hot it was in the sun today, and how hard I did work. Little do you know, Liesi, what a man’s work is like, little do you know! Your work now, ’tis nothing at all.”

“’Tis none too easy,” said Liesi.

“None too easy!” cried Fritzl. “All you do is to putter and potter around the house a bit — surely there’s nothing hard about such things.”

To prove her point, Liesi suggests that they swap roles for a day, so that Fritzl can “putter and potter around” for a taste of her life. Naively, he agrees.

At the crack of dawn, Liesi sets out for the fields with a jug of water and a scythe, while Fritzl begins “frying a string of juicy sausages for his breakfast.”

But as he holds the pot over the burning fire, he is lured by fantasies of a cold glass of cider. And so begins his Rube Goldberg machine of domestic disaster.

When he heads to the cellar to help himself to some cider, the dog runs off with the sausages. Fritzl chases after it, only to shrug “Na, na! What’s gone is gone.” in defeat. He returns to the house, only to find that he had forgotten to the bung back in the barrel and the cider had flooded the cellar.

“What’s gone is gone,” he sighs once more and moves on to his next task — churning butter. Stationing himself under a tree, where his little daughter Kinndli is playing in the grass, Fritzl begins to churn as hard as he can, only to realize he had forgotten to give the cow water on this hot summer day.

Once at the barn, he figures he should also feed her, but instead of taking her to the meadow, decides to keep her close by and let her graze on the grassy roof of the house, which is built on the side of a small hill.

But just as he returns to the churning station, he sees little Kinndli climbing on, then falling off the churn, spilling all the half-churned cream onto herself. Already exasperated, Fritzl leaves the little girl to dry in the sun and moves on to another urgent errand — making dinner for Liesi, as the day had progressed and she would be home soon. Gág writes:

With big fast steps Fritzl hurried off to the garden. He gathered potatoes and onions, carrots and cabbages, beets and beans, turnips, parsley and celery.

“A little of everything, that will make a good soup,” said Fritzl as he went back to the house, his arms so full of vegetables that he could not even close the garden gate behind him.

As he stations himself in the kitchen to begin cutting and paring away — “How the man did work, and how the peelings and parings did fly!” — he hears a strange sound coming from above. The comedy of errors is about to climax: To keep the cow from strutting on the roof, Fritzl ties a rope around her belly, drops it through the chimney, and loops the other end around his own waist.

He merrily continues making the soup, when suddenly…

Before long, there came Liesi home from the fields with the water jug in her hand and the scythe over her shoulder.

But Hulla! Hui! What was that hanging over the edge of the roof? The cow? Yes, the cow, and halfchoked she was, too, with her eyes bulging and her tongue hanging out.

Liesi lost no time. She took her scythe — and ritsch! rotsch! — the rope was cut, and there was the cow wobbling on her four legs, but alive and well, heaven be praised!

Liesi walks over to the garden only to find the gate open, with all their pigs and goats and geese gone. Nearby, she spots her little daughter sticky with semi-dried butter. She sees the dog laying in the grass, looking “none too well” from his mischievous sausage feast. She discovers the cellar flood, with cider “all over the floor and halfway up the stairs,” and the kitchen, covered with produce peelings and filthy pots.

Finally, she walks toward the fireplace — anyone with even a basic understanding of physics can guess what happened to poor Fritzl once the cow was set free from the rope:

Hu! Hulla! Hui What was that in the soup-kettle? Two arms were waving, two legs were kicking, and a gurgle, bubbly and weak-like, was coming up out of the water.

“Na, na! What can this mean?” cried Liesi. She did not know (but we do — yes?) that when she saved the cow outside, something happened to Fritzl inside. Yes, yes, as soon as the cow’s rope was cut, Fritzl, poor man, he dropped down the chimney and crash! splash! fell right into the kettle of soup in the fireplace.

Wág’s refreshing inversion of gender stereotypes shines once more as Liesi plays the knight-in-shining-armor part and rescues her husband from this domestic nightmare of his own making, pulling him out of the pot “with a cabbage-leaf in his hair, celery in his pocket, and a sprig of parsley over one ear.”

The story ends with an exchange partway between morality tale and political statement:

“Na, na, my man!” said Liesi. “Is that the way you keep house — yes?”

“Oh Liesi, Liesi!” sputtered Fritzl. “You’re right—that work of yours, ’tis none too easy.”

“’Tis a little hard at first,” said Liesi, “but tomorrow, maybe, you’ll do better.”

“Nay, nay!” cried Fritzl. “What’s gone is gone, and so is my housework from this day on. Please, please, my Liesi — let me go back to my work in the fields, and never more will I say that my work is harder than yours.”

“Well then,” said Liesi, “if that’s how it is, we surely can live in peace and happiness for ever and ever.”

And that they did.

All these decades later, Gone Is Gone remains an absolute delight, layered and lovely, as does the rest of Wág’s work. Complement this particular gem with Susan Sontag on how gender role stereotypes limit us.

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