Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

30 APRIL, 2014

Lisbeth Zwerger’s Imaginative Illustrations for Alice in Wonderland

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“Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined…”

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, commonly shorthanded to Alice in Wonderland, isn’t only one of the most imaginative and influential children’s books of all time, but also one of the most enduringly alluring to artists for visual reinterpretation — no doubt precisely due to its fanciful nature and bold subversion of reality. Since John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the Carroll classic has been reimagined by such visionary artists as Leonard Weisgard, Ralph Steadman, Yayoi Kusama, John Vernon Lord, and even Salvador Dalí.

As an enormous admirer of Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger’s mind and work, I was thrilled to track down a used copy of a sublime out-of-print edition of Alice in Wonderland (public library) featuring Zwerger’s inventive, irreverent, and tenderly tantalizing drawings, published in 1999, three years after her enchanting reimagining of The Wizard of Oz.

The book begins with Carroll’s prefatory poem from the book, which recounts the afternoon boat trip on which he first told the Alice in Wonderland story to the three little Liddell sisters — Lorina (“Prima”), Alice (“Secunda”), the real-life girl who inspired the tale, and Edith (“Tertia”):

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?

Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict to “begin it”:
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
“There will be nonsense in it!”
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.

Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird or beast —
And half believe it true.

And ever, as the story drained
The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
To put the subject by,
“The rest next time—” “It is next time!”
The happy voices cry.

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out—
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s wither’d wreath of flowers
Pluck’d in far-off land.

What makes Zwerger’s aesthetic particularly bewitching is her ability to render even the wildest feats of fancy in a soft and subdued style that tickles the imagination into animating the characters and scenes with life.

Though Alice in Wonderland is currently out of print, you can still find used copies online and at the library. Complement it with some radically different takes on the Carroll classic from Ralph Steadman, Yayoi Kusama, and John Vernon Lord.

Some of Zwerger’s prints, including one of the Alice cover illustration, are available on ArtKandy.

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23 APRIL, 2014

Upside Down Day: Rare and Wonderful Vintage Children’s Book by the Head of NASA’s Public Affairs Office

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An ode to those times when everything seems backwards.

In 1968, less than a year before the iconic NASA moon landing, a charming children’s book titled Upside Down Day (public library) made its debut. What made it special weren’t just the vibrant illustrations by artist Kelly Oechsli, but that it was written by Julian Scheer — the head of NASA’s Public Affairs Office, responsible for enchanting Americans with the space program. There is something immeasurably wonderful about knowing that the person in charge of tickling the public imagination into embracing the pursuit of space exploration — a pursuit subject to tragic neglect today — was himself an imaginative storyteller who knew how to inhabit that delicate intersection of whimsy and irreverence.

Given Scheer’s background, it is quite likely that the story of a day where nothing works as expected was inspired by and teases children into considering the physics of space, which pays no heed to earthly expectations — from the way gravity warps the notions of up and down to the soundlessness of space, which makes the mooing of cows and the ring of a bell inaudible amid the cosmic ether.

Julian Scheer (left) and Kelly Oechsli

Though the book, sadly, rests in the cemetery of out-of-print vintage gems, I was able to hunt down a copy — here is a peek inside for our shared delight:

Should you be so fortunate to track down a surviving copy, Upside Down Day is a treat well worth the hunt. Complement it with Weight and Weightlessness, another spacetastic illustrated gem from the same era, and the story of how Scheer and his team marketed the moon.

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18 APRIL, 2014

Mr. Bliss: Tolkien’s Little-Known Children’s Book for His Own Kids, Lovingly Handwritten and Illustrated by the Author Himself

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“‘What color?’ said Mr. Binks. ‘Bright yellow,’ said Mr. Bliss, ‘inside and out.’”

J.R.R. Tolkien firmly believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and yet, unbeknownst to most, he joined the ranks of famous authors of literature for grown-ups who wrote little-known children’s books — including Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein — and actually penned a book specifically for kids. He wrote Mr. Bliss (public library) for his own two children when they were small — much like the fairy tales E.E. Cummings wrote for his only daughter, Sylvia Plath’s verses for her kids, and the controversial story Faulkner penned for the daughter of the woman he’d later marry. Though it is unclear precisely when Tolkien created Mr. Bliss, the tale was inspired by his first car, which he purchased in 1932. It was published posthumously exactly fifty years later. Tolkien went on to use two of the character names from the book, Gaffer Gamgee and Boffin, in The Lord of the Rings.

The book, affectionately handwritten and illustrated by Tolkien himself — who, also unbeknownst to many, was a dedicated artist — tells the story of Mr. Bliss, a lovable eccentric known for his exceptionally tall hats and his “girabbits,” the giraffe-headed, rabbit-bodied creatures that live in his backyard. One day, Mr. Bliss decides to buy his very first motor car (and to my personal delight, as someone strongly partial to yellow, he proclaims to the salesman that he wants it to be “bright yellow, inside and out.”) But his first drive en route to a friend’s house soon turns into a Rube Goldberg machine of disaster as he collides with nearly everything imaginable, then gets kidnapped by three bears.

The ending, of course, is equal parts joyful and quirky.

As far as lesser-known children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature go, Mr. Bliss is a winner. Complement it with Tolkien’s gorgeous art, then revisit some more fairly obscure children’s books by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

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