Brain Pickings

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

By:

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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated by Oscar Wilde

By:

“Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas.”

Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854–November 30, 1900) was not only the twentieth century’s first pop-culture celebrity, but also arguably the most tragic one — at the height of his literary celebrity, his strong opinions and the socially unacceptable romance behind his exquisite love letters led to a protracted series of trials, the last of which landed Wilde in prison to serve two years of “hard labor” for charges of libel and “gross indecency.”

During the trials, Defense Attorney Edward Carson cross-examined 41-year-old Wilde (who, in making a characteristically Wildean complete mockery of the testimony, stated that he was 39 but had “no wish to pose as being young”) about two of his most controversial public texts, particularly a short collection of maxims and aphorisms titled “A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated” — the origin of the famous Wilde remark that Steven Pinker quoted in his excellent modern guide to elegant writing. The piece was first published anonymously in the November 17, 1894, issue of the Saturday Review and eventually included in the posthumous tome The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays (public library).

The aphorisms in the piece, while decidedly witty, are not merely so — from behind the veneer of satirical pomp, they also shine a wise sidewise gleam on such immutable issues as the tyranny of public opinion, why friendship eclipses romantic love, the usefulness of “useless” knowledge, and the gift of imperfection.

A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated

Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas.

The English are always degrading truths into facts. When a truth becomes a fact it loses all its intellectual value.

It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.

The only link between Literature and Drama left to us in England at the present moment is the bill of the play.

In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.

Most women are so artificial that they have no sense of Art. Most men are so natural that they have no sense of Beauty.

Friendship is far more tragic than love. It lasts longer.

What is abnormal in Life stands in normal relations to Art. It is the only thing in Life that stands in normal relations to Art.

A subject that is beautiful in itself gives no suggestion to the artist. It lacks imperfection.

The only thing that the artist cannot see is the obvious. The only thing that the public can see is the obvious. The result is the Criticism of the Journalist.

Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.

To be really medieval one should have no body. To be really modern one should have no soul. To be really Greek one should have no clothes.

Dandyism is the assertion of the absolute modernity of Beauty.

The only thing that can console one for being poor is extravagance. The only thing that can console one for being rich is economy.

One should never listen. To listen is a sign of indifference to one’s hearers.

Even the disciple has his uses. He stands behind one’s throne, and at the moment of one’s triumph whispers in one’s ear that, after all, one is immortal.

The criminal classes are so close to us that even the policemen can see them. They are so far away from us that only the poet can understand them.

Those whom the gods love grow young.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays remains the most comprehensive selection of Wilde’s wit and wisdom ever published or publishable. Complement it with Wilde’s spectacular love letters to Sir Alfred “Bosie” Taylor, undoubtedly among history’s most enchanting queer love letters.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Umbrella: A Tender Illustrated Love Letter to Time, Anticipation, and the Art of Waiting by Mid-Century Japanese Artist Taro Yashima

By:

A beautiful and subtle ode to the fleeting moment between a bird and a balloon.

Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu (1908–1994) was already a successful artist in Japan when he and his wife, Tamao, also an artist, arrived in New York City in 1939 to study at the esteemed Art Students League. Shortly after their arrival, the United States declared war on Japan. Iwamatsu enlisted in the American Army and joined the Office of War Information and in the Office of Strategic Services as an artist. He adopted the pseudonym Taro Yashima in order to protect his remaining family in Japan — notably, his young son Mako, who had remained with his grandparents. When the war ended, the family retrieved Mako from Japan, welcomed a new baby girl named Momo, and was granted permanent residence thanks to a new bill enacted by Congress. But Iwamatsu kept his pseudonym and it was under it that he created some of the most lyrical and imaginative mid-century children’s books. The loveliest among them is the 1958 gem Umbrella (public library) — the story of a young Japanese girl born in New York City, modeled and named after Yashima’s own daughter, who receives a riveting pair of red rain boots and a blue umbrella for her birthday and grows restless for a rainy day on which to strut the gifts.

Behind Yashima’s immeasurably tender illustrations and crisp words is a subtler symbolic narrative about patience, the art of delay, what happens when we bring active attention to everyday life, and time’s remarkable tendency to slow down when we most want it to speed up.

When the coveted rainy day finally arrives amid New York’s Indian summer, Momo is so excited that she slips the boots onto her bare feet and rushes out the door, seeing afresh the familiar raindrops bouncing on the pavement.

On the umbrella,
raindrops made a wonderful music
she never had heard before —

Bon polo
bon polo
ponpolo ponpolo
ponpolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo

Though the story ends with Momo as “a big girl now,” a grown woman who has forgotten the story of the umbrella and that rainy day, Yashima leaves us with a subtle, ingenious wink at the small, imperceptible changes that make up the continuity of our lives — the bird and the balloon depicted on the book’s front endpapers have switched places by the back endpapers, bookending a fleeting slice of life amid the urban landscape. A brief moment has come and gone, just like all the micro-moments of which the totality of a life is woven, moments that begin to count only when we learn to live with presence.

Umbrella is immeasurably wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with Little Boy Brown, a very different yet equally rewarding mid-century ode to loneliness and childhood in New York City.

Thanks, Daneet

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.