Brain Pickings

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: Comic Artists Reimagine Beloved Childhood Classics, from Tolstoy’s Fairy Tales to Harry Potter

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“One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.”

“Tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully,” artist Andrea Dezsö told me in our conversation about her striking black-and-white illustrations for the little-known original edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Some of history’s most skillful wielding of tales has refused to bend to the false divide between “children’s” and “adult” storytelling — there are the Grimms themselves, of course, but also Tolkien, who vehemently believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children”; Maurice Sendak, who in his final interview scoffed that he has never written for children; Neil Gaiman, who opposes the idea of protecting children from the dark; Madeleine L’Engle, who believed that the best children’s books ask questions that “disturb someone’s universe”; and most of all C.S. Lewis, who elegantly eviscerated the notion that literature should treat children as a special species.

On the heels of the year’s best children’s books comes a magnificent embodiment of that ethos in The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: The World’s Greatest Kids’ Lit as Comics and Visuals (public library | IndieBound) — the latest installment in an ongoing series of comic adaptations of beloved works of literature.

In this volume, fifty contemporary graphic artists reimagine such classics as The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Aesop’s fables, Russian fairy tales, Harry Potter, and even The Diary of Anne Frank.

Series editor Russ Kick writes in the introduction:

Part of the appeal is my belief that “children’s literature” can be great literature, period. Works meant primarily for children or teens are usually ghettoized, considered unworthy of serious treatment and study. But the best of it achieves a greatness through heightened use of language, through examination of universal themes and human dilemmas, and through nuance and layers of meaning. One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.

[…]

Children’s literature is wild. It’s often bizarre, grotesque, dark, and violent. It seems odd that many of these works are considered children’s literature… Danger everywhere! Wolves, dogs, tigers, condors, thieves, wicked stepmothers, witches, giants, pirates, disease, Nazis… There’s something about seeing a children’s work fully illustrated sequentially to make the terror and weirdness that much more visceral, that undeniable.

[…]

We ended up with over forty adaptations and over sixty stand-alone illustrations that treat children’s literature with the respect, daring, and verve it deserves. In a strange twist, we created a book that many people may think isn’t suitable for children… They might be right. The book has obvious appeal for teens and adults, and maybe they’re the only audience for a work that shows so many bizarre, upsetting, and nightmarish images. Or perhaps we should keep in mind something Sendak said in one of his final interviews: “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

Here are a few of my favorites, beginning with British illustrator and Penguin book-cover designer Lesley Barnes’s breathtaking illustrations for the Russian fairy tale “Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf,” which my grandmother used to read to me when I was little and which graces the book’s cover:

American comic artist Lucy Knisley, who read Harry Potter when she was fourteen, reimagines the famed J.K. Rowling series:

Artist Dasha Tolstikova — the illustrator behind the heartwarming bibliophile tale The Jacket — takes on At the Back of the North Wind by Victorian preacher and unsung fantasy pioneer George MacDonald, who influenced such storytelling icons as J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and more:

Children’s book author and illustrator Karen Katz does a lyrical adaptation of Tolstoy’s little-known tales for young readers:

Comic artist and illustrator Isabel Greenberg presents an appropriately gory take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox:

Chicago-based artist and writer Caroline Picard adapts the tales from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in an unusual visual sequence, where each story moves forward from left to right along a single arrow-line across multiple pages:

Illustrator Matthew Houston applies his singular style of visual psychedelia to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine:

Swedish cartoonist Emelie Östergren presents a wonderfully twisted take on Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstockings:

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature contains many more treasures at the intersection of literature and graphic art. Complement it with the previous volumes of the series, then treat yourself to the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books.

Images courtesy of Russ Kick

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The Difference Between the Beautiful and the Sublime, Animated

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A 100-second anatomy of astonishment.

Britain’s Open University has previously given us some illuminating animated explainers of the history of the English language, the world’s major religions, philosophy’s greatest thought experiments, and the major creative movements in design. They have now partnered with BBC broadcaster and In Our Time host Melvyn Bragg on a series adapting Bragg’s BBC4 podcast A History of Ideas into short animations that synthesize some of humanity’s most influential ideas.

Among them is 18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s exploration of the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, scrutinized in his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (public library | IndieBound).

In one of the most powerful passages in the book, Burke describes the effect of the sublime in its highest degree — a psychic state we might, today, call awe:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. 1 In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

This, no doubt, is what Ptolemy meant when he beheld the heavens and what Carl Sagan felt two millennia later in encountering the cosmos.

Complement with Ursula K. Le Guin’s sublime meditation on what beauty really means, Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, and the evolutionary science of “beauty overload.”

HT Open Culture

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The Humane Art: Virginia Woolf on What Killed Letter Writing and Why We Ought to Keep It Alive

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“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.”

“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence,” advised an 1876 guide to the art of epistolary etiquette, “but also as a work of art.” More than half a century later, and another half century before the dawn of email as we know it today, one of the greatest letter writers of all time turned a concerned eye toward the death of that singular art form. In April of 1940, Virginia Woolf was tasked with reviewing a new biography of 18th-century English art historian Horace Walpole, a prolific writer of sixteen published volumes of letters. Woolf’s essay, titled “The Humane Art” and found in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us Woolf on the malady of middlebrow and the piece she read in what became the only surviving recording of her voice — is less about Walpole or his biography and more about the art of letter writing itself: its private function, its cultural evolution, its uncertain future in the face of emerging forms of media.

Countering the biographer’s assertion that Walpole’s letters were “inspired not by the love of friends but the love of posterity” — a tool of history rather than of his inner world — Woolf considers the general genius of the letter writer:

If we believe that Horace Walpole was a historian in disguise, we are denying his peculiar genius as a letter writer. The letter writer is no surreptitious historian. He is a man of short range sensibility; he speaks not to the public at large but to the individual in private. All good letter writers feel the drag of the face on the other side of the age and obey it — they take as much as they give.

Woolf makes the curious but instantly sensical proposition that the rise of her very own ilk — the paid writer — is what spelled the decline of fine letter writing:

Was it … the growth of writing as a paid profession, and the change which that change of focus brought with it that led, in the nineteenth century, to the decline of this humane art?

In prescient sentiment that resonates all the more loudly as we consider the currency of the social media age, she points to new media in particular as the dagger at the heart of the personal letter:

News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes!

As though with blogs and Tumblrs and Facebook feeds in mind, Woolf writes:

Instead of letters posterity will have confessions, diaries, notebooks… — hybrid books in which the writer talks in the dark to himself about himself for a generation yet to be born.

Returning to Walpole, she considers what his letters — and the traditional art of epistolary correspondence in general — reveal about the vitalizing role of real letters in our lives, as an anchor to both our tribe and to our own identity. As we continuously struggle to understand what binds our past selves and our future selves together into the same person, Woolf points to the power of the letter, which bridges two privacies, in assuring us of our own selves, at once stable and self-renewing:

Above all he was blessed in his little public — a circle that surrounded him with that warm climate in which he could live the life of incessant changes which is the breath of a letter writer’s existence. Besides the wit and the anecdote and the brilliant descriptions of masquerades and midnight revelries his friends drew from him something superficial yet profound, something changing yet entire — himself shall we call it in default of one word for that which friends elicit but the great public kills? From that sprang his immortality. For a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.

Whether it is an act of supreme irony or supreme affirmation that Woolf herself ended her life with a letter — and a letter so cruelly commoditized by the era’s parasitic news media — remains an open question.

Page from 'How to Write Letters,' 1876. Click image for more.

Complement with Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, writing and consciousness, and her breathtaking love letters to Vita Sackville-West.

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