Brain Pickings

1 + 1 = 3: Ken Burns on What Makes a Great Story

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How stories keep the wolf from the door and why math has no place in storytelling.

What makes a great story? Kurt Vonnegut had 8 rules, Jack Kerouac had 30 beliefs and techniques, evolutionary biology has some theories, and famous writers have some tips. In this short film by Sarah Klein and Tom Mason, PBS’s Ken Burns, who for the past quarter-century has been relaying history’s most fascinating stories in his unparalleled films and has even earned himself some loving parody, shares his formula for spellbinding storytelling: 1 + 1 = 3, or a story where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Beneath it all is his beautiful blend of personal truth and astute insight into the universal onuses of being human.

I don’t know why I tell stories about history… There’s a kind of classic dime-store Ken Burns wolf-at-the-door things… My mother had cancer all of my life, she died when I was 11, there wasn’t a moment from when I wasn’t aware — two-and-a-half, three — that there was something dreadfully wrong in my life. It might be that what I’m engaged in in a historical pursuit is a thin layer, perhaps thickly disguised, waking of the dead, that I try to make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong come alive, and it may be very obvious and very close to home who I’m actually trying to wake up.

We have to keep the wolf from the door… We tell stories to continue ourselves. We all think an exception is going to be made in our case, and we’re going to live forever. And being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be. Story is there to just remind us that it’s just okay.

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20 of Today’s Most Exciting Artists and Illustrators Reimagine the Paper Plane

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What the quintessential childhood staple teaches us about the bounds of the imagination.

The paper airplane is among the most beloved of childhood toys — and for good reason: It seems to embody just the right balance of function and fantasy, of hands-on practicality and make-believability. In Little Paper Planes, 20 of today’s most exciting artists and illustrators — including Brain Pickings favorites Julia Rothman ( ), Lisa Congdon ( ), and Gemma Correll () — reimagine the childhood staple. From the literal yet expressive to the wildly abstract yet playable with, the designs range from a meticulously engineered plane mobile to a paper doll to a crumbled up piece of paper to a handful of shreds, and just about every imaginative in-between shape.

Kelly Lynn Jones, founder of pioneering artist community Little Paper Planes, writes in the introduction:

While working on this book, it became clear that the concept of the paper plane represented more than just a flying object, but brought up moments of nostalgia for childhood, varying perceptions on the act of making and creativity, and notions around authorship and the collaboration between artist and reader.”

Each paper plane design is prefaced by a short introduction to and single-question interview with the artist, contextualizing his or her work, background, and approach to art.

Julia Rothman

Gemma Correll

Lisa Congdon

Michael C. Hsiung

A refreshing treat for that timeless inner child, or the creatively-minded real child, Little Paper Planes reminds you that the limits of even the most seemingly formulaic and constrained of concepts are set only by the bounds and boundaries of the imagination.

Open Culture

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Little Bird: A Beautifully Minimalist Story of Belonging Lost and Found by Swiss Illustrator Albertine

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“There are no greater treasures than the little things.”

Children’s picture books — the best of them, at least — have this magical quality of speaking to young hearts with expressive simplicity, but also engaging grown-up minds with subtle reflections on the human condition. Such is the case of Little Bird (public library) by Swiss author-illustrator duo Germano Zullo and Albertine, published by the wonderful Enchanted Lion Books. Illustrated in Albertine’s signature style of soft, colorful minimalism, this little gem is like a beautiful silent film, only in vibrant hues and on paper.

It tells the tender story of a big-hearted man who halts his truck at a cliff’s edge. Unable to go any further, he opens the back door of his truck and a flock of birds spills out into the air, leaving behind a tiny, timid black bird. Surprised and delighted by the little loyalist, the man befriends the bird.

The two have lunch together and, eventually, the man tries to encourage the bird to fly off and join the others by attempting a comic demonstration of flight himself.

The humorous situation deepens the tenderness between the two creatures and soon the bird departs, the man drives away, and the story seems to end — but! — just as the truck trails off into the distance, we see the little black bird come back after it, followed by his colorful friends in a lyrical moment of belonging lost and found. “The small things are treasures,” writes Zullo. “True treasures.”

There are no greater treasures than the little things.

The entire story unfolds with few words and primary colors, but mesmerizes with its evocative honesty and gentle sophistication, inviting readers of all ages to look again and again as we rediscover our inner child’s gift for finding infinite beauty and curiosity in the little things.

A lovely quote from an e. e. cummings poem graces the first page:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living

Korean designer Young-jun Kim created this charming animation based on the book:

UPDATE: Sadly, the Swiss publisher of the book (not Enchanted Lion Books, the U.S. publisher) has had the video removed. Remix culture still fares poorly in the old world…

Little Bird was originally written in French and translated by my brilliant friend Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books / Albertine

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