Brain Pickings

The Best Children’s Books of 2010


Lost owls, found cats, and how contemporary art is helping sick children heal.

Last week, we spotlighted the year’s best books in Business, Life & Mind and Art, Design & Photography, as part of our end-of-year best-of series. Today, we’re back with the 10 most delightful literary and visual treats for young readers and their creatively sophisticated parents.


Between our massive culture-crush on the amazing Christoph Niemann and our soft spot for all things LEGO, I LEGO N.Y. was a natural swoon-maker. Though not necessarily a children’s book per se, this imaginative look at New York rendered entirely in LEGO embodies Niemann’s incredible penchant for taking something ordinary and transforming it into pure whimsy.

I LEGO N.Y. came out in March and is Niemann’s print publishing debut as a sole author. (Though he has illustrated and co-authored a number of other treats). We can’t wait to see what he imagines next.


We have a well-documented distaste for both exclamation points and the word “awesome” — mostly because they’re linguistic indulgences used far too often and indicative of actual merit far too rarely. But artist Dallas Clayton‘s An Awesome Book of Thanks! more than lives up to the linguistic promise of its title. A sequel to his 2008 An Awesome Book!, a lovely illustrated children’s book about dreaming big, this new treat is charmingly illustrated manifesto for gratitude and the art of being thankful. And as if this isn’t enough of a ray of light in the world, Clayton also gives one copy of the book to a child in need for every copy of it sold.

Sample this gem with a video introduction by Clayton and pages from the book in our full review.


13 Words is a meeting of two great talents: Iconic illustrator Maira Kalman and the one and only Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The beloved children’s author curates 13 of the most essential words of all time and pairs each with original illustrations in Kalman’s signature style of delectable, childlike simplicity.

Our full review, complete with a lovely animated trailer for the book illustrated by Kalman herself, can be found here.


Oliver Jeffers is one of the most prolific and whimsical children’s book authors and illustrators of our time, equal parts artist and storyteller. With modern classics like Lost and Found and The Incredible Book-Eating Boy, he has carved himself a special place in the hearts of creative parents and their offspring. This year, Jeffers returned with another slam-dunk: The Heart and the Bottle — the breathtakingly illustrated and touching story of a little girl who bottles up her pain when her grandfather passes away, with an underlying message about the importance of keeping curiosity alive.

I keep writing children’s books, I keep making children’s books, because I still have them inside of me.” ~ Oliver Jeffers

As of this month, The Heart and the Bottle is also available as a stunning iPad Picture Book app

via Swiss Miss


Nonprofit RxArt uses the power of art to aid healing by placing contemporary art in children’s hospitals and clinics in an effort to transform these sterile environments into comforting havens, inspiring healing and hope in kids, their families and the tireless medical staff that takes care of them. Between The Lines is a wonderful coloring book and fundraising tool for the RxArt program, featuring over 50 original line drawings by some of today’s most celebrated contemporary artists, including Takashi Murakami, Ed Ruscha and Cynthia Rowley, plus a series of delightfully vibrant stickers designed by Nate Lowman and Mickalene Thomas.

Take an exclusive peek inside the book’s beautiful artwork in our full review.


From author Deborah Underwood and illustrator Renata Liwska comes The Quiet Book, which may just be the new bedtime classic of our time. The stuffed-animal heroes of the story aren’t merely adorable, their body language and facial expressions harbor a level of emotional complexity that is simply astounding. The book is as much a soft-colored illustrated lullaby for tiny humans as it is a meditation on life’s peaceful moments for humans of all sizes.

Amazon has some exclusive sketches from Liwska’s drawing pad, very much worth a look.


On the surface, Louise Yates’ Dog Loves Books is the story of a little white dog who opens a bookstore and, after no customers come, occupies himself by reading. The story, of course, is really about the life of the mind and the importance of pursuing one’s own curiosity — something at the core of our philosophy here at Brain Pickings. Yates manages to deliver this message to young readers in charming, dreamy watercolor drawings and soft pastel pencil illustrations, a most delightful primer for a lifetime of bibliophilia and imaginative intellectual curiosity.

Dog Loves Books is the follow-up to Yates’ excellent 2009 bunny adventure, A Small Surprise.


Viviane Schwarz‘s There Are No Cats in This Book is a lie — there are cats in this book, plenty of them, each more delightfully mischievous than the next. The story takes a charming meta turn as Tiny, Moonpie and Andre, the three lead feline heroes, decide to escape the confines of the book and venture out into the world — a narrative technique whose analogy in theater and cinema is known as “breaking the fourth wall.”

Beautifully illustrated, brimming with bold colors, and wildly playful from cover to cover, There Are No Cats in This Book is a wonderful exercise in full-immersion storytelling for young readers.


Little Owl Lost is the kind of book that feels like a beautifully designed poster that somehow accidentally contorted and folded itself into a different format and, in the process of it, unfolded a captivating story. Despite — or perhaps precisely because of — the completely flat colors and plethora of negative space, Chris Haughton manages to deliver a potent dose of suspense and surprise for a dynamic narrative full of wide-eyed creatures and vibrant forest landscapes, designed and art-directed with a kind of craftsmanship and creative vision that make the turning of each page an absolute treat.

Little Owl Lost came out in August. 36Pages has a short but excellent interview with the author about his creative process.

via Swiss Miss


David Wiesner is one of the most prolific and beloved living picture book creators. Three of his books (Flotsam, Tuesday and The Three Pigs) are winners of the prestigious Caldecott Medal, making him one of only two three-time winners of the medal in the award’s 73-year history. This year, he bestowed his latest piece of creative genius upon the world: Art & Max, the charming and colorful story of two artist friends: Art, a collared lizard with a penchant for portraits, and Max, a smaller lizard armed with a restless paintbrush. The two embark upon a vibrant, eye-popping journey into art and color.

Amazon has some fascinating exclusive images showing the development of Wiesner’s illustration and named Art & Max their #1 picture book of the year.

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Unruly Alphabet: The Macabre, Anthropomorphic Lives of Letters


Yes, we’re officially on an alphabet binge. After marveling at it in mesmerizing motion graphics, on fabulous Mad Scientist wooden blocks, and in a brilliant typographic anthology, we’ve discovered a worthy new addition to our selection of creative ABC books — illustrator Aaron McKinney’s Unruly Alphabet. With wit and beautifully detailed illustration, McKinney brings each letter to macabre, hauntingly playful life, weaving a dialogue of gallows humor between the letters built on a larger metaphorical narrative on the most loathesome human qualities.

I’ve always been interested in etymology. The way words, a human constructed concept, play off one another to somehow convey thought and expression in our minds fascinates me. With that thought in mind, I decided to strip language down to its most primitive form, the alphabet. To make it interesting, I anthropomorphized each letter with some of humanity’s most common, despicable traits. With each letter playing off the next, the end result is the alphabet, a pretty inorganic and deliberate thing made more barbarically human.” ~ Aaron McKinney

Blending the nostalgic charisma of the classic childhood alphabet book with adults’ taste for dark comedy and sophisticated aestheticism, The Unruly Alphabet is a treasure trove of gorgeously gory glyphs that will delight you with artistic merit and surprise you with a philosophical prompt to contemplate human nature.

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Sam Potts Visualizes the Best of Brain Pickings 2010


This year, we asked some of our favorite visualization artists to each capture the 10 most popular Brain Pickings articles of 2010 in a single piece of artwork, and we’re revealing them one by one over the coming week. Yesterday, we started with the ever-brilliant Stefanie Posavec. Today, it’s Sam Potts, whose fantastic work you may recall as one of the three Infinite Jest visualizations we featured last week.

The articles, in order of popularity:

  1. Mythical Beasts & Modern Monsters — three humorous takes on the relational understanding of the monsters ecosystem.
  2. Mapping European Stereotypes — a Bulgarian designer based in London pokes fun at Europeans’ xeno-bias and the subjective reality of nationalism.
  3. 7 Image Search Tools That Will Change Your Life — 7 visually-driven image search interfaces that change how we look for, find and catalog images.
  4. 7 Must-Read Books by TED Global Speakers — selection of the 7 most compelling books by speakers at this year’s TED Global in Oxford.
  5. How Do I Explain It To My Parents — Dutch abstract artists sit down with their parents and try to explain to them what they do, to a delightfully amusing effect.
  6. Vintage Posters for Modern Movies — a look at the faux-vintage design trend as it applies to film poster design, spotlighting the work of seven contemporary designers with a retrostalgic aesthetic.
  7. How To Be Alone — a poetic manifesto for the art of solitude.
  8. Strange Worlds: Miniature Condiment Landscapes — remarkable miniature landscapes made out of spices and condiments by artist Matthew Albanese.
  9. What Does It Mean To Be Human? — three disciplines (evolutionary biology, philosophy and neuroscience) tackle the grand question of existentialism.
  10. Literary Action Figures — you know you want them.

And Sam’s stunning semi-literal interpretation:

See more of Sam’s wonderful work here.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

2010’s Best Long Reads: Business


Longreads and Brain Pickings have teamed up to highlight the most compelling in-depth stories published on the web this year. Earlier, we featured the best of Art, Design, Film & Music. Next up: Business. Here are 10 must-reads from 2010, from “wrongness” as a business strategy to procrastination to how culture can make (and break) a company.

Don’t miss our related selection of the year’s best books in Business, Life & Mind.


Error Message: Google Research Director Peter Norvig on Being Wrong (Kathryn Schulz, Slate, Aug. 3, 2010)

Time to read: 16 minutes (4,050 words)

Norvig explains what happens when a company (in this case Google) takes an engineering-centric approach to its products and business. First, it means that errors are actually a good thing.

“If you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments.”


A Cocktail Party in the Street: An Interview with TGI Friday’s Founder Alan Stillman (Nicola Twilley & Krista Ninivaggi, Edible Geography, Nov. 15, 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,193 words)

Before it arrived in strip malls around the country, TGI Friday’s was the first “singles bar” in New York City. Alan Stillman reflects on his transition from “looking to meet girls” to running a business.

“The restaurant business does come down to real estate … A restaurant owner is renting or sub-letting you a piece of real estate for the evening.”


What Amazon Fears Most: Diapers (Bryant Urstadt, Businessweek, Oct. 7, 2010)

Time to read: 14 minutes (3,468 words)

That which one fears… one buys. Just before Amazon plunked down $540 million for, Businessweek profiled co-founders Marc Lore and Vinit Bharara, whose company studied Amazon’s every move.

“We’re obsessed with Amazon … Recently I read every 10-K since 1996. It’s interesting to read all those 10-Ks in a row. They were doing so many things so soon.”


Later: What Does Procrastination Tell Us About Ourselves? (James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, Oct. 11, 2010)

Time to read: 14 minutes (3,574 words)

Take comfort in this exploration of the “basic human impulse” of putting work off.

“The idea of the divided self, though discomfiting to some, can be liberating in practical terms, because it encourages you to stop thinking about procrastination as something you can beat by just trying harder.”


The New Gawker Media (Felix Salmon, Reuters, Dec. 1, 2010)

Time to read: 25 minutes (6155 words)

There were almost as many Gawker long reads this year as there were Insane Clown Posse stories. None revealed more about the business of Nick Denton’s blogging empire than Felix Salmon’s breakdown of the company’s operations.

“The problem with Gawker Media’s current model—and this is true of many other sites, too, including the Huffington Post—is that it’s based on pageviews and those tyrannical CPMs. It’s essentially a junk-mail direct marketing model.”


A Q&A with a Vacuum Cleaner Salesman (Mike Riggs, The Awl, Nov. 24, 2010)

Time to read: 25 minutes (6,342 words)

Tense, depressing, and sometimes very funny, interview with “Darrell,” a door-to-door salesman in Florida whose specialty is selling elderly people on products they don’t need.

“I was like, ‘Ma’am, it’s called a referral. We’re gonna call them, and we’re gonna tell them you referred us. I’m just being honest with you.’ She was like, ‘No, no.’ And I was like, ‘Ok, just write down their name,’ because we are going to f—ing do this.”


What Happened to Yahoo (Paul Graham, August 2010)

Time to read: 8 minutes (1,935 words)

Was it all that banner-ad money being thrown at them? Or their ambivalence about technology? Paul Graham offers theories as to why Yahoo has struggled.

“The company felt prematurely old. Most technology companies eventually get taken over by suits and middle managers. At Yahoo it felt as if they’d deliberately accelerated this process.”


At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture (David Carr, The New York Times, Oct. 5, 2010)

Time to read: 16 minutes (4,081 words)

An archived Times piece from the swinging, inappropriate 1970s? No, a stunning present-day account of eyebrow-raising behavior by executives at the troubled Tribune Company. (CEO Randy Michaels resigned soon after.)

“After CEO Randy Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, ‘watch this,’ and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.”


Why I Sold Zappos (Tony Hsieh, Inc., June 1, 2010)

Time to read: 9 minutes (2,271 words)

The Zappos CEO reveals the events leading up to his company’s purchase by Amazon, and the internal tensions over preserving its famously familial corporate culture.

“The board wanted me, or whoever was CEO, to spend less time on worrying about employee happiness and more time selling shoes.”


A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web (David Segal, The New York Times, Nov. 28, 2010)

Time to read: 24 minutes (5,881 words)

The story that introduced us to the term “utterly noxious retail.” Online retailer DecorMyEyes cheated, threatened and stalked its customers — and then claimed to earn better Google rankings because of it.

“He might also be a pioneer of a new brand of anti-salesmanship that is facilitated by the quirks and shortcomings of Internet commerce and that tramples long-cherished traditions of customer service, like deference and charm.”

See more Longreads 2010 “best-of” lists here.

Mark Armstrong is a digital strategist, writer and founder of Longreads, a community and Twitter service highlighting the best long-form stories on the web. His thoughts about the future of publishing and content can be found here.

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