Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

16 OCTOBER, 2014

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

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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

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08 OCTOBER, 2014

A Minimalist, Maximally Imaginative Geometric Allegory for the Essence of Friendship and Creativity

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What a circle and a square can teach us about empathy, collaboration, and the origin of great ideas.

For more than a decade, Brooklyn’s family-owned indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion has been publishing immeasurably thoughtful and lyrical picture-books that invite young minds of all ages to explore such subtleties of the human experience as loneliness, loyalty, loss, the unknown, and the rhythms of life.

Now comes Wednesday (public library), the American debut of French children’s book author and illustrator Anne Bertier. It is translated by Enchanted Lion founder and editor Claudia Zoe Bedrick herself, a longtime Peace Corps volunteer, who continues to do for contemporary children’s books what Ursula Nordstrom did for the most beloved classics of the twentieth century.

Partway between Norton Juster’s 1963 gem The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and the endearing Sendak-illustrated Let’s Be Enemies, this unusual, minimalist, maximally imaginative book tells the story of two friends, Little Round and Big Square, who get together to play their favorite game every Wednesday — a game of association and transformation, where “as soon as one of them says a word, they transform themselves into it.” Together, they transmogrify into fanciful shapes — a butterfly, a flower, a mushroom, a kite.

But the fun is abated when Little Round begins to feel littler, unimportant and insufficient, as Big Square begins to parade a repertoire of words beyond Little Round’s transformation capacities.

They retreat to opposite corners, each gripped with indignation — until Little Round, undoubtedly aware that mutual understanding is at the heart of friendship, comes up with a reconciliatory idea and proposes that they come up with the words together rather than taking turns. Their first collaborative formation exudes subtle symbolism in speaking to how the I-ego keeps us separate from the universe:

“I’m going to hold myself very tall and straight.”

“And I’ll be the dot,” says Little Round.

“Our i really works!”

On they go with this collaborative creation, joyfully transforming together into a candy, a clown, a hat, a boat, a bowl, and increasingly abstract combinations that eventually take shape into recognizable forms.

The story is at once simple in its playfulness and a beautiful allegory for the combinatorial nature of creativity and thought itself, for the way we transform the building blocks we assemble by way of being alive and awake to the world — impressions, experiences, memories, influences — into new combinations that we call our own ideas. There is a reason Einstein called his thought process “combinatory play.”

Complement Wednesday with other Enchanted Lion treasures, including The Lion and the Bird, Fox’s Garden, The River, Little Boy Brown, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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03 OCTOBER, 2014

Joey and the Birthday Present: Wonderful Vintage Illustrations from Anne Sexton’s Little-Known 1971 Children’s Book

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Two Pulitzer-winning poets tell a sweet story of friendship, compassion, and perspective.

I have a longstanding soft spot for celebrated authors of “grown-up” literature who also wrote generally little-known and invariably lovely children’s books — gems like Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain, Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig by Carson McCullers, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou, The Cats of Copenhagen by James Joyce, The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley, Nurse Lugton’s Curtain by Virginia Woolf, The Bed Book by Sylvia Plath, and To Do by Gertrude Stein, and The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine by Donald Barthelme.

Among their ranks was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, who collaborated with poet and novelist Maxine Cumin, a Pulitzer recipient herself, on a series of four children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971, a decade after their first collaboration, the duo wrote Joey and the Birthday Present (public library), featuring charming vintage illustrations by Caldecott-winning artist Evaline Ness. It tells the story of Joey the brown field mouse, who lives with his large family in nests all over an abandoned farmhouse. After people move in for the summer, Joey is surprised to find a little white mouse named Prince in a cage in their son’s bedroom. The two become unlikely friends, learning about each other’s worlds.

There is wonderfully subtle humor, too. When Joey creeps into the boy’s bedroom, he is baffled to see Prince scurrying on the hamster wheel, “as though he were running away from an invisible cat.” Their first exchange is imbued with equal parts absurdism and indignation, perhaps the two most common mechanisms by which we keep ourselves on our own hamster wheel of approval and achievement:

“You poor thing,” Joey said. “Are you in trouble? What are you running away from?”

“In the first place, I’m not a thing,” said the white mouse.

It is a sweet story of friendship, compassion, and perspective, but is also remarkably bittersweet in the context of Sexton’s reality: the book was published shortly before she took her own life a month before her 46th birthday.

But it is Ness’s enchanting four-color illustrations that make the book immeasurably wonderful its message one of optimism and hope, perhaps the kind Sexton tried so tirelessly to summon, by the very act of writing children’s books, despite her tragic pathology.

Complement Joey and the Birthday Present with Sexton’s letter of motherly advice, then revisit her inaugural collaboration with Kumin, the playful Eggs of Things.

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