Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

31 JANUARY, 2014

Herman and Rosie: An Illustrated Ode to Finding a Sense of Purpose and Belonging in the Big City

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Why life is like jazz on a New York City rooftop.

“Most people do not grow up … our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias,” Maya Angelou wrote in her beautiful meditation on home and belonging. So how do those shy magnolias find a sense of purpose in a world of billions and amidst the hustle and bustle of a crowded city? That’s precisely what Australian author and illustator Gus Gordon explores with infinite gentleness, simple words and gorgeous pictures in Herman and Rosie (public library) — the story of a crocodile and a deer who live as neighboring strangers, like most New Yorkers do, until they discover that they have two profound things in common: an enormous love of music and a deep-seated lonesomeness in this big city they call home but never quite feel embraced by.

Herman Schubert lives on the seventh floor of a typical New York City apartment building, and Rosie Bloom two floors below. Herman has a soft spot for “potted plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yogurt, the smell of hot dogs in the winter, and watching films about the ocean,” and Rosie loves “pancakes, listening to old jazz records, the summertime subway breeze, toffees that stuck to her teeth, singing on the fire escape, and watching films about the ocean.” They both enjoy the city but…

After a long day of phone sales in his cubicle office, Herman plays the oboe at night on the rooftop. Rosie, who works in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant, rides her bike to a singing lesson every afternoon and performs every Thursday night in a small jazz club.

One day, Herman overhears Rosie singing and finds himself inspired to improvise “a groovy little jazz number” during his rooftop oboe session that night. Rosie, taking a bath, overhears Herman’s music.

For days, each of them has the other’s tune on mental repeat like a delightful invisible companion everywhere they go.

And then, disaster strikes: Herman is fired because he can’t sell enough useless things to people, and Rosie finds out her beloved jazz club is shutting down.

Herman Schubert sat in his small apartment eating pretzels. To cheer himself up he decided to watch his entire Jacques Cousteau underwater film collection.

Packed away neatly under the bed sat Herman’s oboe.

Rosie Bloom stood in the kitchen of her small apartment making pancakes. Lots of pancakes. Way more than she could ever possibly eat.

This didn’t make her feel any better, so she sat down and watched her entire Jacques Cousteau underwater film collection.

Weeks go by as Herman and Rosie sink into disheartenment. “The city kept on moving, but everything had fallen out of tune,” Gordon tells us with his tender touch and poetic mastery of language. And then, one sunny spring day, Herman and Rosie go walking in the city until a chance encounter brings them together at a Central Park hot dog stand and puts a smile on both souls.

That night, Herman picks up the oboe again. “The city seemed pleased to see him. Even its rattles and honks sounded musical.” Rosie, herself in an unusually joyful mood, overhears the music from her kitchen, leaps out onto the fire escape and up the roof, and discovers her new Central Park Friend, her very own oboist neighbor.

With its impossibly charming illustrations and timeless story of loneliness and belonging in the big city, Herman and Rosie is honey for sight and soul, bound to bring a smile to hearts of all ages, reminding us that in the big city, as in life itself, happiness comes from finding your tribe and savoring that shared sense of purpose.

Complement it with Little Boy Brown, a lovely vintage illustrated take on life in Gotham, arguably the greatest ode to childhood and loneliness of all time.

Images courtesy of Roaring Brook Press

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30 JANUARY, 2014

Some of Today’s Most Beloved Children’s Book Illustrators Each Draw Their Favorite Animal

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A menagerie of loveliness from some of the world’s greatest illustrators.

I have a soft spot for animals and the loveliest books about them, but having just said farewell to a beloved feline companion, I was triply taken with What’s Your Favorite Animal? (public library), in which the great Eric Carle invites some of today’s most celebrated children’s book illustrators — including Jon Klassen, Peter Sís, Lucy Cousins, and Lane Smith — to each draw their favorite animal

A simple concept, but an infinitely delightful and rewarding execution.

Eric Carle: Cats

Carle contextualizes his own selection with a heart-warming anecdote:

I have always liked animals. But cats are my favorites. I have a photograph of myself when I was three years old, holding a couple of kittens. And I am sneezing. I must have been allergic to them, but my mother claimed I had a cold.

Later when I was grown up, Fiffi lived with me in my Greenwich Village New York City walk-up. Fiffi was a long-haired black beauty. One day when I was peeling string beans in the kitchen, she showed great interest in my task. After a while she even began to meow ever so slightly. It sounded like begging to me. Finally I threw a string bean down the long hallway. Fiffi chased after it, fetched it, and returned it to me. Again I threw the string bean down the hallway. Finally, after many chases, Fiffi picked up the string bean, ignored me, and walked into the closet. She placed it into a shoe of mine. Then she curled herself around the shoe and went to sleep, guarding the string bean.

Peter McCarty: Bunny

Lucy Cousins: Leopard

Jon Klassen: Duck

Jon Klassen, enchanter of the ordinary, goes for the underduck:

Most times when you see a duck in a story, it’s not very smart. Usually it is in the middle of falling for a trick somebody is playing on it. But I like ducks. I like watching them walk around.

Mo Willems: Amazonian Neotropical Lower River Tink-Tink

Peter Sís: Blue Carp

Sís relays the heartening twist on a peculiar national custom behind his choice:

I am from the Czech Republic where people eat carp every Christmas Eve. It is a tradition. Just before the Christmas holidays, giant barrels with live carp are set up in the streets so people can buy one and bring it home fresh. There, they let the carp swim in the bathtub Christmas Eve. The carp would look all blue and lonely in the bathtub, and we, the children, would be fascinated and give her a name and try to put our little fingers in her toothless, breathing mouth. What usually happened on Christmas Eve when the carp is supposed to become dinner was that the children would cry, go on strike, and finally the carp would be taken by the whole family to the river Vltava and released. You would see many families coming with their carps to the river and blue fish swimming toward the ocean. This gave us all hope! So my favorite creature of hope is the blue carp.

What’s Your Favorite Animal? is absolutely wonderful from cover to cover. Complement it with 2013’s best books about animals.

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29 JANUARY, 2014

Let’s Be Enemies: A Vintage Maurice Sendak Treasure

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A delightful lesson in reverse psychology from the greatest children’s illustrator of all time.

Everything Maurice Sendak touched had an immutable aura of wonderfulness to it, from his beloved children’s books to his little-known posters on the joy of reading to his energy as an educator. Among his earliest and loveliest gems is Let’s Be Enemies (public library), written by Janice May Udry and published in 1961 — the same year that young Sendak received that remarkable letter of encouragement from his editor and patron saint, the great Ursula Nordstrom, and also the year that he created his magnificent Tolstoy illustrations.

This endearing reverse-psychology story about the silliness of quarreling as a lose-lose proposition is in some ways the mirror image of Ruth Krauss’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me, which Sendak illustrated seven years earlier. Here, 33-year-old Sendak exercises his faux-curmudgeonly side through the tale of two little boys who decide to be enemies, only to realize how much richer life is when they’re friends — a charming reminder for all of us that self-righteous indignation is never an appropriate, or a soul-satisfying, response.

Complement Let’s Be Enemies with the immeasurably wonderful I’ll Be You and You Be Me and Open House for Butterflies.

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