Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

15 OCTOBER, 2013

E. B. White on Why He Wrote Charlotte’s Web, Plus His Rare Illustrated Manuscripts

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“A book is a sneeze.”

Legendary editor and reconstructionist Ursula Nordstrom, who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, is celebrated as the single most influential champion of innovation in children’s book publishing in the past century. Her vision ushered in a new era of imagination of literature for young readers and brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. More than merely an editor, Nordstrom, who famously cultivated the insecure genius of young Maurice Sendak, wore the hats of friend, therapist, confidante, and tireless defender of her young authors. Among her most memorable creative feats, however, is Charlotte’s Web (public library) by E. B. White, published on October 15, 1952.

E. B. White's second draft for the beginning of Charlotte's Web, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

A few weeks before the book’s release, however, the Harper & Row publicity department expressed unease about White’s choice of protagonist. Worried that a spider might revolt readers and critics, they asked him to explain his choice. On September 29, White sent Nordstrom a short note in response to her concern that the book endpapers are too bright (but not without an endearing Whitean tease: “I’m not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper’”), then proceeded to address the PR people’s unease in a lengthy explanation of why he wrote a book featuring a spider. The letter, unearthed by Letters of Note, is itself an absolute masterpiece of prose and testament to White’s character, bespeaking at once his elegant command of the written word and his equally famed love of animals. (White’s bemused dismay at the inquiry was sure to fall on an understanding ear, as Nordstrom had her own feisty grievances with publishers’ unimaginative shallowness.)

E. B. White's drawings of the vectors of the web-spinning process, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

I have been asked to tell how I came to write “Charlotte’s Web.” Well, I like animals, and it would be odd if I failed to write about them. Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did.

A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of “Charlotte’s Web” is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.

As for Charlotte herself, I had never paid much attention to spiders until a few years ago. Once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else — the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than I find anything in nature repulsive or revolting, and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign. Spiders are skilful, amusing and useful, and only in rare instances has anybody ever come to grief because of a spider.

One cold October evening I was lucky enough to see Aranea Cavatica spin her egg sac and deposit her eggs. (I did not know her name at the time, but I admired her, and later Mr. Willis J. Gertsch of the American Museum of Natural History told me her name.) When I saw that she was fixing to become a mother, I got a stepladder and an extension light and had an excellent view of the whole business. A few days later, when it was time to return to New York, not wishing to part with my spider, I took a razor blade, cut the sac adrift from the underside of the shed roof, put spider and sac in a candy box, and carried them to town. I tossed the box on my dresser. Some weeks later I was surprised and pleased to find that Charlotte’s daughters were emerging from the air holes in the cover of the box. They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors. They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show.

At the present time, three of Charlotte’s granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.

I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.

E. B. White's notes on web weaving, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

White, in fact, had little patience for the objections some critics, librarians, teachers, and parents had to the book’s protagonist and his choice to tackle the subject of death in a children’s book, which he saw as an infringement on his creative vision and integrity as a writer. In an unpublished letter to Nordstrom, cited in The Annotated Charlotte’s Web (public library), White dismisses these concerns with his characteristically concise, sharp-witted satire:

I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a litter of hyenas. The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.

Complement with the altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library), which also gave us Nordstrom’s infinitely heartening correspondence with young Sendak.

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10 OCTOBER, 2013

Need a House, Call Ms. Mouse: Progressive Vintage Children’s Book Starring a Female Architect

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“Henrietta is a world famous home decorator, which means she is — an artist, a designer, a dreamer, a builder, a creator, all that and more, too.”

As a lover of exquisite vintage children’s books, especially ones with irreverent messages that encourage creative endeavors and those empowering little girls to transcend confining social expectations, my heart leapt at the 1981 gem Need A House? Call Ms. Mouse (public library) — a lovely story aiming to awaken in kids a passion for architecture, starring a female protagonist. Written by George Mendoza, it features vibrant illustrations by Doris Susan Smith that fall somewhere between Maurice Sendak and the Provensens.

The story begins with an infinitely heartening “job description”:

Henrietta is a world famous home decorator, which means she is — an artist, a designer, a dreamer, a builder, a creator, all that and more, too.

But with great fame comes great responsibilities: Henrietta gets all kinds of requests, requiring increasing degrees of creative vision and architectural complexity — a spaceship-inspired treehouse for Squirrel (because what’s more mid-century-modern than that?), an elaborate Atlantis-like underwater residence for Trout, a modernist LA beach house for Lizard, even an intricate pear interior for Worm.

The twist, however, is that despite her architectural accomplishments, Henrietta herself — like Thoreau, whose famous philosophy of simple living inspired another lovely children’s book — prefers the simple life:

Why a treasure like Need A House? Call Ms. Mouse would perish in the mausoleum of out-of-print books is beyond me — used copies, while findable, cost a fortune. Thankfully, that’s just another reason to love public libraries.

A million thanks to Sharon for the discovery

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04 OCTOBER, 2013

Secrets of The Phantom Tollbooth: Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer on Creativity, Anxiety, and Failure

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“Failure is a process … you have to fail over and over and over again to get anything that’s worthwhile.”

In 1961, a young architect by the name of Norton Juster received a grant for a book on urban perception and settled down at his house in Brooklyn Heights to write it. Struggling with the process, however, he began toying with a playful story about a boy named Milo in an effort to distract himself from the burden of his workload, and showed his drafts to his neighbor, an emerging political cartoonist named Jules Feiffer. Juster never wrote the urbanism book — instead, he teamed up with Feiffer and together they dreamt up The Phantom Tollbooth, which went on to become one of the most celebrated children’s books of all time, brimming with timeless philosophy for grown-ups — its map of The Kingdom of Wisdom alone is a profound metaphor for curiosity and the human condition.

Map of The Kingdom of Wisdom from ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’

In 2011, to mark the 50th anniversary of the beloved classic, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Hannah Jayanti set out to capture the book’s remarkable legacy by offering a rare glimpse of its creative process in a documentary that follows Feiffer and Juster, both 82 at the time, as they reminisce about their historic collaboration and the lesser-known challenges of the project. The documentary, funded on Kickstarter, has now come to life. Hannah has kindly offered two exclusive clips from The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations — one of Juster and one of Feiffer, each reflecting on the core of his creative philosophy — for our collective enjoyment. In the first clip, Juster explores the reverse bell curve of pleasure that stretches across what he considers to be the three stages of writing — a notion that maps almost perfectly onto Malcolm Cowley’s four-step model, only fusing the first two steps into one — as he looks back on writing The Phantom Tollbooth:

It was a wonderful experience — wonderful in an odd sense, in that I always felt there were three steps in writing:

The first step, which is the anticipation of writing — wonderful, because there you are with an abstract idea, and you’re quite sure that you can do it, and it’s going to be quite wonderful, and you can visualize all the wonderful sales, the interviews, the reviews; you start to write your Nobel acceptance speech. And so that’s great, because there’s nothing real there, in the anticipation of writing.

Number three is the other end of that, having finished — and that’s a wonderful feeling, because number two is an agony all the way.

Juster echoes Kierkegaard on anxiety as an essential part of creativity, reminding us of John Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — the uncomfortable skill of tolerating uncertainty and the prospect of failure, so very crucial to all good art — and harking back to Tolstoy’s notion of “infectiousness” as the ultimate litmus test for creative success:

I find that writing … it’s so anxiety-making, it’s so tense, it’s so scary, it’s so full of danger of failure, that you wake up every morning and you’re not sure what’s going to happen, and you don’t know whether you’re going to be able to do it… You can feel what you want in the back of your head but can you and are you going to get it down on paper so someone else can feel the same.

Juster’s closing remark, however — the revelation that someone as magnificent as Maurice Sendak experienced the same cauldron of creative anxiety — is strangely yet immutably comforting.

In the second clip, Feiffer reflects on his experience as an art educator and the importance of teaching his students the art of making mistakes — and reminds us that the fear of failure so core to the creative experience, while toxic, is also our greatest chance for transcendence:

Failure is a process … you have to fail over and over and over again to get anything that’s worthwhile, and to try everything.

The full film premieres at the 2013 New Yorker Festival and is available for pre-order online. Complement it with the magnificent The Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition, which features reflections from such beloved authors and artists as Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, and Maurice Sendak.

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