Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

01 MAY, 2014

Carson McCullers’s Little-Known 1964 Illustrated Children’s Book

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Refreshingly direct verses with a strong existential bend and an undercurrent of science and astronomy.

As a lover of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups — including these gems by Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and J.R.R. Tolkien — I was thrilled to discover that in 1964, Carson McCullers penned Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig (public library), a charming collection of short verses for young readers illustrated by the acclaimed German set designer and painter Rolf Gérard.

Written three years before her death, by which point McCullers had suffered multiple strokes and had lived with the entire left side of her body paralyzed for more than 15 years, the refreshingly direct poems straddle a peculiar balance between innocent optimism and wistful contemplation.

Many of the poems not only have an existential bend, concerned with such contemporary questions of science and philosophy as the nature of nothingness and why the world exists, but they also exude a palpable enchantment with science, astronomy, and cosmology — no doubt due to being written during the golden age of space exploration.

HOW HIGH IS THE SKY

The sky is higher than a tree I know.
I know it’s higher than an airplane
But when at night there is a starry sky —
I wonder which is higher
Stars or sky?

I SOMETIMES WONDER

I do not wonder where everything is.
Everywhere is shops and children, trees and air,
Our gate, our garden, these are everywhere.
But Mama darling, Papa dear, I sometimes wonder
Where is nowhere?

THE UNSEEN

I’ve seen a mountain,
I’ve seen the shore,
I’ve seen so many, many things more;
I’ve seen fireflies who light up in the dark,
I’ve even seen Yellowstone Park.
But the thing that I, and anybody else has
Never seen, I swear,
Neither I nor anybody else has ever seen air.

ASTRONAUT

I’m not afraid of space ships or orbital flights
Where the lights are blue and purple and
There is a zooming sound.
I lie in my space suit important and brave
While zip zing the world goes round.

Today at recess Buddy dared me to fly
To the moon, dared and double dared.
While I was thinking he called me chicken.
I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.

I am afraid of the black-patched pirate.
I am afraid of Captain Hook
And of dares and double dares,
While I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.

Others pull into question the seeming absurdities of adult conventions:

A RAT AND A RAINBOW

This afternoon the sun shone while it showered.
This afternoon there was a rainbow —
Bands of orange, gold and red, like many-colored flowers
Bent in a big bow across the sky.
Children ran across wet grass, pointing at the
Rainbow shouting, “Look, oh my!”
Why is it rude to point at people,
But not to point at a rat or a rainbow?

Others still are bittersweet, even decidedly wistful, exploring such darker subjects as loneliness, hopelessness, and the interplay between badness and sadness:

GIRAFFE

At the zoo I saw: A long-necked, velvety Giraffe
Whose small head, high above the strawy, zoo-y smells
Seemed to be dreaming
Was she dreaming of African jungles and African plains
That she would never see again?

SPORT WILLIAMS

I knew Sport Williams in second grade
He was a bad boy.
He was a repeater.
Failed in his number work,
Scribbled in his reader.
He threw spitballs.
He stole money,
And always lied and said
He had not done it.

When Betty had a sore toe
And had to go to school
With a cut-out bedroom slipper
Sport jumped into the air
And stayed there
Until he landed on Betty’s sore toe
In the cut-out bedroom slipper
On Purpose!

Oh! Sport was a bad boy.
No one loved him but his mother.
And when he was suspended, she said, “He was not
A bad boy,
But a sad boy…” because
No one loved him but her, his mother.

PANDORA’S BOX

There was a little girl called Pandora
Who opened a magic box.
The magic box was a tragic box,
So look what happened to poor Pandora.

SWEET AS A PICKLE AND CLEAN AS A PIG

When you’re sweet as a pickle
And clean as a pig —
I’ll give you a nickel
And dance you a jig.

Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig, should you be so lucky to track down a surviving copy, is an absolute treasure. Complement it with Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s verses, Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.

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30 APRIL, 2014

Lisbeth Zwerger’s Imaginative Illustrations for Alice in Wonderland

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“Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined…”

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, commonly shorthanded to Alice in Wonderland, isn’t only one of the most imaginative and influential children’s books of all time, but also one of the most enduringly alluring to artists for visual reinterpretation — no doubt precisely due to its fanciful nature and bold subversion of reality. Since John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the Carroll classic has been reimagined by such visionary artists as Leonard Weisgard, Ralph Steadman, Yayoi Kusama, John Vernon Lord, and even Salvador Dalí.

As an enormous admirer of Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger’s mind and work, I was thrilled to track down a used copy of a sublime out-of-print edition of Alice in Wonderland (public library) featuring Zwerger’s inventive, irreverent, and tenderly tantalizing drawings, published in 1999, three years after her enchanting reimagining of The Wizard of Oz.

The book begins with Carroll’s prefatory poem from the book, which recounts the afternoon boat trip on which he first told the Alice in Wonderland story to the three little Liddell sisters — Lorina (“Prima”), Alice (“Secunda”), the real-life girl who inspired the tale, and Edith (“Tertia”):

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?

Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict to “begin it”:
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
“There will be nonsense in it!”
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.

Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird or beast —
And half believe it true.

And ever, as the story drained
The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
To put the subject by,
“The rest next time—” “It is next time!”
The happy voices cry.

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out—
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s wither’d wreath of flowers
Pluck’d in far-off land.

What makes Zwerger’s aesthetic particularly bewitching is her ability to render even the wildest feats of fancy in a soft and subdued style that tickles the imagination into animating the characters and scenes with life.

Though Alice in Wonderland is currently out of print, you can still find used copies online and at the library. Complement it with some radically different takes on the Carroll classic from Ralph Steadman, Yayoi Kusama, and John Vernon Lord.

Some of Zwerger’s prints, including one of the Alice cover illustration, are available on ArtKandy.

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24 APRIL, 2014

Children’s Endearing Letters to Judy Blume About Being Gay and Her Timeless Advice to Parents

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Warm wisdom from the beloved author to console on one of life’s deepest sources of isolation.

“Dear Judy, please send me the facts of life, in numbered order.” So requested 9-year-old Fern in one of the many gems collected in Letters to Judy (public library) — an infinitely endearing compendium of the missives beloved author Judy Blume received from children, whose classic capacity for asking questions at once simple and profound shines here with soul-expanding luminosity.

Because her young-adult novels have tackled such timelessly tricky subjects as teenage sex (Forever…), sibling rivalry (The Pain and the Great One), divorce (It’s Not the End of the World), masturbation (Deenie), menstruation (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), and bullying (Blubber), Blume shares a special bond of emotional intimacy with her young readers, generations of whom have seen in her — and continue to see — a private confidante who approaches with nonjudgmental understanding what no one else seems to understand and everyone else seems to judge.

Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always earnest, these letters cover everything from the innocent joys of first love to the despairing anguish of loneliness and loss to the general psychoemotional turbulence of puberty. But one of the most moving sections deals with children’s inquiries about same-sex crushes and homosexuality, following which are Blume’s own wise words on the subject — doubly so for writing in 1985, decades before marriage equality reclaimed the dignity of love.

In one such letter, 13-year-old Margo shares her story, post-scripted with the heartbreaking self-doubt and alienation achingly familiar to those of us who have spent our teenage years with a profound sense of being different:

Dear Judy,

I am a girl in seventh grade and I have a funny feeling about one of my teachers. I am afraid I might be in love with her or something. My friend says she feels that way about her cousin. I’ll bet a lot of girls — and boys — feel this way. Could you please write a book about it?

Thank you.

P.S. You don’t have to. Maybe it is only me who feels this way.

In another, 11-year-old Polly writes with endearing earnestness:

Dear Judy,

I like boys but I think I am gay! Please don’t think I am just thinking that. I do believe I am gay.

Often, too, kids don’t even have the proper vocabulary to articulate their sense of difference or are too timid to try, but get their point across obliquely. Longing for an answer to their inner turmoil, they seek the answer in a book — after all, what is a book for if not, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, to decrease our sense of isolation? Here is 14-year-old Ned, writing with palpable and disarming desperation:

Dear Judy,

I am close to my mother but not my father. However, sex is not an open subject with us. Would you do me a favor and consider writing a book about how homosexuality becomes involved in good friends in grades four through eight. It isn’t something that will stick but it does happen. Thanks.

But one of the most stirring letters comes from a once-child, a now-adult named Joanne, who writes:

Dear Judy,

When I was about twelve I noticed that I was feeling toward girls the way most girls begin feeling about boys. I had no label to put on it and certainly no one to talk to about it. It was tormenting, horrible, and I kept trying to cover it up and hoping one day I would miraculously find a boy I could feel the same way about. I was desperate to find The Boy who would change me and save me from this awful thing. Of course, I never did.

Anyway, for the sake of a lot of young kids out there who think they’re the only ones in the whole world, would you consider writing a book about this.

Blume addresses the central concern that unifies these intimate cries for help with her signature warm wisdom:

Like Joanne, other adults have written sharing their experiences and urging me to write a book about a young person who is gay. A man in his thirties wrote that when he was young, he felt “despairingly lonely.” There was no one he could talk to about his feelings. He searched bookstores, hoping to find a book that would let him know he was all right. Another man wrote poignantly about having denied himself the joy of young romance. He still does not know how to tell his family he is gay. He is afraid they will reject him.

Because I tend to write out of my own experience and feelings I don’t know if I will ever write that book. But others have written about being gay and will again. I hope parents will remember that early same-sex crushes, sexual play and experimentation do not necessarily mean that a person is homosexual. What is most important is to prevent young people from feeling judged or condemned for their feelings and to encourage them to feel good about themselves, no matter what their sexual preference.

Letters to Judy is an immeasurably wonderful read in its entirety. Complement it with this compendium of contemporary writers’ answers to kids’ questions about how life works, including one from yours truly, as well as kids’ amusing and poignant responses to gender politics during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, then treat yourself to this lovely musical homage to Judy Blume by Amanda Palmer and see more children’s correspondence with C.S. Lewis and Albert Einstein.

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23 APRIL, 2014

Upside Down Day: Rare and Wonderful Vintage Children’s Book by the Head of NASA’s Public Affairs Office

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An ode to those times when everything seems backwards.

In 1968, less than a year before the iconic NASA moon landing, a charming children’s book titled Upside Down Day (public library) made its debut. What made it special weren’t just the vibrant illustrations by artist Kelly Oechsli, but that it was written by Julian Scheer — the head of NASA’s Public Affairs Office, responsible for enchanting Americans with the space program. There is something immeasurably wonderful about knowing that the person in charge of tickling the public imagination into embracing the pursuit of space exploration — a pursuit subject to tragic neglect today — was himself an imaginative storyteller who knew how to inhabit that delicate intersection of whimsy and irreverence.

Given Scheer’s background, it is quite likely that the story of a day where nothing works as expected was inspired by and teases children into considering the physics of space, which pays no heed to earthly expectations — from the way gravity warps the notions of up and down to the soundlessness of space, which makes the mooing of cows and the ring of a bell inaudible amid the cosmic ether.

Julian Scheer (left) and Kelly Oechsli

Though the book, sadly, rests in the cemetery of out-of-print vintage gems, I was able to hunt down a copy — here is a peek inside for our shared delight:

Should you be so fortunate to track down a surviving copy, Upside Down Day is a treat well worth the hunt. Complement it with Weight and Weightlessness, another spacetastic illustrated gem from the same era, and the story of how Scheer and his team marketed the moon.

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