Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

30 DECEMBER, 2013

On a Beam of Light: The Story of Albert Einstein, Illustrated by the Great Vladimir Radunsky


The charming visual tale of an introverted little boy who grew up to become the quintessential modern genius.

Given my soft spot for picture-book and graphic-novel accounts of famous lives, including Charles Darwin, Julia Child, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Feynman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Steve Jobs, I was instantly taken with On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (public library). Written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by none other than Vladimir Radunsky — the same magnificent talent who brought young Mark Twain’s irreverent Advice to Little Girls back to life in 2013, which topped the list of the year’s best children’s books and was among the year’s best books overall. This charming picture-book tells the tale of how an unusual and awkward child blossomed into becoming “the quintessential modern genius” by the sheer virtue of his unrelenting curiosity.

The story begins with Albert’s birth — a beautiful but odd baby boy who turns one and doesn’t say a word, turns two, then three, and nary a word.

Instead, he “just looked around with his big curious eyes,” wondering about the world. His parents worried that there might be something wrong, but loved him unconditionally. And then:

One day, when Albert was sick in bed, his father brought him a compass — a small round case with a magnetic needle inside. No matter which way Albert turned the compass, the needle always pointed north, as if held by an invisible hand. Albert was so amazed his body trembled.

Suddenly, he knew there were mysteries in the world — hidden and silent, unknown and unseen. He wanted, more than anything, to understand those mysteries.

This was that pivotal spark of curiosity that catapulted his young mind into a lifetime of exploring those mysteries. (One can’t help but wonder whether a similar child, today, would have a similar awakening of mind while beholding a smartphone’s fully automated GPS map. But, perhaps, that modern child would be developing a wholly different type of intelligence.)

Young Albert began asking countless questions at home and at school — so much so, that his teachers chastised him for being a disturbance, admonishing the little boy that he would get nowhere in life unless he learned to follow the rules and behave like the other kids. And yet the mysteries of the universe drew Albert deeper into inquiry.

One day, while riding his bicycle, he gazes at the rays of sunlight beaming from the Sun to the Earth and wonders what it would be like to ride on them, transporting himself into that fantasy:

It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.

So he set out to answer them by burying himself in books, reading and discovering the poetry of numbers, that special secret language for decoding the mysteries of the universe.

Once he graduated from college, unable to find a teaching position, he settled for a low-key, quiet government job that allowed him to spend plenty of time with his thoughts and his mathematical explorations, pondering the everyday enigmas of life, until his thoughts coalesced into ideas that made sense of it all — ideas about atoms and motion and space and time. Soon, Albert became an internationally celebrated man of genius.

But with that came the necessary amount of eccentricity — or at least what seemed eccentric from the outside, but is in fact a vital part of any creative mind. Albert, for instance, liked to play his violin when he was having a hard time solving a particularly tricky problem — a perfect way to engage the incubation stage of the creative process, wherein the mind, engulfed in unconscious processing, makes “no effort of a direct nature” in order to later arrive at “sudden illumination.”

Some of his habits, however, were decidedly, and charmingly, quirky: He regularly wandered around town eating an ice-cream cone, and he preferred to wear no socks — not because he tried to be a pseudo-nonconformist, but because he “even chose his clothes for thinking,” often clad in his signature “comfy, old saggy-baggy sweaters and pants.”

Still, everywhere he went, he remained mesmerized by the mysteries of the universe, and the echoes of his thoughts framed much of our modern understanding of the world:

Albert’s ideas helped build spaceships and satellites that travel to the moon and beyond. His thinking helped us understand the universe as no one ever had before.

And yet the central message of this altogether wonderful picture-book is that despite his genius — or, perhaps, precisely because of it — Einstein’s greatest legacy to us isn’t all the answers he bequeathed but all the open questions he left for today’s young minds to grow up pondering. Because, after all, it is “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science and our understanding of life.

The final spread, reminiscent of these illustrated morphologies of Susan Sontag’s favorite things and Ronald Barthes’s likes and dislikes, captures Einstein’s life in eight essentials:

Complement On a Beam of Light with Einstein on why we are alive, on science vs. religion, and his timelessly encouraging words to women in science in this letter to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books © Vladimir Radunsky

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19 DECEMBER, 2013

A Quirky Coloring Book Featuring Keith Haring, Shepard Fairey, Ryan McGuinness, Brian Rea, and Other Contemporary Art Icons


The childhood classic, reimagined to delight art-lovers of all ages and sensibilities.

As a lover of activity books for grownups and artists’ takes on common concepts, I was instantly taken with Outside the Lines: An Artists’ Coloring Book for Giant Imaginations (public library) — a quirky and unusual collection envisioned and edited by Souris Hong-Porretta, which makes an equally fine complement to both the year’s best art books and best children’s books. With illustrations from 100 of today’s most celebrated contemporary artists, including Shepard Fairey, Ryan McGuinness, Keith Haring, Brian Rea, and Todd St. John, this charming compendium, reminiscent of RxArt’s Between the Lines, is as much an invitation to imagine as it is to admire, to savor, to revel in the beauty and inventiveness of the humble line in its infinitely fanciful permutations.

'Dots Connected' by Amy S. Kauffmann

'Sound of Confusion' by Todd St. John

'Mr. Spray' by Shepard Fairey

Ryan McGuinness

'Untitled' by Keith Haring © Keith Haring Foundation

'New Alphabets' by Keita Takahashi

'All of Your Favorite Animals' by Chris Rubino

'Bunny Beast' by Brian Rea

Outside the Lines is absolutely wonderful, doubly so given that it benefits MOCA’s education program. Complement it with Do It: The Compendium, which collects 20 years’ worth of famous contemporary artists’ instructions for art anyone can make.

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11 DECEMBER, 2013

Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear


One of history’s most beloved children’s illustrators tackles one of history’s most loathsome episodes.

One of the most persistent critiques of Western children’s literature has always been its lack of diversity, and one of the most powerful yet little-known counterpoints to that critique is Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear (public library) by the great Tomi Ungerer, originally published in German in 1999 — a story about Jewishness and the Holocaust, featuring a black hero, and exploring notions of identity, age, and class struggle. Unlike the majority of Ungerer’s more playful work — such as the infinitely delightful Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls and The Cat-Hater’s Handbook — this is a tale that deals with one of the darkest chapters in human history, and yet it emanates the most luminous light of the human spirit.

Like all autobiographies, this one begins with Otto looking back on his life. “I knew I was old when I found myself on display in the window of an antique store,” he tells us wistfully, then goes on to recount the happy days of his early life, beginning with his “birth” in Germany, where he was stitched together in a workshop.

Tucked into a box, he soon finds himself delighting a little Jewish boy named David as his birthday present. David and his best friend Oskar, a German boy who lives next door, go on to play with Otto all day, every day, including him in their games, enlisting him in their pranks, and even attempting to teach him to write and type.

All is joyous, until one day David shows up with a yellow star pinned to his jacket.

Soon, David and his parents are taken away by men in black leather coats. Otto, separated from his young friend, stays with Oskar as they watch more people with yellow stars loaded into trucks and driven away. Gloom descends further when Oskar’s father is drafted into the German army, leaving home to join the raging war.

And then the bombing begins. Oskar holds Otto tight as the family hides in the basement while entire city blocks are being blown to pieces, burying innocent victims under the ruins of what were once the homes of children.

Otto, too, is knocked out from an explosion and wakes up several days later in a pile of ashen debris. Tanks and soldiers begin rolling in as he finds himself in the middle of a battle field.

Suddenly, a soldier sees Otto and stops to pick him up.

He picked me up, and at that very moment I felt a sudden piercing pain go right through my body. The soldier, holding me to his chest, fell down moaning. He had been hit by the same bullet.

But the soldier, an American GI named Charlie, is taken to the hospital as he clutches Otto, and survives:

Charlie told all the nurses, “Look at him! Believe it or not this teddy bear saved my life. He took the brunt of the bullet meant to kill me.”

So when Charlie receives his medal of honor, he pins it to Otto’s chest. The newspapers break the story of the teddy bear who saved the soldier’s life, and soon Otto’s picture covers their front pages and he is celebrated as a good-luck mascot for the soldiers.

Once the war ends, Charlie takes Otto home to his little girl, Jasmin, in America. She is delighted and envelops Otto in a blissful existence of love and care.

But one day, a group of mean boys playing in the street take Otto from Jasmin, batter him, and toss him in a trash can, half-blind. Some of Ungerer’s most poignant points are particularly subtle, like his commentary on class struggle found in the vignette depicting the homeless woman who finds Otto and the Coca-Cola billboard behind her, or the fact that while all the mean boys who take Otto are black, one of them wears an NYU shirt in a deliberate antidote to the street gang stereotype.

The old woman sells Otto to the owner of an antique store, who sets about replacing Otto’s missing eye and cleaning his fur. He deems him a “collector’s item” and places him in the store window, where Otto sits unwanted and watches the world pass him by.

Then, one rainy evening, an old man stops by the window and stares at Otto for a few moments, before walking into the store. It turns out that the man was Oskar, having aged and changed, much like Otto, but never having forgotten their bond.

Oskar takes Otto home and, once again, Otto ends up in the newspapers as the story of a war survivor finding his childhood teddy bear spreads. One day, Oskar gets a phone call. Otto can only hear one side of the conversation, and it brims with exuberant amazement:

Hello? Who? What? That’s impossible!

It turns out the caller is David, who survived the concentration camps and lives nearby. He had seen the story in the newspaper and recognized both of his old friends. Oskar immediately rushes to visit David and the three of them reunite, sharing stories of what had happened to each during the war — David’s parents died in the concentration camp, Oskar’s father was killed in the war, and his mother was crushed under the ruins during the bombing. Miraculously, both David and Oskar had survived but had led lonely lives since then. Now, they resolved to live together as a happy trio for the rest of their days.

For the three of us, life was finally what it should be: peacefully normal.

Since our happy reunion I have kept myself busy pounding out this story on my typewriter. Here it is.

Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear is absolutely wonderful and the screen does it no justice whatsoever. Like its gentle teddy-bear protagonist, this is a treat whose enchantment is of the analog kind. Complement it with the best children’s books of 2013.

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