Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

27 FEBRUARY, 2014

The River: Exploring the Inner Seasonality of Being Human in Gorgeous Watercolors by Italian Artist Alessandro Sanna

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A beautiful reminder that despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and above all ever-flowing.

“Love the earth and sun and the animals….read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,” Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass. In The River (public library | IndieBound) from Enchanted Lion — the wonderful Brooklyn-based independent picture-book publisher that gave us such treasures as Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Blexbolex’s Ballad, Seasons, and People, the existentially profound The Hole, and the boundlessly soul-stirring Little Bird — Italian illustrator Alessandro Sanna exposes with remarkable sensitivity that gossamer connection between the physicality of the land and our transcendent experience of the passage of time, the inner seasonality of being human. Through his soft watercolors shines the immutable light of existence.

In each of the four chapters, a new season unfolds, beginning with autumn and ending with summer, and out of it spring to life vignettes of different experiences along the banks of a shared river, waves of permanence and impermanence washing together. A subtle recurring motif of opposing forces — subjugation and release, celebration and solitude, fear and freedom — reverberates throughout the nearly wordless visual narrative, at once stretching it sideways and pulling it together into a vortex of coherent emotion.

For Sanna, who lives on the banks of the Po River in Northern Italy, this deeply personal project, years in the making, is in many ways a meta-meditation on the passage of time and the unfolding of life, in constant flux even at a seemingly static locale.

Glowing with quiet optimism, Sanna’s vibrant, expressive illustrations whisper to us that, despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and, above all, ever-flowing. As his river flows, one can almost see adrift in it the words of Henry Miller:

It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.

The River is easily the most breathtaking book to come out so far this year. Complement it with more of Enchanted Lion’s heartwarming treasures, such as My Father’s Arms Are a Boat and Little Boy Brown, both of which were among the best picture-books of 2013.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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26 FEBRUARY, 2014

Shackleton’s Journey: A Lovely Illustrated Chronicle of History’s Most Heroic Polar Expedition

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“It is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.”

In August of 1914, legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton led his brave crew of men and dogs on a journey to the end of the world — the enigmatic continent of Antarctica. That voyage — monumental both historically and scientifically — would become the last expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which stretched from 1888 to 1914. From Flying Eye Books — the children’s book imprint of British indie press Nobrow, which gave us Freud’s comic biography, Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land and some gorgeous illustrated histories of aviation and the Space Race — comes Shackleton’s Journey (public library | IndieBound), a magnificent chronicle by emerging illustrator William Grill, whose affectionate and enchanting colored-pencil drawings bring to life the legendary explorer and his historic expedition.

As Grill tells us in the introduction, Shackleton was a rather extraordinary character:

Shackleton was the second of ten children. From a young age, Shackleton complained about teachers, but he had a keen interest in books, especially poetry — years later, on expeditions, he would read to his crew to lift their spirits. Always restless, the young Ernest left school at 16 to go to sea. After working his way up the ranks, he told his friends, “I think I can do something better, I want to make a name for myself.”

And make it he did. Reflecting on the inescapable allure of exploration, which carried him through his life of adventurous purpose, Shackleton once remarked:

I felt strangely drawn to the mysterious south. I vowed to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow, and go on and on ’til I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis on which this great round ball turns.

From the funding and recruitment of the famed expedition, to the pioneering engineering of the Endurance ship, to the taxonomy of crew members, dogs, and supplies, Grill traces Shackleton’s tumultuous journey from the moment the crew set sail to their misfortune-induced change of plans and soul-wrenching isolation “500 miles away from the nearest civilization” to their eventual escape from their icy prison and salvation ashore Elephant Island.

As a lover of dogs and visual lists, especially illustrated lists and dog-themed illustrations, I was especially taken with Grill’s visual inventories of equipment and dogs:

Despite the gargantuan challenges and life-threatening curveballs, Shackleton’s expedition drew to a heroic close without the loss of a single life. It is a story of unrelenting ambition to change the course of history, unflinching courage in the face of formidable setbacks, and above all optimism against all odds — the same optimism that emanates with incredible warmth from Grill’s tender illustrations.

Years later, Shackleton himself captured the spirit that carried them:

I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.

Shackleton’s Journey is an absolute treasure. Complement it with Rachel Sussman’s journey in Shackleton’s footsteps.

Images courtesy of Nobrow

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21 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Hating Book: An Illustrated Vintage Parable About What Every Friendship Needs

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“You’re ugly and dumb. Being with you was never fun.”

In 1961, young Maurice Sendak illustrated Let’s Be Enemies — a charming lesson in friendship via reverse psychology by writer Janice May Urdy, published by Harper’s children’s division. Eight years later, the same publisher, overseen by Sendak’s remarkable editor and patron-saint Ursula Nordstrom, came out with The Hating Book (public library) by Charlotte Zolotow, the beloved children’s writer whom we recently lost and with whom Sendak frequently collaborated — a story strikingly similar in its ethos to Let’s Be Enemies, only featuring two little girls rather than two little boys, and illustrated by a very young Ben Shecter in a style akin to Sendak’s.

Whether the parallel was intentional or just the product of creative happenstance, we’ll never know. But Zolotow’s story and Shecter’s illustrations stand on their own not only as a lovely vintage treasure, but also an endearing, light-hearted yet poignant reminder that we invent our attitudes towards friends and foes, that a great deal of how we interpret another person’s behavior and intentions is merely a projection of the stories we’ve constructed about them, and that open communication is the glue of true friendship.

I hate, hate, hated my friend.

When I moved over in the school bus, she sat somewhere else.

When her point broke in arithmetic and I passed her my pencil, she took Peter’s instead.

What if she should say
Oh, please, just go away.
You’re ugly and dumb.
Being with you
was never fun.

Oh, I hated my friend.

When it was her turn to wash the board,
she didn’t ask me to help.

Oh, I hated my friend.

When I went to walk home with her,
she had already gone.

When she took her dog out
and I whistled to him,
she put him on a leash
and led him away.

Oh, I hated my friend.

After a few more spreads of inner turmoil, the snubbed little girl eventually decides to take her mother’s advice and confront her friend.

“You’ve been so rotten,” I said.
“Why?”
She looked as though she’d cry.
“It’s you,” she said. “Last week
when I wore my new dress,
Sue said Jane said you said
I looked like a freak.”
“I did not!
I said you looked neat!”

Both girls, it turns out in the heartwarming end, had succumbed to the Benjamin Franklin Effect in inventing their “hate” for the other.

She looked straight at me for a while,
and then we both began to smile.
My friend said, “Hey
maybe tomorrow we can play?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, “OKAY!”

I didn’t hate her anyway.
I wish it were tomorrow.

Mercifully, The Hating Book was reprinted in 1989 and remains in circulation — treat yourself to it, then revisit I’ll Be You and You Be Me, the lovely 1954 ode to friendship by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Sendak.

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20 FEBRUARY, 2014

Beloved Children’s Book Author and Illustrator Leo Lionni on Creativity and the Secret of Great Storytelling

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“What we create … we fill in with our own thoughts and feelings.”

In 1959, beloved children’s book author and illustrator Leo Lionni created a lovely little book for his grandkids, Pippo and Annie. Little Blue and Little Yellow, a minimalist and brilliant allegorical primer on color theory and graphic design basics, went on to inspire generations of children, and the process of creating it elated and energized Lionni so much that it catapulted him into a lifelong career of award-winning visual storytelling aimed at children, but bearing timeless and ageless resonance for all.

In Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave use Eric Carle’s, Maurice Sendak’s, and other icons’ advice to children on being an artistAnnie Lionni recounts her grandfather’s approach to the creative process and his convictions about where ideas come from:

Leo Lionni

The most frequent question that children asked my grandfather Leo was, “How do you get your ideas?” He would usually start with a simple idea. Sometimes the idea would be a beginning to a story, sometimes an ending, other times it might be the main character, or the situation. But however it would start, he would work hard to create a story from that idea. He thought of it as a game of chess, moving the pieces around to create the best story possible. And so, to the question “How do you get your ideas?” he would give a simple answer — “Hard work.”

But why did Leo make books at all? Why draw, or paint, or make sculptures out of wood, glass or metal? He did all of those things and more. He always said that he had “an irresistible urge to make things.” If for some reason he couldn’t make art, he claimed that he’d make bricks or boxes or anything else that he could make with his hands.

From 'Little Blue and Little Yellow'

Above all, however, Lionni’s magic came from his full immersion in the stories, his complete identification with his characters: Annie writes:

Leo would quote a book that he read years ago — “When a painter paints a tree, he becomes a tree.” What we create, he believed, we fill in with our own thoughts and feelings. That’s why even the inanimate things in his books have human qualities — the walls, plants and stones might be humorous or stern or anything else that people can be.

But when Leo said he became a tree, he also thought that the tree became him. “Of course, I am Frederick,” he said, referring to one of my favorite characters, Frederick the Mouse. And he was Swimmy when he became the eye of the giant fish. All of his characters were part of his own self, and he thought that was probably true for every children’s book author.

Artist to Artist is absolutely wonderful from cover to cover, doubly so for the fact that all proceeds from the book benefit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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