Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

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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24 JANUARY, 2014

Sir Quentin Blake’s Quirky Illustrated Alphabet Book

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“A is for apples, some green and some red, B is for breakfast we’re having in bed.”

As a lover of unusual alphabet books — including ones by Gertrude Stein, Maurice Sendak, and Edward Gorey — I was delighted to come across a new edition of the 1989 gem Quentin Blake’s ABC (public library) by the great Sir Quentin Blake who, besides being famous for illustrating many of Roald Dahl’s stories and the first Dr. Seuss book not illustrated by Geisel himself, also illustrated Sylvia Plath’s little-known, charming children’s book.

Blake’s quirky watercolor-and-ink drawings and zany verses emanate his irreverent humor, enchanting young readers as much as they tickle grown-up imaginations.

Quentin Blake’s ABC is an absolute treat from A-Z. Complement it with advice to kids on becoming an artist from Blake, Sendak, Carle, and other illustrators.

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20 JANUARY, 2014

I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!

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“Boys fix things. Girls need things fixed.”

In 1970, when the second wave of feminism was reaching critical mass and women were raising their voices for equality across the “social media” of the day decades before the internet as we know it, when even Pete Seeger was rallying for a gender-neutral pronoun, an odd children’s book titled I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl! (public library) began appearing in bookstores.

It began innocently enough:

Hmm, okay… (But still.):

And then it straddled the gender-normative continuum between the appalling and the absurd:

At first glance, it appears to be the most sexist book ever printed, made all the worse for the fact that it was aimed at the next generation. In fact, many reviewers at the time took it for just that, and cursory commentary across the web even today treats it as a laughable fossil of a bygone era, handling it with equal parts outraged indignation and how-far-we’ve-come relief.

But what many missed, even in 1970, is that the man who wrote and illustrated the book was Whitney Darrow, Jr., whose father founded Princeton University Press and whose satirical cartoons graced the New Yorker for nearly fifty years between 1933 and 1982. When Darrow died in 1999, a New York Times obituary called him “a witty, gently satiric cartoonist” and “one of the last of the early New Yorker cartoonists,” part of the same milieu as James Thurber, Charles Addams, and Peter Arno.

Which is all to say: It’s highly likely, if not almost certainly the case, that Darrow, a man of keen cultural commentary wrapped in unusual humor, intended the book as satire. It came, after all, at a time when girls were beginning to be rather un-glad to be “girls” in the sense of the word burdened by outdated cultural expectations and boggled in an air of second-class citizenry. It’s entirely possible that Darrow wanted to comment on these outdated gender norms by depicting them in absurd cartoonishness precisely so that their absurdity would shine through.

Of course, we can never be certain, as there is no record of Darrow himself ever discussing his intentions with the book. All we have is speculation — but let’s at least make it of the contextually intelligent kind. Sure, he was born in the first decade of the twentieth century — a time when those absurd gender norms were very much alive and well, a time not too long after it was perfectly acceptable for a wholly non-sarcastic Map of Woman’s Heart to exist and a list of don’ts for female bicyclists could be published in complete seriousness. And he came of age in a culture where those same norms very much mandated the rules of love and gender relations. But that’s perhaps all the more reason for a man who dedicated his creative career to our era’s smartest institution of cultural commentary to poke fun at society’s ebb and flow of values the best way he knew how — through his satirical cartoons.

Sadly, I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl! rests in the cemetery of out-of-print gems — but it might well be worth a trip to the local library.

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