Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

04 MARCH, 2015

David the Dreamer: Extraordinary Philosophical 1922 Children’s Book Illustrated by Freud’s Cross-Dressing Niece Named Tom


The kind of book that reads you as you read it.

“The earth is heavy and opaque without dreams,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary before our nocturnal fancies became the subject of science — an inquiry catalyzed by the publication of Freud’s seminal 1900 book The Interpretation of Dreams, which the legendary psychoanalyst considered in part his “own self-analysis” and in which he declared that “the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”

Two decades later, humorist, essayist, and children’s poet Ralph Bergengren wrote David the Dreamer: His Book of Dreams (public library). This most unusual 1922 book is doubly notable for the absolutely striking illustrations by Austrian artist and writer Tom Seidmann-Freud — Sigmund Freud’s eccentric niece Martha, who at the age of fifteen took on a male name and began wearing men’s clothes, and who went on to be a visionary and exceptionally talented artist of the German Art Nouveau movement before committing suicide at the age of thirty-seven.

Several years before Seidmann-Freud authored her own visionary “interactive” picture-book, she illustrated Bergengren’s whimsical tale of an androgynous-looking little boy’s dream about his dog’s third birthday party — a choice especially curious given her famous uncle’s classic treatise, which paved the way for the contemporary study of the psychology of dreams.

David knew he was dreaming because he had on the white suit, very much like the Clown’s in the Circus, that he often wore in dreams, and never anywhere else. Fido was also dressed in a white suit, with neat ruffles around his legs, and the neatest ruffle of all around his tail. Fido always spoke doggerel in dreams, and David was not at all surprised when he said, jumping up and down and wagging his ruffled tail,

“This is a great day for me.
This is my birthday, you see.
Last year I was two,
And this year I am three.
And so what say you
To a birthday partee?”

Playful and whimsical as the story may be, running through it are also darker undercurrents of subtle philosophical lamentation — perhaps something that drew Seidmann-Freud to the story. Take, for instance, this passage touching on the various dimensions of losing control in life:

There is something very disorienting about being out of sight of land in a small boat, especially when you find out, with a sinking heart, that you don’t know which way to row to get home again. It is like getting lost anywhere else, only much worse; for there isn’t any Policeman or Kind Lady to help you, and, although a lot of people you don’t know all looking at you at once is bad enough, nobody at all looking at you makes you feel even more serious. Very-Little-David felt serious indeed… He told himself sensibly that it would do no good to cry, but he did cry. So there you are.

David the Dreamer is, alas, deeply out of print — a fact at once sad and unsurprising, for it is the kind of book you simply don’t see today: fabric-bound and kissed by gold leaf, utterly experimental and rather dark in sensibility, the kind of unclassifiable children’s-book-for-grownups for which contemporary commercial publishers seem to neither allocate the proper budget nor muster the proper bravery.

Perhaps Bergengren intuited this. In the third chapter of the book, titled “How a Book Read David,” the little boy comes to pear tree under which he finds “two very fine pears and a book.” But it isn’t any ordinary book — it’s responsive and alive:

The odd thing about this book was that when David began reading the book, the book began reading David… The letters ran around, and changed places, and many of them jumped off the book out of sight… It was a queer book. And another odd thing about it was the way the leaves left as soon as you had read them. When you started to turn a leaf over, it just disappeared. But there were always plenty of new leaves, so that it was the kind of book that would easily last you to read as long as you lived.

A century later, this gem of a book is as alive as ever to the private reader, even if commercially dead. It would take a rare and courageous publisher to reinstate its cultural aliveness with a reprint — here’s to hoping there are other bastions of books out there besides “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” (I, for one, believe there are.)

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23 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Velveteen Rabbit, Reimagined with Uncommon Tenderness by Beloved Japanese Illustrator Komako Sakai


A tender tale of how the soft bonds of love confer realness upon our existence.

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in his exquisite 1950s meditation on becoming who you are. But as is the case with life’s most enduring perplexities, this wisdom was best delivered three decades earlier, not by a philosopher but by a children’s book author. “Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you,” Margery Williams wrote in 1922 in what would become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, part of the canon that contains such masterworks as The Little Prince, Winnie the Pooh, and Where the Wild Things Are.

This quiet aliveness of truth and tenderness is what Japanese illustrator Komako Sakai brings to a bewitching and unusual adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit (public library) nearly a century later — the loveliest take on the Williams classic since Maurice Sendak’s little-known 1960 illustrations.

Timeless as the book may be, it is also one of extraordinary timeliness today — a story that speaks to our deepest anxieties about the effects of technological progress on our humanity.

A soft stuffed rabbit is given to a little boy at Christmas, enjoyed for a fleeting moment, then quickly ignored in favor of other gifts far more modern and mechanical — wind-up toys that move like the real-life objects they miniaturize.

And yet when the wise old Skin Horse — the oldest toy in the nursery — assures the rabbit that toys are made real by children’s love, and the rabbit is emboldened by this notion despite feeling at a grave disadvantage compared to the modern toys, we too are reminded that however the cultural odds are stacked, our imperfect humanity is not merely the thing that makes life livable but the only thing that makes it worth living.

After the little boy’s Nana gives him the humble toy one restless night, the Velveteen Rabbit grows to be his most beloved companion.

They become inseparable — the boy even brings his soft friend into the woods behind the house, where one day the Velveteen Rabbit meets a pair of wild rabbits. Perplexed by his stiffness, they tease him about not being “Real” — he can’t even hop! — but although the taunting hurts him, the Velveteen Rabbit takes comfort in knowing that the little boy thinks he is Real, and loves him, and that’s realness enough.

Ever so gently, another subtle and profound undercurrent emerges — the finitude of childhood and the impermanence of life itself.

When the boy falls ill, the Velveteen Rabbit is by his side as doctors and parents hover anxiously. And when the boy recovers, the doctor instructs the boy’s mother to burn all of his belongings — books, toys, and especially that bedraggled stuffed rabbit — that may have been infected during his illness.

As the Velveteen Rabbit awaits his heartbreaking fate in a sack at the end of the garden, drowned in wistful reminiscence about all the joyful moments he and the little boy shared over the years, one very real tear rolls down his cheek and drops to the ground.

Why should it all end like this for someone who had been loved so much and become Real?

And then something magical happens — a flower emerges from the ground where the tear had fallen, and it blossoms to reveal the beautiful nursery fairy, who takes care of the most beloved toys after their children outgrow them.

With one kiss on the nose, the fairy transforms the Velveteen Rabbit into a Real rabbit — real not only to the boy who loved him, but real to the world, to all who judge the realness of others.

The seasons turn and when spring arrives again, the little boy treks back into the woods, where he has a strange and wonderful encounter with a wild rabbit that looks remarkably like his beloved lost toy. The rabbit looks at the boy, and the boy at the rabbit, they are elevated in a quiet moment of recognition — the mutual beholding of another’s realness of which all love is made.

Sakai’s take on The Velveteen Rabbit comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion, maker of some of the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books of our time — including such endlessly rewarding treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, The Jacket, and Wednesday.

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20 FEBRUARY, 2015

Nature Anatomy: A Glorious Illustrated Love Letter to Curiosity and the Magic of Our World


A loving celebration of sunsets and salamanders, ferns and feathers, mountains and mushrooms, and the whole enchanting aliveness in between.

“A writer is a professional observer,” Susan Sontag noted in her spectacular lecture on literature. So is any great storyteller — including the artist. After turning her professional-observer powers and their visual record to the city and the farm, illustrator extraordinaire Julia Rothman now directs them at what Virginia Woolf believed was the source of all the arts: nature.

In Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the Natural World (public library), she fuses the curious scrutiny of science with the loving gaze of art to explore everything from sunsets to salamanders, ferns to feathers, mountains to mushrooms, and the whole enchanting aliveness in between.

Rothman — who also dreamt up the most generous book in the world — embraces the natural world with the same generous attention to its monumental wonders, like volcanos and orcas, and its quietly bewitching details, like snowflakes and butterfly metamorphosis. With great elegance and simplicity, she makes visible and intelligible some of the most complex questions that have occupied humans, both little and big, since our species first laid eyes on the glorious “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” we call home.

What emerges is at once a treasure trove of trivia — who knew that the 1,000 known species of bats, the only mammals capable of flight, constitute 20% of all classified mammals? — profoundly untrivial in its larger message: We are part of this glorious world we share with creatures manyfold more magnificent than us, and to know it is not only to love it, not only to be fully agape with awe, but to hold its future with utmost tenderness of heart and firmness of moral responsibility.

Rothman, the daughter of a science teacher, writes in the introduction:

I grew up on City Island in the Bronx, in New York City, on a block that ends with a beach, as most of the streets on the island do. Collecting and categorizing shells, studying horseshoe crabs’ undersides, and swallowing saltwater were part of my childhood, even though we could see iconic skyscrapers glowing across the water. My sister and I spent summers and camp, hiking in the woods in upstate New York, and sleeping in tents outfitted with lots of bug spray to satisfy my over-protective mother.

I really loved nature as a kid… But as I got older, I became a city girl at heart.

Rothman spent her teenage years as a normal city adolescent — sneaking into nightclubs and being rebellious in all those other predictable teenage ways that every generation believes it is inventing. Now, she lives near Prospect Park. Reflecting on that seemingly small yet miraculous contact with urban wildlife — of which there is far more than most people realize, well beyond parks — Rothman considers the transformative power of her mini “nature walks” in the park and how they shaped this project:

I cherish being surrounded by greenery for just a small period of time each day. It keeps me sane to be able to smell some grass after being squashed like a sardine in a subway car. I really look around the park wanting to know more. What is that tree with the beautiful leaves called? When will those flowers I saw last year show up again? Are those really bats flitting above our heads? How funny to see so many dragonflies attached, making love!

My curiosity continues to grow, and that’s how the idea for this book took shape.

Rothman notes that the book — in which she enlisted the help of friend and nature-expert John Niekrasz — is no more a “nature book” than her walks in the park are true “nature walks,” for there is no way to contain all of the living world between the covers of a single book. And yet it’s her nature book — a visual record of those aspects of our world that most sang to her and tickled her curiosity.

And that, I think, is precisely the point — we miss most of what is going on around us anyway, but it’s the act of looking that creates our reality, which is invariably subjective. Looking at nature in this way reminds us both that we are finite beings limited in the reach of our seeing abilities and that we belong to a world of infinite complexity and beauty — an awareness at once immensely grounding and immensely elevating. It calls to mind the opening of that unforgettable Mary Oliver poem:

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

Complement Nature Anatomy with some 500 years of rare and gorgeous natural history illustrations and the story of how bees gave Earth its colors, then revisit Rothman’s unbearably wonderful Farm Anatomy and Hello NY.

Illustrations courtesy of Julia Rothman; photographs my own

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