Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

03 SEPTEMBER, 2015

Tiny Creatures: The Marvelous World of Microbes, in an Illustrated Children’s Book

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A vibrant ode to science inspired by folk art.

“You are mostly not you,” microbial ecologist Rob Knight wrote in his fascinating exploration of the human microbiome, in which he pointed out that only 1% of the genes in our bodies are human and the remaining 99% are microbial. It’s a staggering realization even for grownups, so how are tiny humans to grapple with these tiny organisms and their enormous impact on us and the rest of life? That’s what zoologist and children’s book author Nicola Davies explores in Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes (public library), with gorgeous art by English illustrator Emily Sutton — a marvelous addition to the best children’s books celebrating science.

The book is a clever exercise in scale, enlisting our human solipsism in understanding life-forms radically different from us by placing them in a comparative human context — for instance, a single drop of seawater can contain up to twenty million microbes, which Davies points out is about the same as the number of residents of New York State, and a teaspoon of soil can be populated by a billion microbes, comparable to the number of humans populating all of India.

Young readers are invited to explore the astonishing diversity of microbes in both form and function, not only relative to us — some make us sick, and some make us healthy — but relative to one another.

Sutton’s sensibility was greatly influenced by a single visit to the American Folk Art Museum in New York, which left her enchanted with the aesthetic of folk art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her vibrant illustrations call to mind beloved mid-century creative duo Alice and Martin Provensen, who honed their craft on countless folk tales and fables.

Complement Tiny Creatures with a grownup tale of how microbes are redefining what it means to be human, then treat yourself and the young human in your life to more stimulating science books for kids, including a coloring book about evolution, the story of how Persian polymath Ibn Sina shaped modern medicine, and an allegory of quantum physics based on Alice in Wonderland.

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28 AUGUST, 2015

The Iron Giant: The 1968 Classic Celebrating Humanity’s Capacity for Harmony, Reimagined in Gorgeous Illustrations by Artist Laura Carlin

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A parable of peace, a love letter to the cosmos, and a reminder of the vulnerable and vivacious humanity that unites us beneath our surface squabbles.

“The Iron Giant came to the top of the cliff. How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where had he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows. Taller than a house, the Iron Giant stood at the top of the cliff, on the very brink, in the darkness. The wind sang through his iron fingers. His great iron head, shaped like a dustbin but as big as a bedroom, slowly turned to the right, slowly turned to the left. His iron ears turned, this way, that way. He was hearing the sea.”

So begins the extraordinary 1968 novel The Iron Man by English poet laureate Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930–October 28, 1998), published in North America as The Iron Giant — a magnificent modern-day fairy tale for all ages. Written at the height of the Cold War and two years after Umberto Eco’s similarly-spirited children’s book about tolerance, the story is a parable of peace, a warning against warfare, and a reminder of the vulnerable and vivacious humanity that unites us beneath our surface squabbles. Burning with the cosmic enthusiasm of the Space Age, it is also a love letter to astronomy and space exploration.

Hughes dedicated the book to his children, Frieda and Nicholas, for whom their tragically fated mother, Sylvia Plath, had written a very different children’s book a decade earlier.

In 2010, the immensely talented London-based illustrator Laura Carlin was commissioned to illustrate a special edition of The Iron Giant (public library), imbuing with new life the Hughes classic that, half a century later, continues to bear rattling relevance to our divisive world.

Carlin’s artistic style, while unmistakable, evokes the aesthetic of mid-century illustration and the die-cut surprises inside the book call to mind legendary graphic artist Bruno Munari’s vintage “interactive” children’s books.

Hughes tells the story of the Iron Giant, who emerges mysteriously and begins devouring tractors and plows in a small farming town, to the great terror and dismay of the farmers. They enlist a little boy named Hogarth, a farmer’s son, to befriend the giant and lure him into a giant pit. But as soon as the giant is trapped and silently buried, Hogarth begins to feel intense remorse.

When spring comes, the giant unburies himself as if awaking from a long slumber. In an act of redemptive kindness, Hogarth leads him to a local junkyard where the Iron Giant can feast himself back to life. Just then, astronomers announce some terrifying news — a space-monster, a “nameless, immense bat-angel,” is headed for Earth. As all nations declare futile war on the menacing space invader, the Iron Giant comes to the rescue — only he has the caliber to stand up to the monster.

But when the Iron Giant defeats the “space-bat-angel-dragon” and orders the strange creature to become Earth’s slave for perpetuity, the monster answers that he’d be of no use in any earthly labor. “All we do in space is fly, or make music,” he laments. Curious, the Iron Giant inquires about the music and the story takes a turn for the even more poetic:

“Haven’t you heard of the music of the spheres?” asked the dragon. “It’s the music that space makes to itself. All the spirits inside all the stars are singing. I’m a star spirit. I sing too. The music of the spheres is what makes space so peaceful.”

Perplexed, the Iron Giant asks what could possibly possess such a peaceful creature to want to eat Earth. Here, Hughes reminds us that there are contradictory impulses in everything and the parts of us that prevails are the parts we feed through the ideas and people we surround ourselves with, or what William Gibson has elegantly termed our “personal micro-culture.” After a moment of wistful contemplation, the dragon answers that he overheard the warring cries of earthlings and got caught up in the collective intoxication of destruction, so he simply wanted to join in — a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel laureate Elias Canetti’s enduring ideas on crowds and power.

The Iron Giant then suggests that instead of slaving for the Earth, the space-bat-angel-dragon could sing to earthlings instead. And so he does:

The whole world could hear him, a strange soft music that seemed to fill the whole of space, a deep weird singing, like millions of voices singing together.

Meanwhile the Iron Man was the world’s hero. He went back to his scrap-yard. But now everybody in the world sent him a present. Some only sent him an old car. One rich man even sent him an ocean liner. He sprawled there in his yard, chewing away, with his one ear slightly drooped where the white heat of that last roasting had slightly melted it. As he chewed, he hummed in harmony to the singing of this tremendous slave in heaven.

And the space-bat-angel’s singing had the most unexpected effect. Suddenly the world became wonderfully peaceful. The singing got inside everybody and made them as peaceful as starry space, and blissfully above all their earlier little squabbles. The strange soft eerie space-music began to alter all the people of the world. They stopped making weapons. The countries began to think how they could live pleasantly alongside each other, rather than how to get rid of each other. All they wanted to do was to have peace to enjoy this strange, wild, blissful music from the giant singer in space.

Complement Carlin’s terrific take on The Iron Giant with Hughes’s moving letter to his son on the universal inner child and the story of his fateful first meeting with Sylvia Plath.

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26 AUGUST, 2015

Mad About Monkeys: A Loving Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weird and Wonderful Kindred Creatures

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A captivating primer on our fellow primates, from belligerent baboons to brilliant macaques.

We share this planet we call home with an astonishing array of equally astonishing creatures. But, perhaps because we judge everything by our solipsistic human criteria, few elicit our admiring fascination more potently than monkeys — our fellow primates, which evolved some 35 million years ago; we share with them a distant common ancestor, from which we diverged on our separate evolutionary paths. (But, contrary to a common misconception, we did not evolve from monkeys.)

In Mad About Monkeys (public library), a wonderful addition to the best children’s books celebrating science, British illustrator Owen Davey presents a stunning and richly informative primer on these marvelous primates.

However wildly different the 260 known species of monkeys may be from one another and from us, we continue to share surprising commonality with these distant cousins — from our highly networked societies to our capacity for play, that peculiar activity serving no other purpose than providing pleasure and delight.

Davey traces how their evolutionary history set monkeys apart from gibbons, lemurs, and chimpanzees — lest we forget, Jane Goodall has spent a good chunk of her career patiently debunking the popular misconception that chimps are monkeys — and how monkeys migrated from Africa to Asia to North America to develop into the distinctly different Old World and New World classes.

With art that calls to mind Charley Harper and the golden age of mid-century children’s book illustration, Davey explores the glorious diversity of these weird and wonderful creatures, their sophisticated social life, and their elaborate communication style — from West Africa’s Diana monkeys, which send sentence-like messages to each other by combining a variety of call sounds, to Ethiopia’s geladas, which broadcast their reproductive readiness via the brightness of a skin patch on the female’s chest, to South and Central America’s howler monkeys, which are among Earth’s most vocal animals and have the loudest call of any primate.

Davey spotlights a few fascinating record-holders, including a Rhesus Macaque named Albert, who became the first primate to fly in space in June of 1949, more than a decade before the first human primate, and the Bearded Emperor Tamarin, which puts all of Williamsburg to shame and uncontestedly earns the title of Earth’s “best facial hair.”

From mythology to ecology, Davey explores both the role of monkeys in human culture and humanity’s responsibility toward them — the book’s final pages take a sobering look at the detrimental effects of deforestation on monkey habitats and explore what we can do, as individuals and as a civilization, to protect these remarkable but vulnerable kindred creatures.

Mad About Monkeys comes from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, makers of such treasures as the illustrated biography of Shackleton, Emily Hughes’s marvelous The Little Gardener and Wild, the imaginative encyclopedia Monsters & Legends, and the cosmic primer Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space.

For an illustrated love letter to another magnificent mammal, see Jenni Desmond’s The Blue Whale.

Illustrations courtesy of Flying Eye Books

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24 AUGUST, 2015

Every Person in New York, Illustrated

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From sleeping strangers to subway cellists to Nick Cave, a loving portrait of a city whose vibrant vitality never stands still.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to New York, adding: “The city is like poetry.” In 2008, illustrator Jason Polan set out to capture the enormous human poetics compressed in Gotham’s geographic smallness by drawing every person in the city. The first seven years of this ongoing project, totaling drawings of 30,000 people, are now collected in Every Person in New York (public library) — a marvelous tome of Polan’s black-and-white line drawings, colored in with the intense aliveness of a city where, as White wrote more than half a century earlier, “wonderful events that are taking place every minute.” What emerges is itself a kind of poetry — fragmentary glimpses of ideas and images, commanded by an internal rhythm to paint a complete whole of this human hive.

Alongside the lively jumble of faces at Grand Central and the staple of sleeping strangers on just about every train line and the taxi drivers and the subway cellists and the many, many Taco Bell patrons (a recurring locale that tells us something about Polan’s own habitual affections) are some of the city’s most beloved public figures — there’s Marina Abramović performing her now-legendary The Artist Is Present show at the Museum of Modern art, Nick Cave at the Armory, Don DeLillo at Grand Central, Marc Jacobs in Soho, and Joan Didion walking, allotted an entire page in a subtle act of reverence.

Here and there, snippets of overheard conversation invite us to cast these anonymous citizens as characters in imaginary dramas that, however fanciful, might just be true — this, after all, is New York.

The seed for the project was planted many years earlier: While still in art school in Ann Arbor, Polan did a project titled I Want to Know All of You, in which he drew every single person in the school, offered the portraits for $10 each at a local gallery, and gave the $10 to the schoolmate whose likeness the drawing depicted. Eventually, Polan took to a canvas decidedly larger than the 800-person college and approached the whole of New York City with the same creative curiosity, openheartedness, and generosity of spirit.

Polan describes the aliveness of his process:

I try to be as authentic with the drawings as I can. I only draw the person while I can see them. The majority of the drawings are done (mostly) while looking at the person, not at the paper. If they are moving fast, the drawing is often very simple. If they move or get up from a pose, I cannot cheat at all by filling in a leg that has been folded or an arm pointing. This is why some of the people in the drawings might have an extra arm or leg — it had moved while I was drawing them. I think, hope, this makes the drawings better.

His selection criteria are just as organic and wholehearted:

I do not usually plan to make a drawing for this project. Sometimes I’ll go to an event to see a particular person and will know then that I want to draw them, but often the drawings happen completely randomly… I’m not looking for anything in particular, but as I think about it, I usually draw people if they: have an interesting haircut; are leaning a certain way; are a little kid who is doing something funny while wandering down the street with their mom; are playing an accordion; have a certain curve to their arm; are holding something interesting; have an interesting jaw line or lines in their neck; are particularly tall; were in the television show The West Wing; look like a nice person; are sleeping, eating, or focused on something; remind me of someone; or if I like the lines in their hands. These (and other traits that pop up every day) are certain things I find that I’m so excited to see and draw and share.

At the end of his introduction, Polan adds: “I hope you are in this book.” And, lo and behold:

Complement the wholly delightful Every Person in New York, a labor of love seven years in the making, with a similarly spirited yet decidedly different portrait of another city’s humanity, Wendy MacNaughton’s Meanwhile, in San Francisco, then revisit this charming illustrated tour of Gotham from a dog’s point of view.

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