Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

16 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Petunia, I Love You: A Forgotten 1965 Children’s Book Treasure

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A sweet and irreverent reminder that kindness is the most potent antidote to evil.

Given my inexhaustible affection for vintage children’s books, I was instantly smitten by the 1965 gem Petunia, I Love You (public library) by Roger Duvoisin, part of his altogether delightful Petunia series — the story of the conniving Raccoon, who sets out to make Petunia the goose, “so handsome and so fat,” his dinner, but ends up making a good friend instead. Tucked into the vibrantly illustrated tale is a sweet, irreverent reminder that the unlikeliest, most rewarding of friendships are free to blossom as soon as we dissolve the shackles of our own agendas and that selfless kindness, which needs neither forgiveness nor permission, is the greatest antidote to evil, something with which both Tolstoy and Gandhi would concur.

When he first lays out on Petunia, Raccoon instantly knows that the plump goose eclipses him in strength considerably — “a blow from her wing had put to flight bigger animas than he” — so he turns to deception instead.

Enlisting his smarmy charm, he approaches Petunia, taking her for a farm fool:

“Dear Petunia,” said the Raccoon, who had thought of a wicked scheme, “you are so pretty. I love you, Petunia.
It would make me so happy just to have your company for a little walk in the forest.
Today, I am going to see my old aunt. Won’t you come along?”

“You are so polite and kind, Raccoon,” said Petunia.
“It would be rude of me to refuse. pray, lead the way.”

“To your honor, dear Petunia, I’ll walk behind you.”

But Petunia is no boob. She insists they walk side by side to “make the conversation more pleasant.” Reluctantly, Raccoon goes along with the request, deciding to trap her once they get to the forest.

And yet ruse after ruse, Petunia manages to outwit the exasperated Raccoon, who proceeds to fall into a creek, get stuck in a hole, endure an attack by bees, and barely escape getting squashed by a giant rock — all calculated “accidents” of his own invention, aimed at Petunia but incurred by Raccoon himself.

All throughout his failed assassination attempts, Petunia calmly helps Raccoon out of his own traps, unfazed by the series of disaster scenarios.

Once they return to the farm, Raccoon is so tired and hungry that he is ready to eat anything at all. Suddenly, he smells strawberry jam in a metal box behind the barn and rustles into it, only to find himself a captive of the farmer’s trap. Just as the farmer approaches, with the unequivocal mission of doom, Petunia releases the lock and Raccoon runs for dear life as his savior follows in effortless flight.

Shaken by his near-death experience and the kindness of his inadvertent friend, Raccoon confesses his original “wicked scheme,” apologizing sincerely and vowing to be Petunia’s “truest friend, for ever and ever.”

He walks her back to the farm gate and, as they part, he once again says, “Petunia, I love you” — only this time, it beams from the heart.

Sadly, Petunia, I Love You rests in the cultural burial ground of out-of-print treasures, but used copies can still be found. For a vintage picture-book aesthetic similar to Duvoisin’s, see the wonderful work of husband-and-wife creative powerhouse Alice and Martin Provensen.

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15 SEPTEMBER, 2014

A Sweet Celebration of Connection and Inner Softness in a Culture That Encourages Hard Individualism and Prickly Exteriors

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What a baby cactus can teach us about empathy, free will, and the art of finding one’s tribe.

A hug is such a simple act. But how anguishing when one is denied this basic exchange of human goodwill and kindness. Surely, one doesn’t even have to be human to feel the anguish of that denial. At first glance, this seems to be the premise behind Hug Me (public library) by animator-turned-children’s-book-author Simona Ciraolo — a sweet story about a young cactus named Felipe, who longs for such softness of contact in a family that sees emotional expression as a sign of weakness. Felipe runs away, looking for a new family to give him the affection he yearns for, but only finds heartbreak and rejection.

Felipe’s lonesomeness grows deeper when his first friend, a “bold, confident” giant yellow balloon who hovers over Felipe’s solitary patch of desert, succumbs to the inevitable outcome of the mismatched relationship. Even as he grieves his friend, Felipe is scolded for his emotional sensitivity rather than comforted with the very hug he needs.

Reaching his emotional tipping point, he finally departs to look for a new family, but quickly realizes that he is unwelcome everywhere and is left with nothing but his own company — not the self-elected art of solitude that can be so nourishing, but a forced lonesomeness that saddens the soul.

At last, Felipe finds a true friend in a little rock longing for affection amid a family as stiff and stern as his own, a kindred spirit whose cries for connection resonate in perfect unison with his own — a sweet finale reminding us that nothing dissolves loneliness like empathy and the awareness of shared experience.

There is, of course, a deeper allegorical undertone to the tale, beyond the surface interpretation of celebrating one’s inner softness in a culture that encourages a prickly exterior. A subtle undercurrent celebrates the spiritual homecoming of finding one’s tribe, the expansive embrace found in a kinship of souls. The story is also a celebration of free will, reminding us ever so gently that whatever our circumstances, we always have choices — and that our inability to see this is perhaps our gravest self-imposed limitation.

Hug Me comes from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us that lovely field guide of mythic monsters and the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic polar expedition.

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Darkest, Most Controversial Yet Most Hopeful Children’s Book

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A moving cry for mercy, for light, and for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of hopeless darkness.

One of Maurice Sendak‘s most misunderstood qualities, yet also arguably the very same one that rendered him one of the most innovative and influential storytellers of all time, was his deep faith in children’s resilience and his unflinching refusal to allow the fears and self-censorship of grownups to sugarcoat the world for children, who he believed possess enormous emotional intelligence in processing the dark — an evolution of Tolkien’s assertion that there is no such thing as writing “for children,” which Sendak echoed in his final interview, indignantly telling Stephen Colbert: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!'”

But while many of Sendak’s books have been deemed controversial precisely out of this misunderstanding, from the banning of In the Night Kitchen to the outrage over his sensual illustrations of Melville, no book of his has drawn a thicker cloud of controversy than the 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (public library) — an unusual fusion of two traditional Mother Goose nursery rhymes, “In the Dumps” and “Jack and Gye,” reimagined and interpreted by Sendak’s singular sensibility, with enormously rich cultural and personal subtext.

Created at the piercing pinnacle of the AIDS plague and amid an epidemic of homelessness, it is a highly symbolic, sensitive tale that reads almost like a cry for mercy, for light, for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of incomprehensible heartbreak and grimness. It is, above all, a living monument to hope — one built not on the denial of hopelessness but on its delicate demolition.

On a most basic level, the story follows a famished black baby, part of a clan of homeless children dressed in newspaper and living in boxes, kidnapped by a gang of giant rats. Jack and Guy, who are strolling nearby and first brush the homeless kids off, witness the kidnapping and set out to rescue the boy. But the rats challenge them to a rigged game of bridge, with the child as the prize. After a series of challenges that play out across a number of scary scenes, Jack and Guy emerge victorious and save the boy with the help of the omniscient Moon and a mighty white cat that chases the rats away.

But the book’s true magic lies in its integration of Sendak’s many identities — the son of Holocaust survivors, a gay man witnessing the devastation of AIDS, a deft juggler of darkness and light.

St. Paul’s Bakery and Orphanage, where the story is set, is a horrible place reminiscent of Auschwitz. In the game of bridge, “diamonds are trumps,” a phrase with a poignant double meaning, subtly implicating the avarice of the world’s diamond-slingers and Donald Trumps in the systemic social malady of homelessness — something reflected in the clever wordplay of the book’s title itself, suggesting that homelessness isn’t limited to the homeless but is a problem we’re all in together, equally responsible for its solution.

Jack and Guy appear like a gay couple, and their triumph in rescuing the child resembles an adoption, two decades before that was an acceptable subject for a children’s book. “And we’ll bring him up / As other folk do,” the final pages read — and, once again, a double meaning reveals itself as two characters are depicted with wings on their backs, lifting off into the sky, lending the phrase “we’ll bring him up” an aura of salvation. In the end, the three curl up as a makeshift family amidst a world that is still vastly imperfect but full of love.

We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are thumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Without walls

Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do

In many ways, this is Sendak’s most important and most personal book. In fact, Sendak would resurrect the characters of Jack and Guy two decades later in his breathtaking final book, a posthumously published love letter to the world and to his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. Jack and Guy, according to playwright Tony Kushner, a dear friend of Sendak’s, represented the two most important people in the beloved illustrator’s life — Jack was his real-life brother Jack, whose death devastated Sendak, and Guy was Eugene, the love of Sendak’s life, who survived him after half a century of what would have been given the legal dignity of a marriage had Sendak lived to see the dawn of marriage equality. (Sendak died thirteen months before the defeat of DOMA.)

All throughout, the book emanates Sendak’s greatest lifelong influence — like the verses and drawings of William Blake, Sendak’s visual poetry in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is deeply concerned with the human spirit and, especially, with the plight of children.

Complement this many-layered gem with more of Sendak’s lesser-known work, including his beautiful posters celebrating the joy of reading, his unreleased drawings, his formative, rare vintage illustrations for William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and his provocative art for Melville’s Pierre.

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