Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

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 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), 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: A Vintage Illustrated 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 (UK; 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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12 FEBRUARY, 2014

Maira Kalman on Curiosity, Courage, Happiness, and the Two Keys to a Full Life

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“What protects you in this world from sadness and from the loss of an ability to do something? … Work and love.”

Maira Kalman is one of the most beloved illustrators working today and one of my greatest heroes, a singular spirit living at the intersection of art and philosophy. In this fantastic talk from India’s INK Conference, Kalman takes us on a journey into her wonderfully idiosyncratic mind and expansive soul, revealing along the way the poetic and profound universalities of our human triumphs and tribulations. Highlights below — please enjoy:

On the outlook her mother bequeathed her, a beautiful affirmation of why the capacity to wonder drives culture:

You don’t really have to have knowledge — what you have to have is curiosity.

On the psychoemotional cycles of life, something Kalman explores with magnificent dimension in The Principles of Uncertainty:

You’re constantly battling with the idea of loss and grief in this lifetime, and then continuing with optimism and courage to continue your work.

Kalman adds to modern history’s notable meditations on the meaning of existence — including ones by Carl Sagan, David Foster Wallace, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Richard Feynman, Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, Annie Dillard, John Cage, and others — by considering the fundamental necessities for a full life, which she explores further in And the Pursuit of Happiness:

The question that we ask ourselves is, what protects you? What protects you in this world from sadness and from the loss of an ability to do something? For me, what protects me … is work and love. And I think that those two things cover pretty much every single thing. Because what you do, who you love, what you love, and what you do with your time is really the only question that you have to answer.

For more of Kalman’s wisdom and creative brilliance, treat yourself to some of her magnificent books, including her illustrated editions of classics like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, then see her reflections on happiness and existence and art and the power of not thinking.

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