Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

14 NOVEMBER, 2014

Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag: Maira Kalman’s Sweet Design-History Alphabet Book about Embracing Uncertainty and Imperfection

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“Life is not a straight line. Life is a zig-zag.”

As a lover of imaginative and intelligent alphabet books and of absolutely everything Maira Kalman does, I find the letters of the alphabet and the words they make insufficient to express the boundless wonderfulness of Kalman’s Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag (public library | IndieBound) — the children’s-book counterpart of her magnificent My Favorite Things, which began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

In this ABC gem — which doubles as a design-history primer full not of snobbery and self-important art-speak but of a playful celebration of uncertainty and imperfection — Kalman culls thirty-one objects from the museum’s collection and strings them together into a tour of the alphabet, with her characteristic quirk, candor, and exuberant creative curiosity as the loving guide.

Her unusual selections, often of seemingly mundane artifacts, bespeak her extraordinary gift for finding magic in “the moments between the moments between the moments.” The accompanying words emanate from a beautiful wanderer’s mind and a spirit that is so clearly generous and kind.

There is the “itsy-bitsy nail” in I; the beautiful embroidered pocket in P, which offers the pause-giving factlet that “a long time ago, women didn’t have pockets in their clothes”; the clever play on continuity that offers “terrible news” in T as a painting of burnt toast accuses the antique toaster in Q (“Quite the toaster!) of malfunction.

The last letter winks at Kalman’s wonderful Principles of Uncertainty:

The final spread in the story offers a sweet message of embracing imperfection — a gentle reminder for all ages that, as Anne Lamott memorably put it, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”:

But the end is not really the end — perhaps the most touching and empowering part of the book is its postscript of sorts. In the closing pages, Kalman tells the heartening story of Nellie and Sally Hewitt — the two young women who founded the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum:

They loved to sing and dance. They were just a little bit wild. A little bit.

They had sharp eyes. The kind of eyes that really LOOK at things.

One day they decided to collect the things they loved, and create a museum. And they really did it. Which is a lesson to be learned. If you have a good idea — DO IT.

Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag is an absolute delight in its entirety. Complement it with its indispensable grownup counterpart, then revisit Kalman’s children’s-book collaboration with Lemony Snicket and this fantastic short documentary about Kalman’s work and spirit.

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13 NOVEMBER, 2014

Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds: An Unusual Counting Book about the Power of Small Kindnesses

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“A library is no place for three lost mice.”

However anguishing the art of asking for help may be, little is more gladdening than the act of giving it. That’s the premise behind Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds (public library | IndieBound) — a most unusual and gorgeously illustrated counting book by Jim Stoten, using Mr. Tweed’s small acts of kindness to teach kids the numbers and sneak in a subtle lesson on the power of grace.

On his daily walk into town, Mr. Tweed encounters various friends and neighbors, each having misplaced something valuable or dear. The search for these missing items becomes as much a counting game as it does a portal into Mr. Tweed’s whimsical, psychedelic world.

Little Colin Rocodile is missing his one kite and Mrs. Fluffycuddle her two kittens.

Mr. Tweed crawls up the numbers as he lends each a helping hand — there he is at the library, looking for Mr. McMeow’s three lost mice, for “a library is no place for three lost mice”; there he is on the bridge, consoling Little Penny Paws, who has dropped the seven flowers for mother into the river. There is a “Where’s Waldo” feel as a busy, vibrant scene of thoughtfully organized colorful chaos invites a visual scavenger hunt for the missing items.

After a long day of small kindnesses for his friends and neighbors, Mr. Tweed is summoned to a surprise party they have thrown to thank him, where he is presented with exactly ten gifts.

Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds comes from independent British picture-book press Flying Eye Books, whose roster of heartening gems includes a sweet celebration of connection and inner softness, the delightful field guide of mythic monsters, a visual chronicle of Shackleton’s historic polar expedition, and some illustrated rocket fuel for the souls of budding Sagans.

For sending young ones off into a different stage of life with the same message, see George Saunders’s fantastic commencement address on the power of kindness. For another take on numbers, see Paul Rand’s wonderful vintage children’s book Little 1.

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12 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Jacket: A Sweet Illustrated Meta-Story about How We Fall in Love With Books

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A gentle reminder that to be somebody’s favorite thing in the world requires a certain quality of thingness.

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her sublime meditation on reading. But how that transplant happens is a matter wholly subjective and deeply mysterious. In the unusual, wonderful, and magically meta picture-book The Jacket (public library | IndieBound), writer Kirsten Hall and illustrator Dasha Tolstikova explore the beauty and terror of falling in love with a book from the perspective of the book itself.

It is also a story about the aching disconnect between merit and confidence, and the way in which love both transforms us and brings us closer to ourselves.

“Book was a book that had just about everything,” the story begins. “He was solid and strong. His words were smart and playful. The problem was, Book didn’t feel special.”

True though it may be that “there’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen,” Book does want to be noticed — so that he can be truly seen as a child disappears into his pages and falls in love with his story.

And then, one day, it happens. A little girl walks into the bookstore and falls in love with Book.

Book fit perfectly into the girl’s hands.

She took him everywhere, and Book thought he must be the girl’s favorite thing in the whole wide world?

Who doesn’t long to be someone’s favorite thing in the whole wide world?

But Book soon discovers that he must compete for the girl’s affections with her other beloved earthly companion — her dog, Egg Cream.

Book could see why the girl adored her dog.

He was wild and funny, furry and sweet.

He scratched at the door.

He rolled around on the floor.

He did neat things with sticks and balls.

He was warm and cozy. And he loved the girl.

For Book, though, Dog was a big problem.

A big, clumsy problem with scary teeth and a huge slippery tongue. He was messy and wet, and he licked and drooled.

No, Book didn’t like Dog one bit.

Then, sure enough, as Book is enjoying a quiet picnic with the girl “one perfectly lovely afternoon,” Dog-begotten disaster strikes. Suddenly, mud splatters from all sides and smothers him. Distraught that he has ruined Book, the girl screams at Egg Cream.

That night, her mother helps clean Book up, but the girl is “too sad and gloomy” to read.

As Book watches her sleep, he sinks into wistfulness as he contemplates no longer being her perfect book.

But when the girl opens her eyes in the morning, “something had changed.”

She has a plan.

With quiet excitement and optimism, she sits down at her desk with some art supplies as Egg Cream and Book wonder what she’s working on.

And then, the reveal: a colorful handmade jacket for Book, which she wraps around him as she beams a smile.

The book’s final spread features delightful hand-drawn instructions for how to make your very own book jacket.

Underpinning the sweet story is also a gentle clarion call for holding onto the intangible joys and tactile rewards of old-fashioned spine-and-paper books — an ebook, after all, can’t return the embrace of a handmade jacket, nor can it really be someone’s “favorite thing in the whole wide world” when its very thingness is so woefully nebulous.

Maira Kalman, wise as always, put it best: “When you hold a (real) book in your hands, the molecules in your body rejoice.”

The Jacket comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion Books, by far the most intelligent and imaginative picture-book publisher today, whose remarkable roster includes such treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, Wednesday, and Advice to Little Girls.

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