Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

13 JANUARY, 2014

Weight and Weightlessness: The Science of Life in Space, in Charming Vintage Illustrations

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An impossibly lovely primer on how gravity works and why we don’t fall to the center of the earth daily.

As a lover of vintage children’s books, especially ones about science and space, I was thrilled to chance upon the 1971 gem Weight and Weightlessness (public library; Abe Books) by science writer and then-director of Hayden Planetarium educational services Franklyn M. Branley — which renders him cultural kin to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Written less than two years after the historic Apollo 8 moon landing and featuring impossibly lovely Gorey-esque illustrations by British-born, Canadian-raised, California-based artist Graham Booth, this out-of-print charmer tackles the scientific puzzle of what weightlessness actually is through examples from both everyday life and the fascinating world of space exploration — a subject at once of enormous cultural importance and suffering tragic political neglect at the moment.

When you weigh yourself, you step on a scale. The gravity of the earth pulls you down onto the scale. Suppose you weigh sixty pounds. That means gravity is pulling you with a force of sixty pounds.

The scale tells how strongly gravity is pulling you down toward the center of earth. If there were a deep hole under the scale, gravity would pull you all the way to the center of the earth.

The scale and the floor beneath you keep you from being pulled to the center of the earth. They push up against gravity as gravity pulls down.

You can feel the pressure on the soles of your feet. That’s what a scale really measures. It tells how much push upward there is against the pull of gravity downward.

Suppose, all of a sudden, there was a deep hole under the scale. And suppose you and the scale fell into the hole. You would not feel any push upward on the soles of your feet. There would be nothing pushing upward against the downward pull of gravity. Now the scale would read zero.

As long as you keep falling you would be weightless.

That’s why astronauts in spaceships are weightless. They are falling. Nothing is pushing back against them. They are falling around the earth. The astronauts are falling, the spaceship is falling, and so is everything inside it.

They do not look as if they are falling. But they are.

If the rocket went up straight and then changed direction, gravity would still pull it back to the earth. But now the rocket would not come straight down. It would move in a curved path.

Astronauts like weightlessness for a while. It’s fun to float in space. And it’s funny to see things floating around you.

But after a while, an astronaut gets tired of being weightless. He likes to feel something solid under his feet when he stands up. And he likes to feel a bed under his back when he lies down. Also, it’s nice to have food served on a plate, instead of squeezing it out of a tube.

Weight and Weightlessness is well worth the hunt for a surviving used copy. Complement it with Isaac Asimov on the value of space programs, an illustrated chronicle of the Space Race, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s moving Senate testimony on the spirit of space exploration.

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13 DECEMBER, 2013

The Pious Infant: Edward Gorey’s Rare Illustrated Allegory about the Dangers of Dogmatism

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A darkly delightful allegory about what happens when we take our convictions to an extreme.

Beloved mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey used a variety of anagrammatic pseudonyms, formed by remixing the letter of his real name, for his prolific and diverse creative output, spanning irreverent children’s books, paperback covers for literary classics, naughty delights for grownups, and illustrated envelopes. Among Gorey’s multiple female pseudonyms was Mrs. Regera Dowdy, an imaginary 19th-century persona, under which he penned the rare and wonderful gem The Pious Infant (public library), included in the altogether fantastic collection Amphigorey Too (public library) — the characteristically dark story of obsessively devout Little Henry Clump, illustrating the absurdity of religious dogmatism, the perils of self-righteousness, and the notion that any ideology or set of rigid beliefs taken to an extreme is likely to backfire into self-destructiveness.

I was fortunate enough to track down a surviving copy — a signed one, at that — digitized and preserved here for our shared delight:

Although long out of print, used copies of The Pious Infant can still be found online and at some public libraries, and Amphigorey Too, which includes this one and fourteen other Gorey treasures, is still in print. Complement it with The Green Beads and consider supporting the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust with a donation to the Edward Gorey House.

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21 NOVEMBER, 2013

To Live Long, Write for Children: RIP Charlotte Zolotow, 98

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Honoring one of the biggest hearts and most brilliant minds in children’s literature.

For those who hold children’s books dear, a little piece of the soul dies every time another beloved children’s book author or artist leaves us. It helps a little to know that the great Charlotte Zolotow (June 26, 1915–November 19, 2013) lived to be 98. (On a semi-serious aside: It seems that writing for children holds an especial promise of longevity, with many authors and illustrators outliving the average life expectancy of their homeland by years, often decades — Maurice Sendak lived to be 84, E. B. White 86, Ruth Krauss 92, Alice Provensen reportedly continues to draw well into her nineties, and Eric Carle just released his latest book at 84. There must be something uniquely soul-nourishing about the warmth and kindness that writing for children both requires and stimulates.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

Although she authored and edited more than seventy books, Zolotow remains best-known for Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, published in 1962 and illustrated by none other than Sendak. But the most influential relationship of her career was with the great Ursula Nordstrom, fairy godmother of modern children’s literature, who steered Zolotow’s collaboration with Sendak and with whom Zolotow worked closely for many years thereafter. From Leonard Marcus’s altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — which also gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing and the infinitely heartwarming story of how she cultivated young Sendak’s genius — comes the wonderful record of Zolotow’s formative relationship with Nordstrom.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

In August of 1961, when Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present was coming together, Nordstrom assured Sendak of Zolotow’s commitment to the project:

She is so glad you’re illustrating it, and so are we, that nothing can cloud our pleasure.

A few months later, on October 30, she sent a heartwarming letter to Zolotow herself:

Dear Charlotte—

Sendak’s pictures are so lovely for your (untitled) book! Utterly different from anything he’s ever done — with a timeless, classic quality: You’ll be happy, I know. The little girl is so lovely, and the rabbit is funny, a good combination, I think.

After thanking Zolotow for recommending a play Nordstrom had just seen and loved, and for Zolotow’s kind words about the only children’s book Nordstrom herself ever wrote, The Secret Language, she holds up a mirror of warm mutuality:

I can never tell you how grateful I am to you, dear friend and author. I’ve never had anyone — well, — be so generous and kind, certainly no AUTHOR — as you’ve been.

The longtime collaboration and lifelong friendship between the two began when Zolotow became Nordstrom’s editorial assistant at Harper & Row — a position that, under the influence of Nordstrom’s enormous generosity of spirit and creative bravery, no doubt helped Zolotow cultivate her own. In fact, she soon became Nordstrom’s right-hand-woman and was even the one to bring in Louise Fitzhugh’s hugely popular 1964 classic, Harriet the Spy, which queer women continue to celebrate for its trailblazing use of an apparently queer protagonist.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)

In a 2009 interview, Zolotow spoke of the interplay between being a writer and being an editor:

Being both a writer and editor affects different expressions of the same personality. Writers must shut out everyone else while they write. They must forget outside suggestions, or the temptation to follow suggestions separate from their own visions.

Editors must resist the desire to insert their own idea of how and where the story goes. They must resist the temptation to offer their own words as a solution when something is weak; instead they should alert the writer to this weakness, so that if the writer agrees, she may solve the problem in her own words and way.

When Nordstrom was ready to leave Harper, she bequeath her department to Zolotow. In a 1980 letter to another one of her authors, Mary Stolz, Nordstrom wrote:

I told Charlotte Zolotow many months ago that I wanted to slope off my job with Harper, and not be an editor any more. There are good things about it, always have been, but no more working with authors, dealing with contracts, worrying about the lack of reviews, or when there are bad ones, for “my” authors. Charlotte, as head of the department, is a brilliant and sensitive creative person. She will see that your work get the good attention I think you have always had from the dept.

Illustration by William Pène du Bois from William's Doll (1972)

And see to it she did — Zolotow went on to bring to life dozens of books for young readers, from her very first, The Park Book, published in 1944 and illustrated by H. A. Ray, to such delights as William’s Doll (1972) illustrated by William Pène du Bois and I Know a Lady (1984) illustrated by James Stevenson to her final book, The Beautiful Christmas Tree, published in 1999 and illustrated by the inimitable Yan Nascimbene, whom we also lost this year.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

Thank you for the many lovely presents, Charlotte.

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