Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage children’s books’

14 AUGUST, 2013

Homer for Young Readers: The Provensens’ Vibrant Vintage Illustrations for the Iliad & Odyssey

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Ancient Greek mythology meets mid-century art.

Few artists have done more to enchant generations of children with storytelling than wife-and-husband duo Alice and Martin Provensen, whose vibrant mid-century illustrations span everything from classic fairy tales to an homage to William Blake. (Their 1944 gem The Animal Fair was featured in my recent collaboration with The New York Public Library as one of 10 favorite books about animals.) Born on August 14, 1917, Alice plowed through the era’s tragic bias against female artists; she survived Martin, who died in 1987, by more than two decades and continues to draw well into her nineties.

In 1956, New York’s Golden Press — makers of the fantastic Little Golden Books series — commissioned the Provensens to illustrate an adaptation of Homer for young readers, and The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book (public library) was born — a stunning large-format volume, sadly relegated to the tragic out-of-print corner of culture, but still obtainable used. Enjoy some of the Provensens’ timelessly wonderful drawings:

The Iliad and the Odyssey is delightful in its entirety and could have easily inspired The Ancient Book of Myth and War, that lovely side project by four Pixar animators.

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26 JULY, 2013

Gorgeous Vintage and Modern Illustrations from Aldous Huxley’s Only Children’s Book

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A brave old world of beautiful art and subtle undertones of misogyny.

At Christmas time in 1944, more than a decade after the resounding success of Brave New World Aldous Huxley (July, 26 1894–November 22, 1963) penned his one and only children’s book, The Crows of Pearblossom (public library) — the story of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, whose eggs never hatch because the Rattlesnake living at the base of their tree keeps eating them. After the 297th eaten egg, the hopeful parents set out to kill the snake and enlist the help of their friend, Mr. Owl, who bakes mud into two stone eggs and paints them to resemble the Crows’ eggs. Upon eating them, the Rattlesnake is in so much pain that he beings to thrash about, tying himself in knots around the branches. Mrs. Crow goes merrily on to hatch “four families of 17 children each,” using the snake “as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows’ diapers.”

Like Gertrude Stein’s alphabet book To Do, Sylvia Plath’s children’s verses The Bed Book, and William Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree (also his only book for wee ones), it never saw light of day in Huxley’s lifetime but was published posthumously, in 1967, with stunning black-white-and-green illustrations by Barbara Cooney.

And just when you think it couldn’t get any more delightful, it did: In 2001, the inimitable Sophie Blackall — whose illustrated missed connections will melt even the stoniest of hearts — brought her soft, dimensional visual magic to a new edition of The Crows of Pearblossom (public library), which you might recall from this omnibus of little-known children’s books by famous “adult” authors and which outcharmed even Cooney’s hopelessly charming original artwork:

In this excerpt from Debbie Millman’s altogether fantastic interview with the artist, Blackall discusses the challenges of handling the misogynistic undertones of Huxley’s narrative, something particularly worrisome given its audience is children, and the very delightful visual “Easter egg” (pun possibly intended) she hid in the book:

Though the original edition is sadly out of print and only findable in the pre-loved books market, the Blackall edition is unspeakably wonderful and a sublime addition to other little-known children’s gems by literary icons like Mark Twain, James Joyce (twice), Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes.

Cooney images via My Vintage Book Collection

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25 JULY, 2013

Open House for Butterflies: Ruth Krauss’s Final and Loveliest Collaboration with Maurice Sendak

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“Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child.”

Beloved children’s author Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993) penned more than thirty books for little ones over the course of her forty-year career, but remains best-known as half of one of the most celebrated author-illustrator duos of all time, the other half being none other than Maurice Sendak. Their eight-year partnership, masterminded by the great Ursula Nordstrom who also nursed Sendak into genius, produced such soul-stirring, heart-warming delights as the hopelessly wonderful ode to friendship I’ll Be You and You Be Me. But Krauss’s eighth and final* collaboration with Sendak, Open House for Butterflies (public library), was arguably their loveliest. Originally published in 1960 and thankfully, unlike what happens to a tragic many out-of-print gems, reprinted in 2001, this tiny treasure is a timeless smile-inducer for children and grown-ups alike.

Open House for Butterflies is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, an epitome of the Krauss-Sendak magic that nurtured generations of children to blossom into creative, thoughtful, just-the-right-amount-of-irreverent adults.

But no one captured the spirit of the Krauss kid more wonderfully than Nordstrom herself: In a letter from January 29, 1952, found in the altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library), Nordstrom writes to her author months before the first Krauss-Sendak book was released:

Last week-end I saw a television program (yes, I have a tv set and the other children’s book editors think I’m horrible to have one but I just toss my lovely head and act defiant) and on it was the most attractive 4 year old boy I’ve ever seen. very close, manly hair cut, and a darling face with dimples. The repulsive master of ceremonies said to him: “Tell me, Craig, when did you get those dimples?” and the m.c. grinned a baby-talk sort of grin, and the audience of adults giggled lovingly. And the kid looked at him and said: “When I got my face.” His tone of voice was reasonable and courteous and trying not to indicate what a silly question that one was. . . . Doesn’t look so wonderful written down, but it was wonderful. A Krauss Kid, I thought happily to myself.

In another letter from February of 1954, Nordstrom tells one of Harper & Row’s West Coast representatives:

Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child. But of course that only will work if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit he doesn’t know the answer to everything. Krauss books will not charm those sinful adults who sift their reactions to children’s books through their own messy adult maladjustments. That is a sin and I meet it all the time. But there are some adults who don’t sift their reactions to children’s books through their own messy adult maladjustments and I guess those are the ones who will love and buy Krauss.

* In 2005, Sendak re-illustrated a new edition of Krauss’s 1948 gem Bears, originally illustrated by Phyllis Rowand, thus producing a sort of posthumous ninth collaboration.

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