7 Nonfiction Children’s Books Blending Whimsy and Education
From typography to tsunamis by way of quantum physics, or what Langston Hughes has to do with LEGO.
By Maria Popova
Artful and fanciful children’s books make frequent cameos around here. Part of what makes them so great is their ability to whisk the young reader away into an alternate reality full of whimsy and possibility. But the present reality is often full of so much fascination we need not escape it to have our curiosity and imagination tickled. We’ve previously seen how comic books can be a medium for nonfiction, and today we turn to 7 wonderful kind-of-children’s books that bring imaginative storytelling to real, and in many cases serious, issues for young minds to ponder.
GRAPHIC DESIGN FOR KIDS
Graphic Design for Kids, part of the excellent Design Dossier series by Pamela Pease, introduces kids to the wonderful world of graphic design, from its history to its problem-solving and critical thinking methods, spanning a wide spectrum of visual elements and design mediums — shape, color, size and typography; posters, books and websites — to demonstrate design’s role in everyday life, exploring how people use words, pictures, and symbols to deliver and digest messages. The interactive, spiral-bound volume includes profiles of iconic designers, with flash cards featuring pithy insights on their craft, brimming with die-cuts, pull-outs and other treats that only analog books can offer.
Images via Imprint
THE FIRST BOOK OF JAZZ
Prolific poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes is considered one of the fathers of jazz poetry, a literary art form that emerged in the 1920s and eventually became the foundation for modern hip-hop. In 1954, he set out to educate young readers about the culture he so loved. The First Book of Jazz, which you might recall as one of our favorite children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, became the first-ever children’s book to review American music, and to this day arguably the best.
Hughes covered every notable aspect of jazz, from the evolution of its eras to its most celebrated icons to its geography and sub-genres, and made a special point of highlighting the essential role of African-American musicians in the genre’s coming of age. Even his discussion of the technical aspects of jazz — rhythm, percussion, improvisation, syncopation, blue notes, harmony — is so eloquent and engaging that, rather than overwhelming the young reader, it embodies the genuine joy of playing.
Alongside the book, Hughes released a companion record, The Story of Jazz, featuring Hughes’ lively, vivid narration of jazz history in three tracks, each focusing on a distinct element of the genre. You can here them here.
THE SERIF FAIRY
From our friends at Mark Batty comes The Serif Fairy — a charming book for type geeks and their progeny, which follows The Serif Fairy as she hunts for her lost wing across and airy, meticulously designed typographic landscape. She wanders through Garamond Forest, the Zentenar Gate, the Futura City, and Shelley Lake, where she falling into the water to find her lost wing, then rises to the air revived and full of magic again.
It’s an archetypal story of quest and belonging, told through a unique vehicle that educates and entertains at the same time, letting children learn about typography without realizing they are. Originally conceived in German by writer and graphic designer Rene Siegfried, the story’s sensitively English translation by Joel Mann takes nothing away from its poetic fable-like quality.
The book won the 2007 Type Director’s Club award for best children’s book.
Seasons by French artist Blexbolex, which you might recall, is a more meditative and abstract than the other books in this omnibus, but no less profound and stimulating for the young reader. With his signature retro-inspired minimalism, Blexbolex uses the metaphor of seasonality to reflect on a number of life’s big themes and the subtle dualities of being human. Four spreads depict the same landscape during each season, with a single word or phrase in bold block-letters on each page. But don’t breeze by the seeming simplicity of the concept — many of the thoughtful pairings on the beautiful double-page spreads give you pause and make you wonder why and how the two words go together, gently nudging you towards a philosophical meditation on the seasons, change and impermanence.
With its rich, textured colors, the creamy matte paper, and the tactile fabric on its spine, Seasons is as much a window of curiosity for kids as it is a beautiful art possession for grown-ups.
Since 1954, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, has been pushing the boundaries of human knowledge as the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. Voyage to the Heart of Matter: The ATLAS Experiment at CERN is an extraordinary collaboration between CERN and acclaimed paper engineer Anton Radevsky, bringing to life CERN’s proudest creation: The Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator.
The meticulously engineered pop-up book captures CERN’s quest to understand the universe by bringing to life the astounding activities of the LHC, from protons colliding at nearly the speed of light at the heart of the ATLAS detector to reenactments of the conditions that existed millionths of a second after the Big Bang.
I LEGO N.Y.
I LEGO N.Y. by the brilliant Christoph Niemann (♥), which topped our selection of the best children’s books of 2010, takes an imaginative look at New York rendered entirely in LEGO — a manifestation of Niemann’s incredible gift for taking something ordinary and transforming it into pure whimsy. From the city’s iconic architecture to the peculiarities of its day-to-day, this pocket-sized treasure offers both a guide to and a wink at The Big Apple, full of Niemann’s characteristic subtle humor and charming aesthetic.
Images courtesy of Christoph Niemann / The New York Times
On Boxing Day 2004, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck the Indian Ocean, killing more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. To commemorate the victims, West Bengali scroll painters Joydeb and Moyna Chitrakar created a ballad and a stunning picture scroll in the tradition of Patua, a form of narrative graphic art, transforming the tragic news into an artful and poetic fable. The fine folks at Tara Books, who brought us such handmade gems as The Night Life of Trees and I Like Cats, turned the Patua scroll into a book — but it’s no ordinary book. Tsunami is made entirely by hand and silkscreened onto handmade paper. It unfolds like a scroll and even features a hole from which to be hung on your wall. Its thick pages exude the rich smell of the authentic Indian dyes used in the screen-printing process, breathing even more mesmerism into the project’s extraordinary feat of bridging the fodder of newsrooms with the ancient art of Patua storytelling.
Some images courtesy of Tara Books
Published September 26, 2011