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7 Obscure Children’s Books by Authors of Grown-Up Literature

What a moral cat has to do with a lost boy, a happy prince and the rules for little girls.

We’ve previously explored some beloved children’s classics with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, plus some quirky coloring books for the eternal kid, and today’s we’re looking at the flipside — little-known children’s books by beloved authors of literature for grown-ups.

JAMES JOYCE

James Joyce may be best known as a poet, playwright, short story writer and novelist. But in an August 10, 1936 letter his grandson, Stephen, Joyce planted the story seeds of what became The Cat and the Devil — a charming children’s picture-book, originally illustrated by French cartoonist Roger Blachon, about the cat of Beaugency and a moral dilemma, a classic fable narrative mixing Irish wit with French folklore, shaken and stirred with Joyce’s extraordinary storytelling.

Joyce’s original letter to “Stevie” can be found in Stuart Gilbert’s 1964 volume, Letters of James Joyce. We Too Were Children has more images, a synopsis and a timeline of different editions.

MARK TWAIN

In 1865, legendary satirist Mark Twain did something unexpected — he penned a children’s story, titled Advice to Little Girls, in which he challenged children to digest the kind of intelligent humor and knowledge he was, and still is, known for among his adult audiences. The story was eventually published in The 30,000 Dollar Bequest and Other Stories.

This year, Italian publishing house Donzelli Editore released a beautifully illustrated Italian translation of the story, envisioned in the style of the scrapbooks and small albums the children of Twain’s era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera.

You ought never to take your little brother’s ‘chewing-gum’ away from him by main force; it is better to rope him in with the promise of the first two dollars and a half you find floating down the river on a grindstone. In the artless simplicity natural to this time of life, he will regard it as a perfectly fair transaction. In all ages of the world this eminently plausible fiction has lured the obtuse infant to financial ruin and disaster.”

VIRGINIA WOOLF

In 1923, with her greatest works still ahead of her, Virginia Woolf responded to a submissions call from a family newspaper called The Charleston Bulletin, published by her teenage nephews. The Widow and the Parrot is, roughly, a tongue-in-cheek moral story about kindness to animals and though Quentin, Woolf’s older nephew, bemoaned it as a disappointment and “a tease…based on the worst Victorian examples,” devoid of Woolf’s typical subversive humor he had hoped for, it remains a sweet reflection of character, her taking the time to contribute to a small family pet project in the heat of her literary career.

The Widow and the Parrot stayed dormant in the archives of The Charleston Bulletin for over half a century, until it finally saw light of day in the 1982 issue of Redbook, celebrating 100 years since Woolf’s birth.

Ariel Wright has more on We Too Were Children.

T.S. ELIOT

T.S. Eliot is often regarded as the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. In the 1930s, Eliot, under his assumed name “Old Possum,” wrote a series of letters to his godchildren, in which he included a handful of whimsical poems about feline psychology and sociology. They were eventually published in 1939 as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, originally illustrated by the author himself. But, given our affinity for mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey, the even bigger treat is the 1982 edition illustrated by Gorey in his signature style of black-and-white drawings at the intersection of the macabre and the whimsical.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats inspired the iconic Broadway musical Cats.

MARY SHELLEY

Between the time Mary Shelley published anonymous edition of her iconic Frankenstein in London in 1818 and the publication of the second edition in France in 1823, where her name appears for the first time, she penned Maurice, or The Fisher’s Cot — a children’s story Shelley wrote in 1820 for a daughter of friends. Shelley tried to have the story published by her father, William Godwin, but he refused, burying the text for nearly two centuries. In 1997, scholars discovered a manuscript copy was in Italy, considered one of modernity’s great feats of literary forensics.

The story, written in the straightforward Romantic language of poet William Wordsworth, whose work Shelley was reading at the time she composed Maurice, is about a boy searching for a home and his encounters with a traveller who turns out to be his long-lost father. With its melancholy tone and autobiographical undercurrents, the rediscovered text revealed a new glimpse of Shelley’s character and offered a precious missing link in the evolution of her literary style.

LEO TOLSTOY

Iconic Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy may be best-known for his epics Anna Karenina and War and Peace, considered two of the greatest novels of all time, but he also had a keen and active interest in children and children’s literature. He founded a school for peasant children on his family’s estate, followed by a second, more experimental school with the motto, “Come when you like, leave when you like” — an early model for open education. Inspired by the simplicity and innocence with which the children of his schools told stories, he began writing about his own childhood, eventually publishing a series of alphabet books after War and Peace. Known as “The ABC Book” (Azbuka) and “The New ABC Book” (Novaia Azbuka), these easy readers were widely adopted in Russia’s education system and remained in use throughout the Soviet Era.

Classic Tales and Fables for Children features a selection of stories and fables from Tolstoy’s classic primers. Always delightful, frequently humorous and never patronizing, these wonderful tales bespeak Tolstoy’s profound respect and appreciation for children’s unique creative and moral sensibilities, as well as his dedication to the broader aspirations of education.

OSCAR WILDE

In 1888, before his most iconic plays and essays made grand their debut, Oscar Wilde wrote The Happy Prince and other Tales — a poetic collection of five children’s stories about happiness, life and death. Though the most popular Western version, illustrated by Laura Stutzman, is certainly a treat, nothing compares to the astounding 1992 Chinese translation (which features an English version in the back of the book) illustrated by renowned Chinese artist Ed Young.

The anthology’s title text, The Happy Prince, can be read online in its entirety, courtesy of The Literature Network.

BP

Words on Words: Five Timelessly Stimulating Books About Language

What single Chinese men have to do with evolution and insults from Virginia Woolf.

We love, love, love words and language. And what better way to celebrate them than through the written word itself? Today, we turn to five of our favorite books on language, spanning the entire spectrum from serious science to serious entertainment value.

THE STUFF OF THOUGHT

Harvard’s Steven Pinker is easily the world’s most prominent and prolific psycholinguist, whose multi-faceted work draws on visual cognition, evolutionary science, developmental psychology and computational theory of mind to explain the origin and function of language. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature reverse-engineers our relationship with language, exploring what the words we use reveal about the way we think. The book is structured into different chapters, each looking at a different tool we use to manage information flow, from naming to swearing and politeness to metaphor and euphemism. From Shakespeare to pop songs, Pinker uses a potent blend of digestible examples and empirical evidence to distill the fundamental fascination of language: What we mean when we say.

Sample The Stuff of Thought with Pinker’s fantastic 2007 TED talk:

THE SNARK HANDBOOK

In 2009, The Snark Handbook: A Reference Guide to Verbal Sparring became an instant favorite with its enlightening and entertaining compendium of history’s greatest masterpieces in the art of mockery, contextualizing today’s era of snark-humor and equipping us with the shiniest verbal armor to thrive as victor knights in it. Last year, author Lawrence Dorfman released a worthy sequel: The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition: Comebacks, Taunts, and Effronteries — a linguistic arsenal full of strategic instructions on how and when to throw the jabs of well-timed snark alongside a well-curated collection of history’s most skilled literary insult-maestros.

Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” ~ Mark Twain on Jane Austen

It’s a new low for actresses when you have to wonder what’s between her ears instead of her legs.” ~ Katherine Hepburn on Sharon Stone

I am reading Henry James… and feel myself as one entombed in a block of smooth amber.” ~ Virginia Woolf on Henry James

He was a great friend of mine. Well, as much as you could be a friend of his, unless you were a fourteen-year-old nymphet.” ~ Capote on Faulkner

Ultimately, the book is the yellow brick road to what, deep down, you know you always knew you were: Better than everybody else. (Read our full review here.)

KEYWORDS

Originally published in 1976 by legendary Welsh novelist and critic Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society offers a fascinating and timeless lens on language from a cultural rather than etymological standpoint, examining the history of over 100 familiar yet misunderstood or ambiguous words, from ‘art’ to ‘nature’ to ‘welfare’ to ‘originality.’

The book begins with an essay on ‘culture’ itself, dissecting the historical development and social appropriation of this ubiquitous and far-reaching semantic construct. It paints a living portrait of the constant transformation of culture as reflected in natural language. So seminal was Williams’ work that in 2005, Blackwell attempted an ambitious update to his text in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society.

IN OTHER WORDS

As beautiful as the English language may be, it isn’t without insufficiencies. C. J. Moore’s curates the most poetic of them — rich words and phrases from other langauges that don’t have an exact translation in English, but convey powerful, deeply human concepts, often unique to the experience of the culture from which they came. (For instance, in Tierra del Fuego there is a specific word — mamihlapinatapei — for that an expressive, meaningful romantic silence between two people. And in China, gagung literally means “bare sticks” but signifies the growing population of men who will will remain unmarried because China’s one-child policy and unabashed preference for male progeny has reduced the proportion of women.)

Witty and illuminating, the book covers 10 different types of languages spanning across various eras and locales, from ancient and classical to indigenous to African to Scandinavian, digging to find the precious meanings lost in translation.

I’M NOT HANGING NOODLES ON YOUR EARS

From researcher Jag Bhalla comes I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World — an entertaining piece of linguistic tourism, exploring how different cultures construct their worldview through the nuances of language.

The book is divided into different themes, from food to love to just about everything in between, that reveal specific cultural dispositions towards these subjects through the language in which they are framed.

And on a semi-aside, @hangingnoodles is a must-follow on Twitter, a treasure trove of interestingness at the intersection of science and culture.

BP

Susan Sontag: A Trifecta Remembrance

What frontpage news has to do with graphic design and the craftsmanship of the self.

Today marks the 6th anniversary of the death of Susan Sontag, one of my big intellectual heroes and favorite authors. From her seminal treatise On Photography, required reading in any serious photography class around the world, to her poignant observations on human suffering in Regarding the Pain of Others to her status as an honorary citizen of Sarajevo due to her relentless activism during the Sarajevo Siege of the mid-90s, Sontag’s cultural legacy is as far-reaching as it is wide-spanning.

Today, I take a moment to remember her with three essential cultural artifacts that celebrate her work and capture her spirit — an interview, an essay and an animated short fim.

THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEW

Earlier this year, the iconic Paris Review opened up its archive to make available half a century worth of interviews with literary legends and cultural luminaries. In the journal’s 137th issue, published in the winter of 1995, Susan Sontag gives a priceless interview that reveals more of her countless facets than any other public inquiry into her rich, fascinating persona.

Of course I thought I was Jo in Little Women. But I didn’t want to write what Jo wrote. Then in Martin Eden I found a writer-protagonist with whose writing I could identify, so then I wanted to be Martin Eden—minus, of course, the dreary fate Jack London gives him. I saw myself as (I guess I was) a heroic autodidact. I looked forward to the struggle of the writing life. I thought of being a writer as a heroic vocation.” ~ Susan Sontag

DESIGN OBSERVER REMEMBERS

The day after Sontag passed away in 2004, Design Observer founder Bill Drenttel wrote a thoughtful and personal essay on his experience of knowing Sontag as her son’s close friend and how her keen intellectual curiosity applied to the essence of the design profession.

Susan was the most intelligent person I have ever met. She was intense, challenging, passionate. She listened in the same way that she read: acutely and closely. There was little patience for a weak argument. She assumed, often wrongly, that you possessed a general level of knowledge that would challenge even most college-educated professionals. She assumed you knew a lot and that you were interested in everything precisely because she was so interested in everything. Anything less left her unsatisfied, and, as she would not suffer fools, she wanted every encounter to be one in which she learned something.” ~ William Drenttel

REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS

Regarding the Pain of Others was Sontag’s final book, published a few months before her death in 2004. In what’s partly a sequel to On Photography, a quarter century later, partly a tremendously important larger conversation about the role of visual media in war. In it, Sontag sets out to answer the quintessential question posed in Virginia Woolf’s book Three Guineas: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?”

This simple yet beautifully crafted and powerful short animation, narrated by Sontag herself, uses the single most universal touchpoint with war — mass media — as a raw visual metaphor for the cultural criticism at the heart of Sontag’s book: Our media-driven desensitization and diminished capacity for empathy towards those truly suffering in the world.

BONUS

On Self is a priceless selection of Sontag’s private journal entries, first published in New York Times Magazine in 2006. It offers a rare glimpse of Sontag’s “four selves,” revealing the meticulous craftsmanship of her public persona and the raw tenderness of her private self. For more of that, see the excellent Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947–1963.

BP

The Snark Handbook, Insult Edition: Verbal Sparring Lessons from Literary Greats

A year ago, The Snark Handbook: A Reference Guide to Verbal Sparring became an instant favorite with its enlightening and entertaining compendium of history’s greatest masterpieces in the art of mockery, contextualizing today’s era of snark-humor and equipping us with the shiniest verbal armor to thrive as victor knights in it. This month, author Lawrence Dorfman is back with a necessary sequel, this time providing the sword: The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition: Comebacks, Taunts, and Effronteries, complete with 50 delightful black-and-white illustrations.

Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” ~ Mark Twain on Jane Austen

It’s a new low for actresses when you have to wonder what’s between her ears instead of her legs.” ~ Katherine Hepburn on Sharon Stone

From strategic instructions on how and when to throw your peers the jabs of well-timed snark to a well-curated collection of history’s most skilled literary insult-maestros, the book is the yellow brick road to what, deep down, you know you always knew you were: Better than everybody else.

I am reading Henry James… and feel myself as one entombed in a block of smooth amber.” ~ Virginia Woolf on Henry James

He was a great friend of mine. Well, as much as you could be a friend of his, unless you were a fourteen-year-old nymphet.” ~ Capote on Faulkner

Sure, The Snark Handbook is the anti-Zen approach to life’s confrontations. Still, it walks the fine line between potent wit and tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness in a way that makes it not just a toolkit but a treat as well. That, or at least a handy 200-pager with which to smack the next fool that crosses you.

BP

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