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The Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2014

Nabokov’s love letters, Shackleton’s courageous journey, the unsung heroes behind creative icons, Joni Mitchell unbound, and more.

After the year’s best reads in science, children’s books, psychology and philosophy, and art, design, and photography, here come the finest memoirs, biographies, and history books of the year — our most inviting bridge between past and present, personal and universal.

1. A LIFE WORTH LIVING

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his 119-page philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” One of the most famous opening lines of the twentieth century captures one of humanity’s most enduring philosophical challenges — the impulse at the heart of Seneca’s meditations on life and Montaigne’s timeless essays and Maya Angelou’s reflections, and a wealth of human inquiry in between. But Camus, the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature after Rudyard Kipling, addressed it with unparalleled courage of conviction and insight into the irreconcilable longings of the human spirit.

In the beautifully titled and beautifully written A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (public library | IndieBound), historian Robert Zaretsky considers Camus’s lifelong quest to shed light on the absurd condition, his “yearning for a meaning or a unity to our lives,” and its timeless yet increasingly timely legacy:

If the question abides, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or biographical interest. Our pursuit of meaning, and the consequences should we come up empty-handed, are matters of eternal immediacy.

[…]

Camus pursues the perennial prey of philosophy — the questions of who we are, where and whether we can find meaning, and what we can truly know about ourselves and the world — less with the intention of capturing them than continuing the chase.

Dive deeper with more on Camus’s crusade for happiness as our moral obligation.

2. CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT?

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote in his magnificent memoir. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” It’s a sentiment somewhat easier to swallow — though certainly not without its ancient challenge — when it comes to our own death, but when that of our loved ones skulks around, it’s invariably devastating and messy, and it catches us painfully unprepared no matter how much time we’ve had to “prepare.”

Count on another beloved New Yorker contributor, cartoonist Roz Chast, to address this delicate and doleful subject with equal parts wit and wisdom in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir (public library | IndieBound) — a remarkable illustrated chronicle of her parents’ decline into old age and death, pierced by those profound, strangely uplifting in-between moments of cracking open the little chests of truth we keep latched shut all our lives until a brush with our mortal impermanence rattles the lock and lets out some understanding, however brief and fragmentary, of the great human mystery of what it means to live.

The humor and humility with which Chast tackles the enormously difficult subject of aging, illness and death is nothing short of a work of genius.

See more here.

3. SUSAN SONTAG

In addition to being a great personal hero of mine, Susan Sontag endures as one of the most influential intellectuals of the past century. But her most enchanting quality was a singular blend of fierce, opinionated intellect and vast emotional capacity — a mind not only aware of the world, but also of itself and its own vulnerability, coupled with a heart that beat with uncommon intensity and inhabited its fallible human potentiality fully, unflinchingly — not only a “professional observer” of life, per her memorable definition of a writer, but also an active participant in life, both public and private. Sontag lived with more dimension than most people are capable of even imagining, let alone comprehending, which rendered her at times revered, at times reviled, but mostly artificially flattened into the very labels she so deplored.

To capture Sontag’s life and spirit by honoring her dimensionality, then, is a monumental task, but one which Berlin-based writer and art critic David Schreiber accomplishes with enormous elegance in the long-awaited Susan Sontag: A Biography (public library | IndieBound).

Perhaps the most interesting narrative thread in Schreiber’s story of Sontag explores how she claimed her place in culture and crafted her version of “the American dream,” beginning with her conquest of New York:

In March 1959, Susan and her son, David, moved to New York. With her typical flair for self-dramatization, Sontag told interviewers that she arrived in the metropolis with only two suitcases and thirty dollars. Later it was seventy dollars, a somewhat more realistic amount that would be about $450 in today’s dollars. Because of the low rents in New York at the time, it would have been enough to make a start.

As Sontag told it, it sounds like a version of the American dream: a twenty-three-year-old single mother without resources moves to a huge and hostile city intending to live there as an author, filmmaker, and intellectual. And on her own and against all odds, she realizes her dream. There could not have been a better place than New York for Sontag to convert her fantasy of the bohemian life into reality. In this city, everything seemed possible for a young, ambitious woman.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.’ Click image for details.

But it wasn’t merely a matter of ambition: Sontag possessed a rare talent to possess — people, places, social situations. Schreiber cites an account by one of Sontag’s lifelong friends, the American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard:

Howard remembers what a natural Sontag was at making new contacts, striking up friendships, and meeting influential people. “She could be very, very nice — even seductive — to people she wanted something from. She just could not talk to stupid people.”

[…]

Sontag’s natural and self-confident contact with this exclusive society is all the more remarkable when one recalls how difficult it was to gain admittance. The gathering of New York’s high society of writers, artists, and intellectuals was an almost hermetically sealed world with strict criteria for admission.

[…]

Sontag seemed to exude an irresistible mixture of intelligence, hipness, sex, and beauty, so that, as she herself once said, she had Jasper Johns, Bobby Kennedy, and Warren Beatty all at her feet.

Dive deeper here.

4. MEANWHILE IN SAN FRANCISCO

Although Meanwhile, in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words (public library | IndieBound) by illustrator extraordinaire and frequent Brain Pickings contributor Wendy MacNaughton may be “about” a city, in the sense that the raw inspiration was drawn from the streets of San Francisco, it is really about the city, any city — about community, about subcultures and belonging, about the complexities of gentrification, about what it means to have individual dignity and shared identity. In that sense, it is a collective memoir of community.

Like a modern-day Margaret Mead armed with ink and watercolor, not a critic or commentator but an observer and amplifier of voice, MacNaughton plunges into the living fabric of the city with equal parts curiosity and compassion, gentleness and generosity, wit and wisdom, and emerges with a dimensional portrait painted with honesty, humor, and humility.

Beneath the individual stories — of the bus driver, of the hipsters, of the old men in Chinatown, of the librarian, of the street preacher — lies a glimpse of our shared humanity, those most vulnerable and earnest parts of the human soul that we often overlook and dismiss as we reduce people to their demographic and psychographic variables, be those race or gender or socioeconomic status or subcultural identification. Embedded in these simple, moving stories is MacNaughton’s tender reminder that there is no greater gift we can give each other than the gift of understanding, of looking and really seeing, of peering beyond the persona and into the person with an awareness that however different our struggles and circumstances may be, we are inextricably bonded by the great human longing to be truly seen for who we are.

See more here.

5. EVER YOURS

Vincent van Gogh was woven of contradictions — an extraordinary artist who also illuminated the scientific mysteries of movement and light; a man of great hunger for love and light and a great capacity for anguish. Nowhere does the role of these polarizing pulls in the making of his genius shine more brilliantly than in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library | IndieBound) — a revelatory selection of 265 letters exploring Van Gogh’s creative restlessness, his struggle to find his path in life, his tentative first steps into painting, and his views on art, society, love, and life.

In one letter, Van Gogh writes to his brother, Theo:

I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing [the divine] is to love a great deal. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, you’ll be on the right path to knowing more thoroughly, afterwards; that’s what I say to myself. But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more.

‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh

In another, he despairs:

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember,and he has vague ideas and says to himself, “the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood,” and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering. “Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy — but, say the children who look after him, he’s got everything that he needs in his cage, after all — but he looks at the sky outside, heavy with storm clouds, and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah, for pity’s sake, freedom, to be a bird like other birds!

An idle man like that resembles an idle bird like that.

[…]

You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel [the] bars…

Dive deeper with Van Gogh’s heartfelt letters on his struggle to find his purpose.

6. THE UNSPEAKABLE

Meghan Daum is undoubtedly one of the finest essayists of our time. In The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (public library | IndieBound), she explores “the tension between primal reactions and public decorum” and aiming at “a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses,” driven by a valiant effort to unbridle those messy, complex experiences from the simplistic templates with which we address them, both privately and publicly.

In the introduction, Daum echoes Zadie Smith’s piercing critique of our platitudes-paved road to self-actualization and laments the hijacking of our darker, more disquieting emotions by the happiness industrial complex:

For all the lip service we pay to “getting real,” we remain a culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes. We are told — and in turn tell others — that illness and suffering isn’t a ruthless injustice, but a journey of hope. Finding disappointment in places where we’re supposed to find joy isn’t a sign of having different priorities as much as having an insufficiently healthy outlook. We love redemption stories and silver linings. We believe in overcoming adversity, in putting the past behind us, in everyday miracles. We like the idea that everything happens for a reason. When confronted with the suggestion that life is random or that suffering is not always transcendent we’re apt to not only accuse the suggester of rudeness but also pity him for his negative worldview. To reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn’t just uncivilized, it’s practically un-American.

Dive deeper with Daum on aging, nostalgia, and how we become who we are.

7. WORN STORIES

One of the most extraordinary things about human beings is that we weave our lives of stories, stories woven of sentimental memories, which we can’t help but attach to our physical environment — from where we walk, creating emotional place-memory maps of a city, to how smell transports us across space and time, to what we wear.

For artist and editor Emily Spivack, clothes can be an “evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories” and a powerful storytelling device. Since 2010, she has been meticulously curating a remarkable catalog of such wearable personal histories from the living archives of some of the most interesting minds of our time — artists and Holocaust survivors, writers and renegades, hip-hop legends and public radio personalities. In Worn Stories (public library), published by Princeton Architectural Press, Spivack shares the best of these stories — some poignant, some funny, all imbued with disarming humanity and surprising vulnerability — from an impressive roster of contributors, including performance artist Marina Abramovic, writer Susan Orlean, comedian John Hodgman, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Orange Is the New Black memoirist Piper Kerman, artist Maira Kalman, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, and artist, writer, and educator Debbie Millman.

The stories span a remarkable range — a traditional Indian shirt worn during a spiritual Hindu gathering turned kidnapping; the shoes in which Marina Abramovic walked the Great Wall of China while saying farewell to a soulmate; an oddly uncharacteristic purple silk tuxedo shirt that belonged to Johnny Cash, preserved by his daughter; and, among myriad other shreds and threads of the human experience, various mementos from the “soul loss” — as one contributor puts it — of love affairs ending.

Read some of the stories here, then hear Spivack’s fascinating interview on Design Matters.

8. LETTERS TO VÉRA

Long before Vladimir Nabokov became a sage of literature, Russia’s most prominent literary émigré, and a man of widely revered strong opinions, the most important event of his life took place: 24-year-old Vladimir met 21-year-old Véra. She would come to be not only his great love and wife for the remaining half century of his life, but also his editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

So taken was Vladimir with Véra’s fierce intellect, her independence, her sense of humor, and her love of literature — she had been following his work and clipping his poems since she was nineteen and he twenty-two — that he wrote his first poem for her after having spent mere hours in her company. But nowhere did his all-consuming love and ebullient passion unfold with more mesmerism than in his letters to her, which he began writing the day after they met and continued until his final hours. They are now collected in the magnificent tome Letters to Véra (public library) — a lifetime of spectacular contributions to the canon of literary history’s greatest love letters, with intensity and beauty of language rivaled only, perhaps, by the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and those of Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

In July of 1923, a little more than two months after they met, Vladimir writes to Véra:

I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being — well, understood, perhaps, — so unused to it, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about — you’ll rub off their marvelous pollen at the touch of a word… You are lovely…

[…]

Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought — and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds.

[…]

See you soon my strange joy, my tender night.

By November, his love has only intensified:

How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours — with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? … I swear — and the inkblot has nothing to do with it — I swear by all that’s dear to me, all I believe in — I swear that I have never loved before as I love you, — with such tenderness — to the point of tears — and with such a sense of radiance.

Devour more of Nabokov’s exquisite love letters here.

9. SHACKLETON’S JOURNEY

In August of 1914, legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton led his brave crew of men and dogs on a journey to the end of the world — the enigmatic continent of Antarctica. That voyage — monumental both historically and scientifically — would become the last expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which stretched from 1888 to 1914. From Flying Eye Books — the children’s book imprint of British indie press Nobrow, which gave us Freud’s comic biography, Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land and some gorgeous illustrated histories of aviation and the Space Race — comes Shackleton’s Journey (public library | IndieBound), a magnificent chronicle by emerging illustrator William Grill, whose affectionate and enchanting colored-pencil drawings bring to life the legendary explorer and his historic expedition.

As Grill tells us in the introduction, Shackleton was a rather extraordinary character:

Shackleton was the second of ten children. From a young age, Shackleton complained about teachers, but he had a keen interest in books, especially poetry — years later, on expeditions, he would read to his crew to lift their spirits. Always restless, the young Ernest left school at 16 to go to sea. After working his way up the ranks, he told his friends, “I think I can do something better, I want to make a name for myself.”

And make it he did. Reflecting on the inescapable allure of exploration, which carried him through his life of adventurous purpose, Shackleton once remarked:

I felt strangely drawn to the mysterious south. I vowed to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow, and go on and on ’til I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis on which this great round ball turns.

Years later, Shackleton himself captured the spirit that carried them:

I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.

See more here.

10. THE WHO, THE WHAT, AND THE WHEN

There is something quite wonderful about witnessing one human being selflessly bolster the creative achievement of another, especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator — from the man who helped Bukowski quit his soul-sucking day job to become a full-time writer to the way Ursula Nordstrom nurtured young Maurice Sendak’s talent. But those who blow quiet, steadfast wind into the sails of genius clash with our narrow mythology of solitary brilliance — not to mention that as we so readily dismiss creative contribution on the accusatory grounds of “privilege” today, we weigh the material advantages but forget that the loving and staunch support of human capital is often the greatest privilege of all. And for many people we’ve come to celebrate as geniuses, such human capital was precisely what made their achievements possible — a vital aid rather than a detractor of their greatness.

That’s precisely what illustrator extraordinaire Julia Rothman and her collaborators Jenny Volvovski and Matt Lamothe celebrate in The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History (public library | IndieBound) — an illuminating inventory of the little-known champions behind a wide range of cultural icons and an homage to the gift of what Robert Krulwich once so poetically termed “friends in low places.” Each story is told by a different writer and illustrated by a different artist, all of astounding range and talent.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Among these enabling unknowns are George Washington’s dentist, Andy Warhol’s mother, Alan Turing’s teenage crush, Emily Dickinson’s dog, Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, and Roald Dahl’s mother. Indeed, as immeasurably heartening as the project is, there is also a heartbreaking undertone reminding us how consistently women are sidelined in history — throughout the book, the most frequently recurring roles of these silent supporters are of wife and mother, who doubled and tripled and quadrupled as assistant, caretaker, editor, publicist, and a great many more utilitarian and creative duties.

Véra Nabokov, 1902–1991; art by Thomas Doyle

Rothman and team write in the introduction:

Behind every great person there is someone who enabled his or her ascension. These friends, relatives, partners, muses, colleagues, coaches, assistants, lovers, teachers, and caretakers deserve some credit… When you consider your own life, there are dozens of people who have guided you along your path — whether a teacher from fifth grade who finally got you to raise your hand in class, a family friend who gave you your first camera, or that whiskey-sipping neighbor who’d tell you stories of his childhood. These relationships shape our lives, some lightly and others with more impact.

Julia Warhola, 1891–1971; art by Leslie Herman

Read some of these heartening illustrated stories here.

11. E.E. CUMMINGS

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras memorably wrote. Half a century earlier, a young poet began teaching the world this art, and teaching us to question what is seen, then made another art of that questioning. In E. E. Cummings: A Life (public library | IndieBound), memoirist, biographer, and journalist Susan Cheever chronicles the celebrated poet’s “wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language.”

Cheever considers the three ways in which modernists like Cummings and his coterie — which included such icons as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp — reshaped culture:

Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth-century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernists believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.

One can’t help but feel the particular timeliness, today, of the third — how often are we offered “a burst of delight and recognition” in our culture of monotonously shrill linkbait as we struggle to glean any semblance of wisdom in the age of information? Cummings knew that equally essential was the capacity to notice the invitation to experience that burst — a capacity ever-shrinking, ever-urgently longed for in our age of compulsive flight from stillness — and he made an art of that noticing. Cheever writes:

[The modernists] were trying to slow down the seemingly inexorable rush of the world, to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush has now reached Force Five; we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.

Read more, including a note on the faux-controversy over Cummings’s name capitalization, here.

12. THE LONDON JUNGLE BOOK

Something happened to us between Shackleton’s day in the Golden Age of Exploration and today — something that transformed us from wide-eyed wanderers who came to know distant lands with a sense of wonder and awe into the habitually crabby, short-tempered, entitled travelers we are today. We tap our feet impatiently at the airport security line, oblivious to the miracle we’re about to experience — a giant beast of our own creation is to take us high into the sky (where we can enjoy food and Academy-Award-winning cinema) and to a distant, often foreign land. A mere century ago, the vast majority of people never traveled more than fifty miles from their place of birth in their lifetime — and yet here we are today, jaded and irritable at the prospect of travel. How did we end up that way? And what if we arrogant moderns could, if only for a moment, strip ourselves of our cultural baggage and experience travel afresh, with eager new eyes and exuberant joy for the journey?

That’s precisely what award-winning artist Bhajju Shyam, working in the Gond tradition of Indian folk art, does in The London Jungle Book (public library | IndieBound) — an extraordinary and invigorating book from Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who continue to give international voice to marginalized art and literature through their commune of artists, writers and designers collaborating on unusual, often handmade books. Titled as both an homage and a mirror-image counterpoint to Rudyard Kipling’s iconic The Jungle Book, this gem tells the story of young Bhajju’s reality-warping encounter with London, where he journeyed from his native India.

At once a highly symbolic, almost semiotic visual travelogue and a work of remarkable philosophical sensitivity, the book invites us to see our tiresomely familiar world through the eyes of a young man who has a creative intelligence few adults are endowed with and a childlike capacity for wonder and metaphorical imagery. The busy King’s Cross station of the London Tube becomes a serpentine King of the Underworld, Big Ben a giant omniscient rooster, and London’s female workforce — women who seem to Shyam to do most of the work “and happily” — multi-handed goddesses.

Dive deeper with more of Shyam’s gorgeous drawings and the story of his voyage from poverty in a small Indian village to international acclaim as a self-made artist.

13. CATALOGING THE WORLD

Decades before Alan Turing pioneered computer science and Vannevar Bush imagined the web, a visionary Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet (August 23, 1868–December 10, 1944) set out to organize the world’s information. For nearly half a century, he worked unrelentingly to index and catalog every significant piece of human thought ever published or recorded, building a massive Universal Bibliography of 15 million books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, posters, museum pieces, and other assorted media. His monumental collection was predicated not on ownership but on access and sharing — while amassing it, he kept devising increasingly ambitious schemes for enabling universal access, fostering peaceful relations between nations, and democratizing human knowledge through a global information network he called the “Mundaneum” — a concept partway between Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and the übermind of the future. Otlet’s work would go on to inspire generations of information science pioneers, including the founding fathers of the modern internet and the world wide web. (Even the visual bookshelf I use to manage the Brain Pickings book archive is named after him.)

In Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (public library | IndieBound), writer, educator, and design historian Alex Wright traces Otlet’s legacy not only in technology and information science, but also in politics, social reform, and peace activism, illustrating why not only Otlet’s ideas, but also his idealism matter as we contemplate the future of humanity.

The Mundaneum, with its enormous filing system designed by Otlet himself, allowed people to request information by mail-order. By 1912, Otlet and his team were fielding 1,500 such requests per year.
(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

Read more here.

14. MOCHA DICK

In May of 1839, Herman Melville found himself riveted by an article in the New York monthly magazine The Knickerbocker about a “renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers” — a formidable albino whale named Mocha Dick, who had been terrorizing whaling ships with unprecedented ferocity for nearly half a century. Twelve years later, the beast was immortalized in Melville’s Moby-Dick, a commercial failure in the author’s lifetime that went on to be celebrated as one of the Great American Novels and is among the greatest books of all time.

Now, children’s book author Brian Heinz and artist Randall Enos tell the story of the original white whale behind Melville’s masterpiece in Mocha Dick: The Legend and the Fury (public library | IndieBound) — a captivating picture-book “biography” of the monster-turned-literary-legend, from how human aggression turned the “peaceful giant” into a ferocious beast to his first recorded attack near the South American island of Mocha off the coast of Chile to the final, fatal harpoon blow.

Suddenly, the whale burst through the waves, his jaws gnashing in the foam. One sweep of his flukes hurled the craft high into the air, spilling the crew into the sea. Twenty-six pairs of teeth as long as a man’s hand clamped down on the boat. The huge head shook savagely until only splinters remained. Then the whale disappeared in the twilight. The remaining boats plucked up their comrades and rowed briskly to their whaler. Some men sat stone-faced. Some shook.

Randall’s gorgeous linocut collage illustrations, to which the screen does no justice whatsoever, lend Heinz’s lyrical narrative dimension and magic that render the end result utterly enchanting.

See more here.

15. UPDIKE

John Updike (March 18, 1932–January 27, 2009) wasn’t merely the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities medal, among a wealth of other awards. He had a mind that could ponder the origin of the universe, a heart that could eulogize a dog with such beautiful bittersweetness, and a spirit that could behold death without fear. He is also credited with making suburban sex sexy, which landed him on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Adulterous Society” — something Adam Begley explores in the long-awaited biography Updike (public library | IndieBound).

Begley chronicles Updike’s escapades in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s, just as he was breaking through with The New Yorker — the bastion of high culture to which he had dreamed of contributing since the age of twelve. His literary career was beginning to gain momentum with the publication of Rabbit, Run in 1960 — the fictional story of a twenty-something suburban writer who, drowning in responsibilities to his young family, finds love outside of marriage. That fantasy would soon become a reality for 28-year-old Updike, a once-dorky kid who had gotten through Harvard by playing the class clown clad in his ill-fitted tweed jackets and unfashionably wide ties.

Dive deeper with the story of how Updike made suburban sex sexy.

16. JONI MITCHELL

At the age of eight, Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943) contracted polio during the last major North American epidemic of the disease before the invention of the polio vaccine. Bedridden for weeks, with a prognosis of never being able to walk again, she found hope in singing during that harrowing time at the hospital a hundred miles from her home. And yet she did walk again — an extraordinary walk of life that overcame polio, and overcame poverty, and pernicious critics to make Mitchell one of the most original and influential musicians in modern history, the recipient of eight Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement. The liner notes of her 2004 compilation album Dreamland capture with elegant precision her tenacious spirit and creative restlessness: “Like her paintings, like her songs, like her life, Joni Mitchell has never settled for the easy answers; it’s the big questions that she’s still exploring.”

When musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom chanced into a dark hole of a coffeehouse one November night in 1966, it was this explorer’s soul that she felt emanating from 23-year-old Mitchell, who was quietly tuning and retuning her guitar onstage. Marom knew that she was in the presence of genius. Over the decades that followed, she would interview Mitchell on three separate occasions — in 1973, in 1979, and in 2012. These remarkably wide-ranging conversations are now collected in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library | IndieBound) — an effort “to crack something so mysterious … the creative process itself, in all its fullness,” over the course of which Mitchell, with equal parts conviction and vulnerability, tussles with those “big questions.”

Dive deeper with Mitchell on freedom, the source of creativity, and the dark side of success and therapy and the creative mind.

17. RADIO BENJAMIN

Walter Benjamin may be best known as a literary critic, philosopher, and essayist — with enduring insight on the written word that includes his thirteen rules of writing and his advice on how to write a fat tome — but he was also a pioneer of early German radio. Between 1927 and 1933, thirty-something Benjamin wrote and delivered nearly ninety broadcasts over the nascent medium. (The world’s first radio news program had aired in August of 1920 and commercial entertainment broadcasts followed in 1922.) Those pioneering pieces, at last translated into English and released as Radio Benjamin (public library | IndieBound), were notable for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for upholding the idealism and optimism of any young medium. (Early German radio, for instance, was based on subscriptions and had strict rules against commercially sponsored programming — something wholly heartening and wholly heartbreaking in our era of “native advertising” and other unending violations of the church-state relationship between public-interest journalism and private-interest greed.) Many of Benjamin’s broadcasts were also groundbreaking in being aimed at children, from educational programming to fairy-tale adaptations to original plays.

Dive deeper with Benjamin’s satirical take on the key qualities of the successful person.

18.THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY

“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it,” Italo Calvino wrote in one of his fourteen definitions of a classic, “but which always shakes the particles off.” And yet even if we agree that “a book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” there is an infinite range of what different chests can — or want to — hold. The question of what makes a great book is thus notoriously elusive — so much so that even the most celebrated writers of our time can’t agree on the greatest books of all time. That question is what Andy Miller implicitly, and at times explicitly, asks in The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life (public library | IndieBound) — his wonderfully elevating and entertaining memoir of the twelve months he spent reading “some of the greatest and most famous books in the world, and two by Dan Brown.” (With this, at the very outset, comes a comforting character test that casts Miller as the kind of person who cherishes the written word but does so without an ounce of the self-important puffery with which most professional cherishers parade around literature.)

Miller’s project — which parallels Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life in some ways and intersects it at one point — began as an earnest effort to pay off his literary debt by reading many of the books he had “succeeded in dodging during an otherwise fairly literate thirty-seven years on Earth.” His intention was not to construct a definitive canon — he calls the project “a diary rather than a manifesto; a ledger, not an agenda,” a quest to “to integrate books — to reintegrate them — into an ordinary day-to-day existence, a life which was becoming progressively less engaging to the individual living it.”

Read more here.

19. MARX

The history of our species is rife with ideologies — political, religious, social, philosophical — that have been either wholly hijacked from their creators or gradually warped, with only fragments of the original vision intact, doomed to being continually misunderstood by posterity.

On the heels of the excellent graphic biography of Freud, British indie press Nobrow is back with Marx (public library | IndieBound) by Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon — an illuminating chronicle of the life and legacy of a man at once reviled as “the Devil” for denouncing capitalism and celebrated for his ideals of eradicating inequality, injustice, and exploitation from the world. More than the sum total of his political legacy, Marx’s story is also one of great personal turmoil and tragedy, inner conflict, and moral tussle — subtleties that the comic genre, with its gift for stripping complexities to their simplest truths without losing dimension, reveals with great sensitivity and insight.

The story begins with Marx’s childhood as the third of nine kids in a traditional Jewish family and traces his exasperation with classical education and his choice to study philosophy instead, how he fell in love with the woman who would become his partner for life, the evolution of his influential treatise The Communist Manifesto, how he ended up dying a stateless person, “both adored and hated,” and what his ideas have to do with the 2008 economic collapse.

See more here.

20. THE PILOT AND THE LITTLE PRINCE

“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” So sang a 1943 review of The Little Prince, published a few months before the beloved book’s author disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. But though it ultimately became the cause of his tragic death, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot also informed the richness of his life and the expansive reach of his spirit, from his reflection on what his time in the Sahara desert taught him about the meaning of life to his beautiful meditation on the life-saving potential of a human smile. It was at the root of his identity and his imagination, and as such inspired the inception of The Little Prince.

That interplay between Saint-Exupéry the pilot and Saint-Exupéry the imaginative creator of a cultural classic is what celebrated Czech-born American children’s book author and illustrator Peter Sís explores in the beautiful graphic biography The Pilot and the Little Prince (public library | IndieBound) — a sensitive account of Saint-Exupéry’s life, underpinned by a fascinating chronicle of how aviation came to change humanity and a poignant undercurrent of political history, absolutely magical it its harmonized entirety.

Dive deeper here.

For more timelessly rewarding biographies, memoirs, and history books, see the selections for 2013, 2012, and 2011.

BP

How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, Became the World’s First Computer Programmer

How a young woman with the uncommon talent of applying poetic imagination to science envisioned the Symbolic Medea that would become the modern computer, sparking the birth of the digital age.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, born Augusta Ada Byron on December 10, 1815, later came to be known simply as Ada Lovelace. Today, she is celebrated as the world’s first computer programmer — the first person to marry the mathematical capabilities of computational machines with the poetic possibilities of symbolic logic applied with imagination. This peculiar combination was the product of Ada’s equally peculiar — and in many ways trying — parenting.

Eleven months before her birth, her father, the great Romantic poet and scandalous playboy Lord Byron, had reluctantly married her mother, Annabella Milbanke, a reserved and mathematically gifted young woman from a wealthy family — reluctantly, because Byron saw in Annabella less a romantic prospect than a hedge against his own dangerous passions, which had carried him along a conveyer belt of indiscriminate affairs with both men and women.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress (Portrait by Thomas Phillips, 1835)

But shortly after Ada was conceived, Lady Byron began suspecting her husband’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta. Five weeks after Ada’s birth, Annabella decided to seek a separation. Her attorneys sent Lord Byron a letter stating that “Lady B. positively affirms that she has not at any time spread reports injurious to Lord Byrons [sic] character” — with the subtle but clear implication that unless Lord Byron complies, she might. The poet now came to see his wife, whom he had once called “Princess of Parallelograms” in affectionate reverence for her mathematical talents, as a calculating antagonist, a “Mathematical Medea,” and later came to mock her in his famous epic poem Don Juan: “Her favourite science was the mathematical… She was a walking calculation.”

Augusta Ada Byron as a child

Ada was never to meet her father, who died in Greece the age of thirty-six. Ada was eight. On his deathbed, he implored his valet: “Oh, my poor dear child! — my dear Ada! My God, could I have seen her! Give her my blessing.” The girl was raised by her mother, who was bent on eradicating any trace of her father’s influence by immersing her in science and math from the time she was four. At twelve, Ada became fascinated by mechanical engineering and wrote a book called Flyology, in which she illustrated with her own plates her plan for constructing a flying apparatus. And yet she felt that part of her — the poetic part — was being repressed. In a bout of teenage defiance, she wrote to her mother:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

Indeed, the very friction that had caused her parents to separate created the fusion that made Ada a pioneer of “poetical science.”

That fruitful friction is what Walter Isaacson explores as he profiles Ada in the opening chapter of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (public library | IndieBound), alongside such trailblazers as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, and Stewart Brand. Isaacson writes:

Ada had inherited her father’s romantic spirit, a trait that her mother tried to temper by having her tutored in mathematics. The combination produced in Ada a love for what she took to calling “poetical science,” which linked her rebellious imagination to her enchantment with numbers. For many, including her father, the rarefied sensibilities of the Romantic era clashed with the techno-excitement of the Industrial Revolution. But Ada was comfortable at the intersection of both eras.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Portrait by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1840)

When she was only seventeen, Ada attended one of legendary English polymath Charles Babbage’s equally legendary salons. There, amid the dancing, readings, and intellectual games, Babbage performed a dramatic demonstration of his Difference Engine, a beast of a calculating machine he was building. Ada was instantly captivated by its poetical possibilities, far beyond what the machine’s own inventor had envisioned. Later, one of her friends would remark: “Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.”

Isaacson outlines the significance of that moment, in both Ada’s life and the trajectory of our culture:

Ada’s love of both poetry and math primed her to see beauty in a computing machine. She was an exemplar of the era of Romantic science, which was characterized by a lyrical enthusiasm for invention and discovery.

[…]

It was a time not unlike our own. The advances of the Industrial Revolution, including the steam engine, mechanical loom, and telegraph, transformed the nineteenth century in much the same way that the advances of the Digital Revolution — the computer, microchip, and Internet — have transformed our own. At the heart of both eras were innovators who combined imagination and passion with wondrous technology, a mix that produced Ada’s poetical science and what the twentieth-century poet Richard Brautigan would call “machines of loving grace.”

Enchanted by the prospect of the “poetical science” she imagined possible, Ada set out to convince Charles Babbage to be her mentor. She pitched him in a letter:

I have a peculiar way of learning, and I think it must be a peculiar man to teach me successfully… Do not reckon me conceited, … but I believe I have the power of going just as far as I like in such pursuits, and where there is so decided a taste, I should almost say a passion, as I have for them, I question if there is not always some portion of natural genius even.

Here, Isaacson makes a peculiar remark: “Whether due to her opiates or her breeding or both,” he writes in quoting that letter, “she developed a somewhat outsize opinion of her own talents and began to describe herself as a genius.” The irony, of course, is that she was a genius — Isaacson himself acknowledges that by the very act of choosing to open his biography of innovation with her. But would a man of such ability and such unflinching confidence in that ability be called out for his “outsize opinion,” for being someone with an “exalted view of [his] talents,” as Isaacson later writes of Ada? If a woman of her indisputable brilliance can’t be proud of her own talent without being dubbed delusional, then, surely, there is little hope for the rest of us mere female mortals to make any claim to confidence without being accused of hubris.

To be sure, if Isaacson didn’t see the immense value of Ada’s cultural contribution, he would not have included her in the book — a book that opens and closes with her, no less. These remarks, then, are perhaps less a matter of lamentable personal opinion than a reflection of limiting cultural conventions and our ambivalence about the admissible level of confidence a woman can have in her own talents.

Isaacson, indeed — despite disputing whether Ada deserves anointment as “the world’s first computer programmer” commonly attributed to her — makes the appropriateness of celebrating her contribution clear:

Ada’s ability to appreciate the beauty of mathematics is a gift that eludes many people, including some who think of themselves as intellectual. She realized that math was a lovely language, one that describes the harmonies of the universe and can be poetic at times. Despite her mother’s efforts, she remained her father’s daughter, with a poetic sensibility that allowed her to view an equation as a brushstroke that painted an aspect of nature’s physical splendor, just as she could visualize the “wine-dark sea” or a woman who “walks in beauty, like the night.” But math’s appeal went even deeper; it was spiritual. Math “constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world,” she said, and it allows us to portray the “changes of mutual relationship” that unfold in creation. It is “the instrument through which the weak mind of man can most effectually read his Creator’s works.”

This ability to apply imagination to science characterized the Industrial Revolution as well as the computer revolution, for which Ada was to become a patron saint. She was able, as she told Babbage, to understand the connection between poetry and analysis in ways that transcended her father’s talents. “I do not believe that my father was (or ever could have been) such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst; for with me the two go together indissolubly,” she wrote.

But Ada’s most important contribution came from her role as both a vocal champion of Babbage’s ideas, at a time when society questioned them as ludicrous, and as an amplifier of their potential beyond what Babbage himself had imagined. Isaacson writes:

Ada Lovelace fully appreciated the concept of a general-purpose machine. More important, she envisioned an attribute that might make it truly amazing: it could potentially process not only numbers but any symbolic notations, including musical and artistic ones. She saw the poetry in such an idea, and she set out to encourage others to see it as well.

Trial model of Babbage’s Analytical Engine, completed after his death (Science Museum)

In her 1843 supplement to Babbage’s Analytical Engine, simply titled Notes, she outlined four essential concepts that would shape the birth of modern computing a century later. First, she envisioned a general-purpose machine capable not only of performing preprogrammed tasks but also of being reprogrammed to execute a practically unlimited range of operations — in other words, as Isaacson points out, she envisioned the modern computer.

Her second concept would become a cornerstone of the digital age — the idea that such a machine could handle far more than mathematical calculations; that it could be a Symbolic Medea capable of processing musical and artistic notations. Isaacson writes:

This insight would become the core concept of the digital age: any piece of content, data, or information — music, text, pictures, numbers, symbols, sounds, video — could be expressed in digital form and manipulated by machines. Even Babbage failed to see this fully; he focused on numbers. But Ada realized that the digits on the cogs could represent things other than mathematical quantities. Thus did she make the conceptual leap from machines that were mere calculators to ones that we now call computers.

Her third innovation was a step-by-step outline of “the workings of what we now call a computer program or algorithm.” But it was her fourth one, Isaacson notes, that was and still remains most momentous — the question of whether machines can think independently, which we still struggle to answer in the age of Siri-inspired fantasies like the movie Her. Ada wrote in her Notes:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.

In the closing chapter, titled “Ada Forever,” Isaacson considers the enduring implications of this question:

Ada might also be justified in boasting that she was correct, at least thus far, in her more controversial contention: that no computer, no matter how powerful, would ever truly be a “thinking” machine. A century after she died, Alan Turing dubbed this “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” and tried to dismiss it by providing an operational definition of a thinking machine — that a person submitting questions could not distinguish the machine from a human — and predicting that a computer would pass this test within a few decades. But it’s now been more than sixty years, and the machines that attempt to fool people on the test are at best engaging in lame conversation tricks rather than actual thinking. Certainly none has cleared Ada’s higher bar of being able to “originate” any thoughts of its own.

In encapsulating Ada’s ultimate legacy, Isaacson once again touches on our ambivalence about the mythologies of genius — perhaps even more so of women’s genius — and finds wisdom in her own words:

As she herself wrote in those “Notes,” referring to the Analytical Engine but in words that also describe her fluctuating reputation, “In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case.”

The reality is that Ada’s contribution was both profound and inspirational. More than Babbage or any other person of her era, she was able to glimpse a future in which machines would become partners of the human imagination, together weaving tapestries as beautiful as those from Jacquard’s loom. Her appreciation for poetical science led her to celebrate a proposed calculating machine that was dismissed by the scientific establishment of her day, and she perceived how the processing power of such a device could be used on any form of information. Thus did Ada, Countess of Lovelace, help sow the seeds for a digital age that would blossom a hundred years later.

Ada died of progressively debilitating uterine cancer in 1852, when she was thirty-six — the same age as Lord Byron. She requested that she be buried in a country grave, alongside the father whom she never knew but whose poetical sensibility profoundly shaped her own genius of “poetical science.”

The Innovators goes on to trace Ada’s influence as it reverberates through the seminal work of a stable of technological pioneers over the century and a half since her death. Complement it with Ada’s spirited letter on science and religion.

BP

Legendary Cellist Pablo Casals, at Age 93, on Creative Vitality and How Working with Love Prolongs Your Life

“The man who works and is never bored is never old. Work and interest in worthwhile things are the best remedy for age.”

Long before there was Yo-Yo Ma, there was Spanish Catalan cellist and conductor Pablo Casals (December 29, 1876–October 22, 1973), regarded by many as the greatest cellist of all time. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the U.N. Peace Medal for his unflinching dedication to justice and his lifelong stance against oppression and dictatorship, Casals was as much an extraordinary artist as he was an extraordinary human being — a generous and kind man of uncommon compassion and goodness of heart, a passionate spirit in love with life, and an unflinching idealist.

And yet, like many exceptional people, he cultivated his character through an early brush with suffering. In his late teenage years, already a celebrated prodigy, he underwent an anguishing spiritual crisis of the kind Tolstoy faced in his later years and came close to suicide. But with the loving support of his mother, he regained his center and went on to become a man of great talent, great accomplishment, and great vitality.

To mark his ninetieth birthday, Casals began a collaboration with photojournalist Albert E. Kahn that would eventually become the 1970 autobiography-of-sorts Joys and Sorrows (public library) — one of the most magnificent perspectives of the creative life ever committed to words.

Straight from the opening, Casals cracks open the essence of his extraordinary character and the source of his exuberant life-energy with a beautiful case for how purposeful work is the true fountain of youth:

On my last birthday I was ninety-three years old. That is not young, of course. In fact, it is older than ninety. But age is a relative matter. If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that age does not necessarily mean getting old. At least, not in the ordinary sense. I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating.

Recounting being at once delighted and unsurprised by an article in the London Sunday Times about an orchestra in the Caucasus composed of musicians older than a hundred, he considers the spring of their vitality:

In spite of their age, those musicians have not lost their zest for life. How does one explain this? I do not think the answer lies simply in their physical constitutions or in something unique about the climate in which they live. It has to do with their attitude toward life; and I believe that their ability to work is due in no small measure to the fact that they do work. Work helps prevent one from getting old. I, for one, cannot dream of retiring. Not now or ever. Retire? The word is alien and the idea inconceivable to me. I don’t believe in retirement for anyone in my type of work, not while the spirit remains. My work is my life. I cannot think of one without the other. To “retire” means to me to begin to die. The man who works and is never bored is never old. Work and interest in worthwhile things are the best remedy for age. Each day I am reborn. Each day I must begin again.

For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner.

With great elegance, he contrasts the dullness of mindless routine with the exhilaration of mindful ritual — something many great artists engineer into their days. In a sentiment Henry Miller would come to echo only two years later in his own memorable meditation on the secret of remaining forever young, Casals writes of his daily practice:

It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning for me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being. The music is never the same for me, never. Each day is something new, fantastic, unbelievable. That is Bach, like nature, a miracle!

Casals, indeed, finds great vitalization in bearing witness to nature’s mastery of the self-renewal so essential for the human spirit over the long run:

I do not think a day passes in my life in which I fail to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature. It is there on every side. It can be simply a shadow on a mountainside, or a spider’s web gleaming with dew, or sunlight on the leaves of a tree. I have always especially loved the sea. Whenever possible, I have lived by the sea… It has long been a custom of mine to walk along the beach each morning before I start to work. True, my walks are shorter than they used to be, but that does not lessen the wonder of the sea. How mysterious and beautiful is the sea! how infinitely variable! It is never the same, never, not from one moment to the next, always in the process of change, always becoming something different and new.

In the same way, Casals argues, we renew ourselves through purposeful work. But he adds an admonition about the complacency of talent, echoing Jack Kerouac’s fantastic distinction between talent and genius. Casals offers aspiring artists of all stripes a word of advice on humility and hard work as the surest path to self-actualization:

I see no particular merit in the fact that I was an artist at the age of eleven. I was born with an ability, with music in me, that is all. No special credit was due me. The only credit we can claim is for the use we make of the talent we are given. That is why I urge young musicians: “Don’t be vain because you happen to have talent. You are not responsible for that; it was not of your doing. What you do with your talent is what matters. You must cherish this gift. Do not demean or waste what you have been given. Work — work constantly and nourish it.”

Of course the gift to be cherished most of all is that of life itself. One’s work should be a salute to life.

Hence Ray Bradbury’s famous proclamation that he never worked a day in his life — further testament to the magic made possible by discerning your vocation.

Casals lived and worked for another four years, dying eight weeks before his ninety-seventh birthday. Joys and Sorrows remains an invigorating read — a rare glimpse into the source of this creative and spiritual vitality of unparalleled proportions.

BP

The Best Children’s Books of 2014

Intelligent and imaginative tales of love, loneliness, loyalty, loss, friendship, and everything in between.

“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

“It is an error,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien seven decades earlier in his superb meditation on fantasy and why there’s no such thing as writing for children, “to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.” Indeed, books that bewitch young hearts and tickle young minds aren’t “children’s books” but simply great books — hearts that beat in the chest of another, even if that chest is slightly smaller.

This is certainly the case with the most intelligent and imaginative “children’s” and picture-books published this year. (Because the best children’s books provide, as Tolkien believed, perennial delight, step into the time machine and revisit previous selections for 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

1. THE LION AND THE BIRD

Once in a long while, a children’s book comes by that is so gorgeous in sight and spirit, so timelessly and agelessly enchanting, that it takes my breath away. The Lion and the Bird (public library | IndieBound) by French Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc is one such rare gem — an ode to life’s moments between the words via the tender and melodic story of a lion who finds a wounded bird in his garden one autumn day and nurses it back to flight. In the act of helping and being helped, the two deliver one another from the soul-wrenching pain of loneliness and build a beautiful friendship — the quiet and deeply rewarding kind.

Dubuc’s warm and generous illustrations are not only magical in that singular way that only someone who understands both childhood and loneliness can afford, but also lend a mesmerizing musical quality to the story. She plays with scale and negative space in a courageous and uncommon way — scenes fade into opacity as time passes, Lion shrinks as Bird flies away, and three blank pages punctuate the story as brilliantly placed pauses that capture the wistfulness of waiting and longing. What emerges is an entrancing sing-song rhythm of storytelling and of emotion.

As an endless winter descends upon Lion and Bird, they share a world of warmth and playful fellowship.

But a bittersweet awareness lurks in the shadow of their union — Lion knows that as soon as her broken wing heals, Bird will take to the spring skies with her flock, leaving him to his lonesome life.

Dubuc’s eloquent pictures advance the nearly wordless story, true to those moments in life that render words unnecessary. When spring arrives, we see Bird wave farewell to Lion.

“Yes,” says Lion. “I know.”

Nothing else is said, and yet we too instantly know — we know the universe of unspoken and ineffable emotion that envelops each and beams between them like silent starlight in that fateful moment.

The seasons roll by and Lion tends to his garden quietly, solemnly.

Summer passes slowly, softly.

Wistfully, he wonders where Bird might be. Until one autumn day…

…he hears a familiar sound.

It is Bird, returning for another winter of warmth and friendship.

The Lion and the Bird is ineffably wonderful, the kind of treasure to which the screen and the attempted explanation do no justice — a book that, as it was once said of The Little Prince, will shine upon your soul, whether child or grown-up, “with a sidewise gleam” and strike you “in some place that is not the mind” to glowing there with inextinguishable light.

Originally featured here.

2. HUG ME

A hug is such a simple act. But how anguishing when one is denied this basic exchange of human goodwill and kindness. Surely, one doesn’t even have to be human to feel the anguish of that denial. At first glance, this seems to be the premise behind Hug Me (public library | IndieBound) by animator-turned-children’s-book-author Simona Ciraolo — a sweet story about a young cactus named Felipe, who longs for such softness of contact in a family that sees emotional expression as a sign of weakness. Felipe runs away, looking for a new family to give him the affection he yearns for, but only finds heartbreak and rejection.

Felipe’s lonesomeness grows deeper when his first friend, a “bold, confident” giant yellow balloon who hovers over Felipe’s solitary patch of desert, succumbs to the inevitable outcome of the mismatched relationship. Even as he grieves his friend, Felipe is scolded for his emotional sensitivity rather than comforted with the very hug he needs.

Reaching his emotional tipping point, he finally departs to look for a new family, but quickly realizes that he is unwelcome everywhere and is left with nothing but his own company — not the self-elected art of solitude that can be so nourishing, but a forced lonesomeness that saddens the soul.

At last, Felipe finds a true friend in a little rock longing for affection amid a family as stiff and stern as his own, a kindred spirit whose cries for connection resonate in perfect unison with his own — a sweet finale reminding us that nothing dissolves loneliness like empathy and the awareness of shared experience.

There is, of course, a deeper allegorical undertone to the tale, beyond the surface interpretation of celebrating one’s inner softness in a culture that encourages hard individualism and a prickly exterior. A subtle undercurrent celebrates the spiritual homecoming of finding one’s tribe, the expansive embrace found in a kinship of souls. The story is also a celebration of free will, reminding us ever so gently that whatever our circumstances, we always have choices — and that our inability to see this is perhaps our gravest self-imposed limitation.

Originally featured here.

3. AH-HA TO 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.

Originally featured here.

4. WEDNESDAY

For more than a decade, Brooklyn’s family-owned indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion has been publishing immeasurably thoughtful and lyrical picture-books that invite young minds of all ages to explore such subtleties of the human experience as loneliness, loyalty, loss, the unknown, and the rhythms of life.

Now comes Wednesday (public library | IndieBound), the American debut of French children’s book author and illustrator Anne Bertier. It is translated by Enchanted Lion founder and editor Claudia Zoe Bedrick herself, a longtime Peace Corps volunteer, who continues to do for contemporary children’s books what Ursula Nordstrom did for the most beloved classics of the twentieth century.

Partway between Norton Juster’s 1963 gem The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and the endearing Sendak-illustrated Let’s Be Enemies, this unusual, minimalist, maximally imaginative book tells the story of two friends, Little Round and Big Square, who get together to play their favorite game every Wednesday — a game of association and transformation, where “as soon as one of them says a word, they transform themselves into it.” Together, they transmogrify into fanciful shapes — a butterfly, a flower, a mushroom, a kite.

But the fun is abated when Little Round begins to feel littler, unimportant and insufficient, as Big Square begins to parade a repertoire of words beyond Little Round’s transformation capacities.

They retreat to opposite corners, each gripped with indignation — until Little Round, undoubtedly aware that mutual understanding is at the heart of friendship, comes up with a reconciliatory idea and proposes that they come up with the words together rather than taking turns. Their first collaborative formation exudes subtle symbolism in speaking to how the I-ego keeps us separate from the universe:

“I’m going to hold myself very tall and straight.”

“And I’ll be the dot,” says Little Round.

“Our i really works!”

On they go with this collaborative creation, joyfully transforming together into a candy, a clown, a hat, a boat, a bowl, and increasingly abstract combinations that eventually take shape into recognizable forms.

The story is at once simple in its playfulness and a beautiful allegory for the combinatorial nature of creativity and thought itself, for the way we transform the building blocks we assemble by way of being alive and awake to the world — impressions, experiences, memories, influences — into new combinations that we call our own ideas. There is a reason Einstein called his thought process “combinatory play.”

Originally featured here.

5. WILD

“All good things are wild and free,” Thoreau wrote in his terrific treatise on walking. More than 150 years later, Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes makes an imaginative 21st-century case for this in Wild (public library | IndieBound) — an irreverent, charming, and oh-so-delightfully illustrated story, partway between Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and one of the most endearing things to come by in decades.

The story opens with a joyful and carefree little girl native to the woods, raised by the creatures of the whole forest. She is boundlessly, ebulliently wild, and wholly unashamed of her wildness.

Bird taught her to speak.
Bear taught her how to eat.
Fox taught her how to play.
And she understood, and was happy.

One day, two creatures who look an awful lot like her, only bigger, appear out of nowhere, put her in the belly of their metal beast, and hurl her into a wholly different new life — a civilized one.

Off in the big city, a somewhat well-meaning but rather dictatorial elderly couple sets out to de-wild her. “FAMED PSYCHIATRIST TAKES IN FERAL CHILD,” a newspaper headline proclaims.

The little girl is frightened, but mostly perplexed.

They spoke wrong.
They ate wrong.
They played wrong.
And she did not understand, and she was not happy.

One day, she has had enough.

Because you cannot tame something so happily wild…

Emanating from the playful and poetic story is a clarion call to shake off the external should’s that shackle us and stop keeping ourselves small by trying to please others, to celebrate what John Steinbeck called “the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected”. It is an invitation, at once tender and mischievous, to pause and ask, as Mary Oliver memorably did: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Originally featured here.

6. HANSEL & GRETEL

J.R.R. Tolkien memorably asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Maurice Sendak similarly scoffed that we shouldn’t shield young minds from the dark. It’s a sentiment that Neil Gaiman — one of the most enchanting and prolific writers of our time, a champion of the creative life, underappreciated artist, disciplined writer, and sage of literature — not only shares, in contemplating but also enacts beautifully in his work. More than a decade after his bewitching and widely beloved Coraline, Gaiman returns with another terrific embodiment of this ethos — his adaptation of the Brothers Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, the talent behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven.

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have attracted a wealth of reimaginings over their long history, including interpretations as wide-ranging as those by David Hockney in 1970, Edward Gorey in 1973, and Philip Pullman in 2012. But Gaiman’s is decidedly singular — a mesmerizing rolling cadence of language propelling a story that speaks to the part of the soul that revels in darkness but is immutably drawn to the light, that listens for the peculiar crescendo where the song of the dream becomes indistinguishable from the scream of the nightmare.

With stark subtlety, Mattotti’s haunting visual interpretation amplifies the atmosphere that Gaiman so elegantly evokes.

In this wonderful short video, Gaiman — who has previously explored why scary stories appeal to us — discusses what makes fairy tales endure with legendary graphic storyteller Art Spiegelman and longtime New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly:

I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.

And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming — it’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell you that story — as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.

The book is also available as a deluxe edition — a lavish large-format volume with a die-cut cover, and dog knows die-cut treats are impossible to resist.

Originally featured here.

7. ONCE UPON AN ALPHABET

In the 1990s, three decades after the debut of his now-iconic grim alphabet book, the great Edward Gorey reimagined the letters in a series of 26-word cryptic stories. Now comes a worthy modern counterpart by one of the most original and imaginative children’s book storytellers and artists of our time: Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (public library | IndieBound) by Oliver Jeffers — an unusual and utterly wonderful tour of the familiar letters that takes a whimsical detour via quirky, lyrical, delightfully alliterative tales for each, and makes a fine addition to the canon of offbeat alphabet books.

Jeffers’s art is subtle yet immeasurably expressive. His stories brim with the fallible and heartening humanity that makes up our vastly imperfect but mostly noble selves — our paradoxes (A is for “astronaut,” and Edmund the astronaut is afraid of heights), the silly stubbornnesses (B is for “burning a bridge” and we meet neighbors Bernard and Bob, who have spent years “battling each other for reasons neither could remember”), the playful flights of curiosity (E is for “enigma,” like the question of how many elephants can fit inside an envelope), the existential perplexities (in P, a “puzzled parsnip” spirals into anguish over realizing that he is neither a carrot nor a potato), the self-defeating control tactics we employ in attempting to assuage our fear of impermanence (the robots in R are so terrified of rusting that they steal the rainclouds from the sky and lug them around in carts).

There are touches of loveliness and thoughtfulness: The budding scientist (M is for “made of matter”) is a little girl and the manly lumberjack (L) lucubrates by lamplight, reading a copy of Once Upon an Alphabet.

There are also charming winks at continuity: The nun in N flips the enigma from E and posits that “nearly nine thousand” envelopes can fit inside an elephant; the fearless owl and octopus duo in O, who roam the ocean searching for problems to solve, come to the rescue when a regular cucumber plunges into the ocean in S (for “sink or swim”) because he “watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him,” only to realize he didn’t know how to swim; when Xavier in X wakes up one morning and is devastated to find out that his prized X-ray spectacles have been stolen, he rings the owl and the octopus for help.

There is, too, a sprinkle of Goreyesque darkness alongside the delight, speaking to Maurice Sendak’s conviction that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark: In T, a writer sits in front of his “terrible typewriter,” which has the uncanny ability to make his stories come true, until one day he is eaten by a monster he wrote. (The creature, coincidentally, is reminiscent of Sendak’s Wild Things.) In H, Helen lives in a half house, the other half having been swept into the sea by a hurricane; “being lazy, and not owning a hammer,” she hadn’t quite got around to fixing it yet” — so one day, she rolls out the wrong side of the bed and plummets into the ocean.

Originally featured here.

8. THE FLAT RABBIT

Neil Gaiman, in discussing his gorgeous new adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, asserted that we shouldn’t protect ourselves and children from the dark. But when the thickest darkness comes, in childhood as much as in adulthood, it brings with it not the monsters and witches of fairy tales but the tragedies of life itself — nowhere more acutely than in confronting death and its ghouls of grief. And when it does come, as Joan Didion memorably put it, it’s “nothing like we expect it to be.” What we need isn’t so much protection as the shaky comfort of understanding — a sensemaking mechanism for the messiness of loss.

That’s precisely what Faroese children’s book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson does in The Flat Rabbit (public library | IndieBound) — a masterwork of minimalist storytelling that speaks volumes about our eternal tussle with our own impermanence.

The book, translated by Faroese language-lover Marita Thomsen, comes from a long tradition of Scandinavian children’s books with singular sensitivity to such difficult subjects — from Tove Jansson’s vintage parables of uncertainty to Stein Erik Lunde’s Norwegian tale of grief to Øyvind Torseter’s existential meditation on the meaning of something and nothing.

The story, full of quiet wit and wistful wonder, begins with a carefree dog walking down the street. Suddenly, he comes upon a rabbit, lying silently flattened on the road. As the dog, saddened by the sight, wonders what to do, his friend the rat comes by.

“She is totally flat,” said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her.

“Do you know her?”

“Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”

The two agree that “lying there can’t be any fun” and decide to move her, but don’t know where to take her and head to the park to think.

The dog was now so deep in thought that, had you put your ear to his skull, you would have actually heard him racking his brain.

Embedded in the story is a subtle reminder that ideas don’t come to us by force of will but by the power of incubation as everything we’ve unconsciously absorbed clicks together into new combinations in our minds. As the dog sits straining his neurons, we see someone flying a kite behind him — a seeming aside noted only in the visual narrative, but one that becomes the seed for the rabbit solution.

Exclaiming that he has a plan, the dog returns to the scene with the rat. They take the rabbit from the road and work all night on the plan, hammering away in the doghouse.

In the next scene, we see the rabbit lovingly taped to the frame of a kite, which takes the dog and the rat forty-two attempts to fly.

With great simplicity and sensitivity, the story lifts off into a subtle meditation on the spiritual question of an afterlife — there is even the spatial alignment of a proverbial heaven “above.” It suggests — to my mind, at least — that all such notions exist solely for the comfort of the living, for those who survive the dead and who confront their own mortality in that survival, and yet there is peace to be found in such illusory consolations anyway, which alone is reason enough to have them.

Mostly, the story serves as a gentle reminder that we simply don’t have all the answers and that, as John Updike put it, “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery.”

Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time.

“Do you think she is having a good time?” the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog.

The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there.

“I don’t know…” he replied slowly. “I don’t know.”

For a grownup counterpart, revisit Joan Didion on grief and Meghan O’Rourke’s magnificent memoir of navigating mourning.

Originally featured here.

10. THE BABY TREE

Children’s questions have way of being so simple that they spill into the philosophical. And yet one particular question kids ask stumps grown-ups more than any other, hurling us into a cesspool of self-doubt as we struggle for an answer that is neither too age-inappropriate nor so obviously fanciful that it fails to get the young inquisitor off our back: “Where do babies come from?” Thankfully, Australian-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall, who has given us such treasures as her visual love stories based on Craigslist missed connections and her illustrations for Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, addresses that dreaded question with equal parts warmth, wisdom, and wit in The Baby Tree (public library | IndieBound) — an elegantly age-appropriate explanation of how reproduction works that neither talks down to children’s inherent intelligence nor boggles them with overly clinical dry science.

Instead, Blackall tells the imaginative tale of a little boy whose parents inform him one day that a new baby is coming.

I have a hundred questions in my head, but the only one that comes out is Are there any more cocopops? And because Mom and Dad are all happy about the baby coming, they let me have a second helping of cocopops and I make sure it’s a big one.

But once the little boy is able to get his real question out — Where do babies come from? — his parents are already out the door, running late for work. So he sets out to pose it to all the other grownup and growner-than-himself people in his life.

Right before dropping him off at school, his teenage babysitter (named after Blackall’s own daughter, Olive) tells him that babies come from the baby tree, which grows from a seed you plant.

At school, his teacher says they come from the hospital, then anxiously hurries to occupy the class with washing the paintbrushes.

His grandfather says a stork carries the baby in a bundle at night and drops it off for the parents to find on their doorstep in the morning.

Roberto the mailman says babies come from eggs, but “he doesn’t know where to get the eggs.”

Finally, confused by the wildly different explanations, the little boy asks his parents for a clear answer, and they give him a simple, sensitive, biologically accurate yet warmly conscientious answer about how reproduction works:

From inside their mom, says Mom.
They start off really tiny, says Dad.

Almost too small to see, says Mom.
They begin with a seed from their dad…
Which gets planted in an egg inside their mom…

The baby grows in there for nine months…

Until it runs out of room…
And it’s ready to be born. Sometimes at home…
But usually in the hospital.

The little boy is delighted to realize that everyone was right after all — Olive was right about the seed, Roberto about the egg, and his teacher about the hospital — except his grandpa:

I’m going to have to tell Grandpa where babies really come from.

At the end of the story, Blackall offers equally simple, succinct, and affectionately accurate answers to other questions about babies that little kids might be pondering, from how the seed gets from the dad into the mom to how adopted babies come about to what happens in families with two moms or two dads.

All in all, The Baby Tree is perfect in every imaginable way, so evidently the loving work of someone who understands both the curiosities of childhood and the perplexities of parenting. With her tender illustrations and thoughtful blend of fiction and nonfiction, Blackall — who understands complexity — offers a gentle and honest answer to a question that has continued to stump grownups but no longer has to.

Originally featured here.

11. SHACKLETON’S JOURNEY

In August of 1914, legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton led his brave crew of men and dogs on a journey to the end of the world — the enigmatic continent of Antarctica. That voyage — monumental both historically and scientifically — would become the last expedition the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which stretched from 1888 to 1914. From Flying Eye Books — the children’s book imprint of British indie press Nobrow, which gave us Freud’s comic biography, Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land and some gorgeous illustrated histories of aviation and the Space Race — comes Shackleton’s Journey (public library | IndieBound), a magnificent chronicle by emerging illustrator William Grill, whose affectionate and enchanting colored-pencil drawings bring to life the legendary explorer and his historic expedition.

As Grill tells us in the introduction, Shackleton was a rather extraordinary character:

Shackleton was the second of ten children. From a young age, Shackleton complained about teachers, but he had a keen interest in books, especially poetry — years later, on expeditions, he would read to his crew to lift their spirits. Always restless, the young Ernest left school at 16 to go to sea. After working his way up the ranks, he told his friends, “I think I can do something better, I want to make a name for myself.”

And make it he did. Reflecting on the inescapable allure of exploration, which carried him through his life of adventurous purpose, Shackleton once remarked:

I felt strangely drawn to the mysterious south. I vowed to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow, and go on and on ’til I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis on which this great round ball turns.

From the funding and recruitment of the famed expedition, to the pioneering engineering of the Endurance ship, to the taxonomy of crew members, dogs, and supplies, Grill traces Shackleton’s tumultuous journey from the moment the crew set sail to their misfortune-induced change of plans and soul-wrenching isolation “500 miles away from the nearest civilization” to their eventual escape from their icy prison and salvation ashore Elephant Island.

As a lover of dogs and visual lists, especially illustrated lists and dog-themed illustrations, I was especially taken with Grill’s visual inventories of equipment and dogs:

Despite the gargantuan challenges and life-threatening curveballs, Shackleton’s expedition drew to a heroic close without the loss of a single life. It is a story of unrelenting ambition to change the course of history, unflinching courage in the face of formidable setbacks, and above all optimism against all odds — the same optimism that emanates with incredible warmth from Grill’s tender illustrations.

Years later, Shackleton himself captured the spirit that carried them:

I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.

Originally featured here.

12. THE MEMORY OF AN ELEPHANT

Psychologists believe that our capacity for creative work hinges on our memory and the ability to draw on our mental catalog of remembered experiences and ideas. More than that, memory is our lifeline to our own selves. Indeed, can there be anything more central to identity than memory?

The Memory of an Elephant: An Unforgettable Journey (public library | IndieBound) is a most unusual picture-book by writer Sophie Strady and illustrator Jean-François Martin. Unusual not because it measures an impressive 15 inches in height — though that alone makes it a kind of enchanting narrative poster — but because it blends the fascination of encyclopedic curiosity with deep questions about memory, identity, and what makes a life worthwhile.

Marcel is a soulful old elephant who sets out to write an encyclopedia as his legacy. Having seen the Eiffel Tower built in 1889 and the first iMac introduced in 1998, and having filled the century between with a long lifetime of adventures and successes of his own, he undertakes “the enormous task of listing — in an enormous, illustrated encyclopedia — everything he’s learned throughout his long and exceptional life.”

But just as he is about to begin looking back on his many years and drawing on his vast memory-bank of knowledge, he finds his living room — his dedicated environment essential for writing, charmingly populated by iconic mid-century modern furniture and some unmistakable Eames designs — flooded with “a mountain of parcels wrapped in bright and patterned paper,” surprise birthday presents from his friends.

As he opens each package and plays with the present inside, the double meaning of the word “present” reveals itself. Marcel is transported to his past and the many lives compressed into his long and accomplished existence — his days as a world-famous musician, his stint as a sailor, his sabbatical in Vietnam, his time tending to the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens, his accidental participation in France’s historic Mai 1968 worker strikes and civil unrest.

Marcel comes upon the last unopened package, a large cardboard tube. Inside, he finds a poster that reads: “In May, we’ll have our way.” As he begins to ponder the strange time-travel quality of what sounds like a political slogan from the 1968 riots, he suddenly realizes it is actually May 1, the date of his birthday. Just then, his friends emerge from behind his elegant furniture for a proper birthday surprise.

Everyone has been waiting for the old elephant to open not only his presents, but the doors of his memory.

The main story is peppered with curious encyclopedic asides both about elements of Marcel’s memories, from music to technology, and about elephants themselves — we learn that an elephant sleeps very little at night, “usually standing, always on alert,” and takes standing naps throughout the day; that an adult elephant needs to drink 30 gallons of water a day and eat between 220 and 440 pounds of food depending on the season; that an elephant can’t jump and must have one foot on the ground at all times; that despite an enormous weight of about five tons, an elephant makes no noise while walking.

Originally featured here.

13. 29 MYTHS ON THE SWINSTER PHARMACY

Few children’s book writers today could compare in humor, sensitivity, and sheer creative irreverence to Lemony Snicket, the young-readers pen name of grown-up author Daniel Handler, under which he has penned such magnificent creative collaborations as 13 Words, illustrated by the great Maira Kalman, “Who Could That Be at This Hour?,” illustrated by celebrated cartoonist Seth, and The Dark, one of the best picture books of 2013, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Now comes 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by the inimitable Lisa Brown — a project all the more charming for the heartening fact that Handler and Brown are married and a living echelon of a romantic relationship that’s also a creative collaboration.

It tells the story of a little girl, a little boy, and their little dog, who grow intensely fascinated with the mysterious Swinster Pharmacy of the neighboring town and begin pondering what it might sell. Beneath it is a lovely allegory about the capacity of children’s imaginations to see enigmatic wonder in even the simplest things and find multiple meanings in the most mundane.

First, the small party journeys to the next town to investigate in person, surreptitiously observing the white-coated employees and even following one of them home one night, to his house right across the pharmacy.

Rumors around town say there are four secrets about the Swinster Pharmacy, but no one knows what any of them are.

Everything is cause for suspicion: The fruit bowl on the Pharmacy counter contains grapes that aren’t cut in half; strangers walk by casually, “just snacking or whispering or something,” and stop when they pass the Pharmacy; a news story about arson in the town pans the street on which the Pharmacy resides; they measure the building and it turns out to be a perfect square; “something about the door is electric.” All very, very suspicious.

The threesome decide to sneak behind the trees across the street from the Swinster Pharmacy and quietly scope out the comings and goings of the pharmacy’s customers. Again, very suspicious activity ensues:

A woman went in once and came out fifteen minutes later wearing the exact same outfit.

The pharmacy begins to haunt the children’s dreams:

In all of our dreams, the Pharmacy squats in the middle of the block like something blue and hungry. In the morning it is on the corner.

And still the mystery of what the Pharmacy sells endures.

What makes 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy most enchanting is that, whether intentionally or not, it serves as a cautionary parable for the subjective ways in which we decide what is true and what is real — a reminder that without the essential tools of critical thinking, we warp the art of observation into a subjective filter that colors our perception of the world to paint it as what we want it to be rather than what it is.

Originally featured here.

14. MY TEACHER IS A MONSTER

“Love,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in his poignant letters to Gandhi on why we hurt one another, “represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children)…” Tolstoy believed that if only we managed to see through our superficial differences and our fear of the other’s otherness, we’d recognize instantly the universe’s basic “law of love” — something to which we are born attuned, only to forget as we enter adulthood. Kids, of course, can often be especially cruel in their inability to accept otherness — but that’s why it’s especially enchanting to witness, let alone spark, the precise moment in which a child lets go of some learned bias and sees in another person his or her intrinsic goodness, a return to innocence and Tolstoy’s “law of love.”

From children’s book author and illustrator Peter Brown comes My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) (public library | IndieBound) — a sweet contemporary fable about one such moment of seeing through the mask of terrifying otherness the soft heart of our shared humanity.

In vibrant, textured illustrations and simple words, Brown tells the story of little Bobby, who sees his stern teacher, Ms. Kirby, as a scary green ogre — until, one weekend, the two unexpectedly bump into each other at the park.

Suddenly, the leisurely environment strips them of their weekday roles. After the inevitable awkwardness and disorientation — in one particularly sweet exchange, Bobby, who resists his initial instinct to just run away, raises his hand while sitting next to Ms. Kirby on the bench; she gently reminds him that, outside the classroom, he can just ask his question — they have no choice but to first reluctantly, then tacitly, then gladly get to know each other.

Just as Bobby makes the first move with a compliment on Ms. Kirby’s enormous hat, the wind takes over.

The hat, it turns out, is Ms. Kirby’s favorite, so she runs after it distraught as the wind sweeps it toward peril. Right before it drops into the duck pond, Bobby leaps and saves the day. Ms. Kirby, ecstatic, proclaims him her hero and the two set out to feed the ducks side by side. Meanwhile, strangely, some of Ms. Kirby’s greenness seems to have faded and her boar-like nostrils have shrunk ever so slightly.

Bobby decides to show Ms. Kirby his favorite spot in the park and they climb up some big boulders, atop which Ms. Kirby — now with an almost neutral complexion and a hint of rosiness — gets an idea.

She hands Bobby a sheet of paper, which he gleefully folds into a paper plane and releases into the sky — the very act for which the monstrous teacher had scolded the kids in the classroom.

“I think that was the single greatest paper airplane flight in history!” Bobby exclaims. “I think you’re right,” Ms. Kirby — now having lost almost all of her monster teeth — agrees.

By the time they return to the bench at lunchtime, both are glad they had run into each other.

Miraculously, Ms. Kirby has transmogrified from a monster into an ordinary woman. With each shared moment and each small kindness exchanged, her monsterness had dissolved into her simple humanity — a sweet reminder that however much people may be the product of their culture and surrounding context, when one learns to see with “the eye of the heart,” their basic goodness will eventually emanate.

In a way, the story shines a compassionate light on a different facet of the same broader issue Brown explored in his previous book, the equally wonderful Mr. Tiger Goes Wild — a tender tale about authenticity and acceptance. The challenge of understanding others despite their differences and that of feeling accepted ourselves despite our quirks are two sides of the same coin — a coin that is undoubtedly our most valuable currency for human bonds.

Originally featured here, alongside my interview with Brown.

15. THE PILOT AND THE LITTLE PRINCE

“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” So sang a 1943 review of The Little Prince, published a few months before the beloved book’s author disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. But though it ultimately became the cause of his tragic death, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot also informed the richness of his life and the expansive reach of his spirit, from his reflection on what his time in the Sahara desert taught him about the meaning of life to his beautiful meditation on the life-saving potential of a human smile. It was at the root of his identity and his imagination, and as such inspired the inception of The Little Prince.

That interplay between Saint-Exupéry the pilot and Saint-Exupéry the imaginative creator of a cultural classic is what celebrated Czech-born American children’s book author and illustrator Peter Sís explores in the beautiful graphic biography The Pilot and the Little Prince (public library | IndieBound) — a sensitive account of Saint-Exupéry’s life, underpinned by a fascinating chronicle of how aviation came to change humanity and a poignant undercurrent of political history, absolutely magical it its harmonized entirety.

Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900, a golden age of discovery, just as airplanes had been invented in France and the dawn of aviation was emanating an exhilarating spirit of exploration and invention. Young Antoine quickly became enchanted with that exhilaration and at the age of twelve, he built a makeshift flying machine.

Sís writes:

It did not take off, but this didn’t discourage him.

That summer, he rode his bike to a nearby airfield every day to watch the pilots test planes. He told them he had permission from his mother to fly, so one pilot took him up in the air. His mother was not happy. Antoine couldn’t wait to go up again.

The obsession had permanently lodged itself into his psyche. When the war came and he was summoned to military duty, young Saint-Exupéry requested the air force but was assigned to the ground crew. Again, he remained unperturbed. Two years later, when he heard about a new airline operated by the postal service to deliver the mail, he got himself hired — first as a mechanic, and soon as a test pilot, eventually learning to fly by accompanying other pilots on mail routes. Sís writes:

One day, he heard the news he had been waiting for: he would fly the mail from France to Spain by himself. Henri Guillaumet, another pilot and later Antoine’s good friend, told him not just to depend on the map but to follow the face of the landscape.

Saint-Exupéry was living his dream, flying in Europe and West Africa. Eventually, the airline assigned him to an airfield in Cape Juby in southern Morocco, and the two years he spent in the desert were among the happiest in his life, a period he would go on to cherish with beautiful and bittersweet wistfulness for the rest of his days. Sís captures the romantic poetics of the experience:

He lived in a wooden shack and had few belongings and fewer visitors. With an ocean on one side and desert everywhere else, it seemed like one of the loneliest places in the world. But he loved the solitude and being under millions of stars.

The locals came to call him Captain of the Birds as he rescued stranded pilots and appeased hostile nomads who had shot down planes and kidnapped flyers. His time in the desert became powerful fuel for his writing and the raw inspiration for The Little Prince. But the skies remained his greatest love. Sís traces the trajectory of Saint-Exupéry’s travels and passions:

Eager to explore other skies, Antoine joined his fellow aviators in creating new mail routes in South America. Nothing could stop them as they crossed glaciers, rain forests, and mountain peaks, battling fierce winds and wild storms.

Antoine spent more time in the air here than anywhere else because the pilots now also flew at night. With stars above and lights below, his world felt both immense and small.

Upon returning to France, Saint-Exupéry fell in love, got married, and reached significant fame as both a pilot and an author. But driven by his chronic adventurer’s restlessness, he continued to dream up expeditions that came to border on stunts. In one, he competed for a prize for the fastest flight between Paris and Saigon, but he and his copilot crashed in North Africa, surviving by a hair and wandering the desert for days before being rescued. In another, he set out to become the first French pilot to fly from New York to the tip of South America. The plane crashed near Guatemala City but, miraculously, he survived once more.

As World War II engulfed Europe, Saint-Exupéry was called for military duty once more, this time as a pilot, observing from high in the skies the atrocities the Germans inflicted all over. Once his war service ended, he decided he couldn’t continue to live in France under German occupation and fled to Portugal on a ship — a trip that would stir the very foundations of his soul and inspire his magnificent Letter to a Hostage — eventually ending up in New York, where he found himself lonesome and alienated.

After writing Flight to Arras and sending a copy to President Roosevelt with the inscription “For President Franklin Roosevelt, whose country is taking on the heavy burden of saving the world,”Saint-Exupéry bought a set of watercolor paints and began working on the illustrations for the story that would become The Little Prince. Sís captures the layered message of the book, informed both by Saint-Exupéry’s passions and his forlorn homesickness, with beautiful simplicity:

He described a planet more innocent than his own, with a boy who ventured far from home, questioned how things worked, and searched for answers.

But the author grew increasingly restless once more. Longing to fly again and to see his family, who had remained in France, he rejoined his old squadron in North Africa, requesting flights that would take him back to France. Sís captures the tragic bluntness of how Saint-Exupéry’s story ended, at once almost sterile in its abruptness and richly poetic in the context of his lifelong obsession:

On July 31, 1944, at 8:45am, he took off from Borgo, Corsica, to photograph enemy positions east of Lyon. It was a beautiful day. He was due back at 12:30.

But he never returned. Some say he forgot his oxygen mask and vanished at sea.

Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars.

The Pilot and the Little Prince is a thing of beauty for both eye and spirit, and a fine addition to other delightful graphic biographies, including those of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí. Complement it with Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince and his soul-stretching meditations on solitude and the meaning of life and our shared humanity.

Originally featured here.

16. LARRY AND FRIENDS

Much has been said about the lack of diversity in children’s books. But these discussions — as most conversations about diversity — have been largely co-opted by questions of race, overlooking other elements of diversity, such as nationality and native language. This is particularly perplexing in America which, for a nation of immigrants that prides itself on being a “melting pot” of global cultures, has one of the world’s most hostile immigration policies. (I can attest to this myself as a “resident alien” — the tellingly unfriendly term for a U.S.-based foreign citizen — whose entire adult life has been plagued by immigration-related bureaucratic nightmares.) National policies being the seedbed of national attitudes, it’s hard not to wonder and worry about the toxic effect such legal practices might have on fostering xenophobia and intolerance. This concern, coupled with my enormous soft spot for children’s books, is why I was instantly smitten with Larry and Friends (publisher) — a heartening story about immigration, diversity, friendship, and acceptance, envisioned by Ecuadorian-born, New-York-based illustrator Carla Torres, who partnered with Belgian-born, Venezuelan-raised, New-York-based writer Nat Jaspar to bring the project, funded on Kickstarter, to life.

Torres’s gorgeous illustrations tell the tale of Larry the American dog, who decides to have a birthday celebration and invites all his friends, each from a different part of the world and an immigrant in New York, where the story is set — a fitting backdrop, given Gotham’s Ellis Island was the original entry point for immigrants in the United States and New York is the most linguistically diverse city in the world today, home to more than three million foreign-born residents who speak over 800 languages.

The bell begins to ring and each of Larry’s friends arrives, along with a piece of cultural, linguistic, and geopolitical history. We meet such endearing characters as Magda, the little pig from Poland who was sent to New York by her serious parents to “become a competent secretary” but instead pursued her passion and became a tightrope artist; Cogui, the tiny Puerto Rican frog, a violinist living in the Bronx; Gugu, the African zebra who moved to New York with only his Djembe drum and went on to become the lead percussionist at the Apollo Theater.

Then there is Laila, the sinewy cat from Iran who works as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History; Edgar, the Colombian alligator who moved to New York as a street musician playing the accordion and now has a steady gig at a French restaurant in Manhattan; Bernard, the French gargoyle who spent years observing people from atop the Notre Dame Cathedral and was drawn to New York as the world’s best people-watching locale; and Rimshi, the Tibetan yak who moved to New York after the Chinese invasion and whom Larry met while volunteering at the refugee center where she works.

What’s perhaps most enchanting about the story, however, is that a number of the characters are drawn from the real stories of real people Torres met in New York. Pedro, the Ecuadorian guinea pig, is based on Pedro Erazo, one of the members of the beloved indie band Gogol Bordello. Jin, the Korean fox, is inspired by Mariola Paen, a self-taught Korean artist. Ashki, the Native American buffalo, is based on Melvin, a shaman from the Navajo people who performed a spiritual ceremony Torres attended some years ago.

See more here.

For more timelessly delightful and ennobling children’s books, keep an eye on this evolving bookshelf.

BP

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