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Whatever Happened to My Sister? An Assuring Illustrated Antidote to the Disorientation of Being a Teenager’s Younger Sibling

“I’d had my suspicions for a while that someone had replaced my sister with a girl who looked a lot like her.”

Whatever Happened to My Sister? An Assuring Illustrated Antidote to the Disorientation of Being a Teenager’s Younger Sibling

“Most people do not grow up,” Maya Angelou wrote in her beautiful meditation on home and belonging. “Our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” No life-stage challenges Angelou’s poetic point more ferociously than adolescence, that singular period in which we busy ourselves painting our inner magnolias black and giving them thorns in a quest to experiment with our newfound sense of agency. How disorienting the experience is for both teenagers and their parents is a well-documented cultural trope, but little attention is given to how disorienting it can be for younger siblings, those most innocent and shy of magnolias.

That’s what Italian animator turned children’s book author and artist Simona Ciraolo explores in Whatever Happened To My Sister? (public library) — the follow-up to her wonderful debut, Hug Me, which was among the best children’s books of 2014.

Ciraolo tells the story of a little girl who finds herself confused and increasingly heartbroken over her older sister’s transformation into what appears to be a wholly different person, perhaps even a different species — a creature suddenly tall and secretive and door-slamming, clad in a chronic scowl and scoffing a default “no” to every request for play and sisterly communion.

I’d had my suspicions for a while that someone had replaced my sister with a girl who looked a lot like her.

It had to be!

My sister was never so tall. Did it happen overnight?

I’m rather observant, yet the moment of the switch must have passed me by.

At the story’s heart is a chronicle of our first brush with the perennial philosophical mystery of the continuity of personal identity — what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change, nowhere more dramatic than in adolescence?

The more she struggles to understand her sister’s seemingly overnight transformation, the lonelier the little girl feels — a sense of abandonment sets in as she realizes that underneath her frustration and indignation is the simple, sincere feeling of missing her sister terribly.

Just then, her sister finds her, having intuited the little girl’s sorrow, takes her hand, and the two disappear into each other’s company — an ending offering sweet assurance that despite the universe of change, a sister’s love is an abiding constant.

Complement Whatever Happened To My Sister? with Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls, a collection of mischievous vintage verses about siblings by Shel Silverstein, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, and Ted Hughes, then revisit Ciraolo’s disarming Hug Me.

Illustrations courtesy of Simona Ciraolo / Flying Eye Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Galileo on Why We Read and How Books Give Us Superhuman Powers

“What sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time!”

Why do we read? “A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on why we read and write. For Kafka, reading was “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny. “Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy,” E.B. White wrote in contemplating the future of reading in 1951. “A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Carl Sagan asserted in his iconic Cosmos series, admiring the “funny dark squiggles” that have the uncanny power to transport us, across time and space, into the mind of another.

Nearly half a millennium earlier, another cosmic sage — Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564–January 8, 1642), perhaps humanity’s greatest science-crusader and illuminator of the universe — made a strikingly similar observation, a parallel that speaks to the abiding allure of reading as our sole conduit to superhuman powers like time travel and telepathy.

galileo_letter

In Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican (public library) — the same seminal treatise that gave us Galileo on critical thinking and the folly of believing your preconceptions — he writes:

With what admiration the reading of excellent poets fills anyone who attentively studies the invention and interpretation of concepts! And what shall I say of architecture? What of the art of navigation?

But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page!

Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of mankind.

Complement with C.S. Lewis on why we read, David Foster Wallace on the redemptive power of reading, and Susan Sontag’s letter to Borges — one of the greatest homages to literature ever written — then revisit this lovely picture-book celebrating Galileo’s life and legacy.

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The Brownstone: A Lovely Vintage Children’s Book About Accommodating Each Other’s Differences by Trailblazing Graphic Designer Paula Scher

Playful assurance that however vast our differences, there is always a mutually satisfying solution to be found.

The Brownstone: A Lovely Vintage Children’s Book About Accommodating Each Other’s Differences by Trailblazing Graphic Designer Paula Scher

“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation,” E.B. White wrote in his sublime 1949 ode to Gotham, one of the most beautiful books ever written. As singular a city as it may be, however, New York has always presented a sort of extreme prototype of the challenges and rewards of life in any metropolis — challenges like the constant negotiation between privacy and participation required of those living in any densely populated urban area; challenges best surmounted not with indignation and entitlement, which tend to be our default human responses to having our perceived rights infringed upon, but with humility and a healthy dose of humor.

That’s what trailblazing graphic designer Paula Scher offers in The Brownstone (public library) — the only children’s book she ever wrote, charmingly illustrated by Stan Mack and originally published in 1973, when 25-year-old Scher was busy ascending to design superstar status with her revolutionary album covers for CBS Records.

We meet Mr. Bear as he comes home to the brownstone where he lives one chilly late-autumn evening and readies his family for their “long winter nap.” But hibernation soon proves more challenging than imagined — inside the brownstone, the Bears’ neighbors have very different ideas about chilly evenings well spent.

Miss Cat, who lives across the hall on the first floor, practices her piano so loudly that the Bears can’t get to sleep.

Frustrated, Mr. Bear climbs up to the third floor to complain to the super, Mr. Owl, who suggests that perhaps the Pigs would be willing to switch apartments with the Bears. The Pigs’ neighbors are the Mice, who are “nice and quiet.”

The Pigs, having always wanted to live on the ground floor, are thrilled to comply.

Soon the staircase was busy.
The Bears moved up the stairs.
The Pigs moved down the stairs.

Before long, all was quiet again. The Pigs cooked dinner, the scent wafting across the hall.

But just as the Bears cozy up in their beds and begin drifting off, commotion sets in again.

THUMP-THUMP-THUMPETY-THUMP!
sounded over their heads.

“What is that noise?” growled Mr. Bear.
“What is that smell?” cried Miss Cat.
Mr. Bear and Miss Cat marched up to Mr. Owl’s door.

The dancing Kangaroos on the third floor are too loud, Mr. Bear explains, and Miss Cat can’t bear the smell of the Pigs’ cooking. To resolve the complaints, Mr. Owl orchestrates another switcheroo and soon the staircase is bustling again, families moving up and down and across to make their differences fit together least discordantly.

But dissatisfactions quickly arise again, exasperations simmer, and off the brownstone goes, aswirl with more moving.

In the end, there is an almost mathematical solution: Mr. Owl sits down, tackles the situation like a puzzle of geometry and logic, and comes up with an arrangement that meets everyone’s needs — a reminder that whenever our emotions are stirred into the mutual reactivity of outrage, the best thing to do is to return to reason and make it a vehicle of goodwill.

The Bears snuggled back into bed, and Mr. Owl settled into his reading chair. Soon, the only sounds on the top floor were soft snores.

On the second floor, the Pigs invited their old neighbors over for dinner.

And on the first floor, Miss Cat and the Kangaroos discovered their mutual love of music and sang and danced the night away.

Complement The Brownstone with Scher on how creativity works and her extraordinary hand-drawn maps, then revisit this fascinating read on why we think with animals.

Illustrations courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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