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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

Ordering the Heavens: Hevelius’s Revolutionary 17th-Century Star Catalog and the First Moon Map

How a visionary manuscript, completed by the first female astronomer of the Western world, survived three fires to become a beacon of scientific dedication.

On September 26, 1679, a fierce fire consumed the Stellaburgum — Europe’s finest observatory, built by the pioneering astronomer Johannes Hevelius (January 28, 1611–January 28, 1687) in the city of Danzig, present-day Poland, decades before the famous Royal Greenwich Observatory and Paris Observatory existed. That autumn day, Hevelius — whose exquisite lunar engravings are considered the first true maps of the moon and who believed, long before it was established by scientific consensus, that the stars in the night sky were thousands of suns like our own — had retired to a garden outside the city, “feeling himself oppressed with great and unaccustomed troubles, as if presaging some disaster,” as a friend later recounted in a letter. In Hevelius’s absence, his coachman had left a burning candle in the stable and the wooden platform across the roofs of Hevelius’s three adjoining houses, upon which his fine brass instruments and telescopes were mounted, had caught aflame. As the fire raged on, the town’s people broke into the observatory trying to save Hevelius’s precious bound books, throwing them out the windows. Some survived, some were pilfered. His optical instruments and almost all of his bountiful unbound manuscripts perished.

Hevelius in his later years

Hevelius was sixty-eight when his observatory was destroyed. But despite having spent forty years building his own instruments, making groundbreaking observations with them, and engraving and printing his own books — fruits of labor most of which were consumed by the fire along with all his “worldly Goods and Hopes,” as he later wrote in a letter to the king of France — he refused to sink into bitterness and resignation. Instead, he set out to rebuild the observatory so he could return to observing the stars.

His resilience was in large part fueled by the miraculous salvation of one of his manuscripts — his fixed-star catalog, which contained the results of thousands of calculations of the positions of the stars made over decades of patient observation. The small leather-bound notebook was the sole manuscript to survive the fire, presumably saved by Hevelius’s 13-year-old daughter Katharina Elisabeth, the sole family member in Danzig at the time of the fire, who had a key to her father’s study. Half a millennium later, it was rediscovered. In 1971, it made its way to Utah’s Brigham Young University, becoming the one-millionth acquisition by the institution’s library. To mark the landmark event, the university published a slim volume titled Johannes Hevelius and His Catalog of Stars (public library) — an immeasurably engrossing chronicle of the life and legacy of Hevelius, the 300-year odyssey of his fixed-star catalog, and how it changed our world.

The manuscript of ‘Catalogus Stellarum Fixarum,’ Johannes Hevelius’s fixed-star catalog

Hevelius was born in 1611, a year after Galileo had made his first observations with a telescope, at a time of blazing scientific breakthrough and controversy. His father, a successful merchant, pressed young Johannes to follow in his footsteps rather than pursue what he perceived to be the fool’s gold of the scientific revolution, and sent the nine-year-old boy to Poland to study Polish. (At the time, Danzig was part of the Prussian Confederation and Hevelius’s native language was German, something his father saw as an obstacle to doing trade.) When the boy returned at age sixteen, he pleaded with his father to allow him to continue his formal education. The old man eventually relented and young Hevelius quickly fell in love with mathematics, under the influence of his mentor, the acclaimed mathematician, astronomer, and polymath Peter Krüger. He also learned Latin, the language of most scientific publications and international correspondence, and under Krüger’s nurturing watch began learning to draw, engrave, and build rudimentary instruments out of wood and metal. As Krüger’s sight began deteriorating, he encouraged young Johannes to take an active part in the observation part of science.

When he was nineteen, Hevelius watched the total solar eclipse of 1630 and saw Saturn veil the moon in a rare lunar eclipse. He was filled with cosmic awe, but wasn’t ready, or didn’t yet know how, to translate this sense of purpose into a career in astronomy. Instead, he married the daughter of a distinguished businessman and settled into the comfortable life of a merchant. But in 1639, when Krüger was on his deathbed, he urged young Hevelius not to let his exceptional gift go to waste. Aware that his end was near, Krüger lamented that he would miss the rare solar eclipse about to occur later that year and exhorted Hevelius to take up the historic task of its observation.

Equipment used by Hevelius with a telescope to project an astronomical image onto a sheet of paper. This arrangement was used in his historic observation of the transit of Mercury on May 3, 1661.

His teacher’s dying words reawakened Hevelius’s forsaken but fiery love of astronomy. On June 1, 1639, he meticulously observed the solar eclipse, then decided to dedicate the rest of his life to understanding the cosmos. True to the notion that revolutionary discovery is the product of “the meeting of the right people at the right place with just the right problem,” Hevelius harnessed the fruitfulness of his timing — just as he chose to devote himself to astronomy, the telescope was revolutionizing the field and making possible discoveries never before imagined.

Hevelius’s revolutionary map of the moon

Hevelius was particularly enchanted with the moon and made it the target of his first obsessive observations. Dissatisfied with the imprecise and vague drawings of its surface, he decided to complain the way all innovators do — by making something better. Turning his modest telescope to the moon and enlisting his talents as a draftsman and engraver, he set out to create a large, complete, delicately detailed map of its surface. But he quickly realized his telescope wasn’t up to the task — so he decided to build a better one himself. In 1647, after five years of methodical work fueled by this greatest talent — dogged patience — Hevelius published his magnificent maps under the title Selenographia.

One of Hevelius’s exquisitely illustrated phases of the moon from ‘Selenographia’

One of his first great admirers was the famed English traveler Mundy who, upon seeing the maps, marveled in his diary:

Of the Moone he hath Made above 30 large mappes, prints, or Copper peeces of the Manner of every daies encrease and decrease, deciphering in her land and sea, Mountaines, valleies, Ilands, lakes, etts., making in another little world, giving Names to every part, as wee in a mappe of our world.

Praise continued to pour in from all over Europe, but the greatest validation of the maps’ merit was the fact that they endured as the best moon maps for more than a century, despite the rapid progress of observational tools — assurance, perhaps, that what sets innovators apart from the rest aren’t their tools but their creative vision in using those tools and their unrelenting work ethic.

Encouraged, Hevelius set out to improve his observations, building bigger and better telescopes, with an unblinking eye on his most important project — the quest to revise the paltry star catalogs of the era. Star catalogs, Hevelius knew, were an essential tool for astronomers, enabling them to track the changes taking place in constellations — changes that would profoundly challenge the religious dogmas of the day, which depicted the universe as a static starscape laid out by a divine creator a long time ago. At a time when heliocentrism — the knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice-versa as the church claimed — was still a novel and controversial concept, proving that the universe was a dynamic ecosystem of bodies would be a major feat for science. But star maps had to be accurate and precise in order to reveal these changes.

So, in 1641, shortly after his thirtieth birthday, Hevelius began building his rooftop observatory. Three years into his work, the city of Danzig presented him with a gift — an astronomical instrument that had been stored in Danzig armory for many years, alongside firefighting equipment, the use and worth of which had remained unknown. A six-foot contraption known as an azimuthal quadrant, it had been envisioned by Krüger but remained uncompleted by his death. Once again, Hevelius’s mentor was shaping the course of his life, even from the grave — Hevelius completed the instrument, mounted it on his observatory tower, and began making observations with it. With its ability to measure the angular distances between neighboring stars, it became a key tool in the completion of his stellar catalog. Long before the invention of the meridian circle, Hevelius used his instrument to record coordinates according to what was essentially an equator line.

Hevelius and his large azimuthal quadrant, which he used to make many of the measurements in his fixed-star catalog

Over the sixteen years that followed, Hevelius expanded his observatory and equipped it with the best instruments he could build or acquire. His became Europe’s finest observatory.

But perhaps the most important event in Hevelius’s life and career was not one of science but of romance — or, rather, an exquisite fusion of the two. When he was 55, widowed for over a year, Hevelius married a young woman named Elisabeth Koopman, the daughter of an acquaintance of his, a Danzig merchant. Hevelius had known Elisabeth, many years his junior, since she was a child, when she had implored him to teach her astronomy. As a young woman, she had renewed her request, enveloping the now-revered astronomer with admiration and, soon, adoration. A German biography quotes her as exclaiming one night, while looking through Hevelius’s telescope:

To remain and gaze here always, to be allowed to explore and proclaim with you the wonder of the heavens; that would make me perfectly happy!

It was, essentially, a marriage proposal, which Hevelius gladly accepted. They were wedded at St. Catherine’s Church in 1663. Johannes was 52; Elisabeth was 17. Before recoiling in modern judgment, it’s important to note that such unions were far from uncommon at the time. But perhaps more importantly, they were often the only way for women, who were were barred from most formal education and scholarly work, to gain access to creative and intellectual pursuits through a kind of conjugal apprenticeship.

Hevelius and Elisabeth observing at the six-foot brass sextant

That is precisely what young Elisabeth, who had developed an active interest in astronomy at an early age, did. Hevelius saw in her a kindred mind, and they began making astronomical observations together as she mastered the craft. Nearly two centuries before Maria Mitchell, Elisabeth Hevelius essentially became the first Western female astronomer. All the while, she emboldened her husband — another biography cites her most frequent words of encouragement to him:

Nothing is sweeter than to know everything, and enthusiasm for all good arts brings, some time or other, excellent rewards.

In the years following their marriage, Elisabeth continued to observe the stars, but also gave birth to four children — a boy, who died in infancy, and three girls. All the while, she worked alongside Hevelius in completing the star catalog that had become the holy grail of his scientific career and his highest hope for a lasting legacy. In one of his books, Hevelius, who spoke highly of Elisabeth’s scientific skills and called her the “faithful Aide of [his] nocturnal Observations” in a letter to the king of France, included an engraving of the duo making an observation together.

With Elisabeth’s help, Hevelius published the first star maps in a planned series in 1673. The most extraordinary thing about them was that, as he explained in the preface, he had made most of the observations not with a telescope but with a naked eye — a practical method he favored, despite acknowledging the theoretical advantages of telescopes. It was a controversial statement in the golden age of telescopic studies, which caused a tumult among Europe’s astronomers, but Hevelius’s astounding accuracy spoke for itself and established him as the last and greatest of the naked-eye star observers.

Hevelius’s comet drawings
Hevelius’s comet drawings

But the fire that destroyed Hevelius’s observatory in 1679 nearly put a halt to his quest to catalog the stars. Desperate to resume his project, Hevelius wrote to French king Louis XIV, one of his longtime patrons, a lyrical and heartfelt plea for financial support. The letter stands as an exquisite exemplar of the art of asking, as well as the curious testament to how deeply religious piety permeated the minds of even the most dedicated scientists of the time:

Most Illustrious and mightiest King, most beneficent Lord: Your high Favour and incomparable Mercy have ever spurred me to scatter with diligence the Seeds of my Gratitude and to sow them in the Bosom of Urania, so that I have set in the Heavens nigh to seven hundred Stars which were not there aforetimes, and have named some of them after your Majesty. . .

But, alas, will this Fruit of the Labours of mine Age ever see the Light of Day? For no man knoweth what the Dark of Even bringeth. Woe and alas, how multitudinous the Misfortunes that embroil the Life of Man. All my worldly Goods and Hopes have been overturned in the Space of scarce an Hour.

Rumour of the dread Conflagration which hath destroyed my astronomical Tower hath no doubt already sped upon rapid Feet to Paris. Now I come myself hasting to Your Majesty as Herald of this great Woe, clad in Sackcloth and Ashes, deep distressed by this Visitation from Him Who judgeth all Things.

[…]

May the Windows of the Human Soul never again look upon such a conflagration as devoured my three Houses… if God had not commanded the Wind to turn in its Course, all of the Old City of Danzig would surely have burned to the Ground…

Saved by God’s Mercy were .. Kepler’s immortal Works, which I purchased from his Son, my Catalogue of Stars, my New and Improved celestial Globe, and the thirteen Volumes of my Correspondence with learned Men and the Crowned Head of all Lands.

But the cruel Flames have consumed all the Machines and Instruments conceived by long Study and constructed, alas, at such great Cost, Consumed also the Printing Press with Letters … consumed, finally my Fortune and the means which God’s Mercy had granted me to serve the Royal Science.

If such Damage should crush me to the Ground, I whose Locks are Hoary and who am not far from my Appointed End, could any reasonable Man cast Blame upon me therefor? Yet with the Aid of my many Friends I hope that I may restore my Specula observatoria, and implore you, Most Illustrious Monarch who have so often manifested Royal Munificence toward me, to breathe by some further Token of your Generosity new Life into the Work which may still lie before me. Then will I no longer bewail my cruel Misfortune, and yours, Noble Majesty, will be eternal Fame for all Posterity.

The king, moved, granted his request. But the most generous support came from the king of Poland, who granted Hevelius a yearly stipend of 1,000 Danzig gulden for the rest of his life. The astronomer thus went on to resume his observations and finish his publications.

In October of 1681, the French writer Jean-François Regnard visited the newly rebuilt observatory and marveled in his little-known diary not only at Hevelius’s prolific writings and his impressive proto-rolodex, but also at his sublime cross-pollination of art and science:

His works, the number of which exceeds all belief … are full of plates made with his own hand: he shewed us them all, besides fifteen large volumes, as thick as the Lives of the Saints, full of letters which the most learned men on the whole world had written to him on various subjects.

Map of the constellations from ‘Prodromus Astronomiae’

But Hevelius remained preoccupied with the completion of his catalog of the stars, which had become his most consuming endeavor and his highest hope for legacy. Alas, he never fully attained it — at least not as a sole creator. On January 28, 1687 — the exact date of his 76th birthday — Hevelius died, having outlived the era’s life expectancy by decades. But Elisabeth, who had assisted him in the catalog all along, took it upon herself to finish Hevelius’s lifelong quest. She completed the book, dedicating it to the generous Polish monarch. The finished catalog included more than 600 new stars that Johannes and Elisabeth had observed, as well as a dozen new constellations, whose names, as given by Hevelius, astronomers still use today.

One of Hevelius’s plates depicting a new constellation he discovered, the Lynx, named for the sharpness of vision required to see its faint stars
Hercules with the new constellation Cerberus

Elisabeth guarded the manuscript carefully until her death in 1693, at the age of 46. She left to each of her three daughters a complete set of Hevelius’s published works. The eldest, Katharina — who as a teenager had saved her father’s star catalog from the fateful fire — fittingly inherited a beautifully illuminated copy of the book, originally prepared as a gift for Louis XIV. But once Katharina married, her husband sold most of Hevelius’s prized books to a museum in Russia. The manuscript of the star catalog that had survived the fire was overlooked. Ironically, the greedy son-in-law didn’t think Hevelius’s magnum opus valuable enough to sell.

But the story of the star catalog and its miraculous survival doesn’t end there: In 1734, during the Saxonian-Russian siege of Danzig, artillery fire struck the son-in-law’s house and destroyed most of the property. One bomb fell directly into the room where Hevelius’s manuscripts and instruments were kept, destroying nearly all unbound manuscripts. But the star catalog somehow survived once more. Over the next two centuries, it made its way to the Danzig Institute of Technology. Then, as World War II broke out, the German administration evacuated the Institute’s library to a nearby village, where it was almost completely destroyed in the last days of the war. And yet the star catalog, by yet another stroke of mysterious fortune, survived its third assault by fire. This strange phoenix of science finally arrived at Brigham Young University in 1971, where it has remained safe from fire and brimstone in the decades since.

The manuscript of the fixed-star catalog featured in front of a copy of the posthumously published ‘Prodromus Astronomiae’ (1690), opened to the title page of the printed version of the printed star catalog

Complement engrossing out-of-print gem Johannes Hevelius and His Catalog of Stars with this modern-day field guide to naked-eye stargazing, then revisit pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s wisdom on education and women in science.

BP

How Susan Sontag Possessed New York and Subverted Sexual Stereotypes

“Sontag seemed to exude an irresistible mixture of intelligence, hipness, sex, and beauty.”

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).

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

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.

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.

Joseph Cornell’s famous collage-box ‘The Ellipsian,’ using a photograph of Sontag by Harry Hess. In the words of art critic Deborah Solomon: ‘In Cornell’s collage, the photo of Sontag — torn at the edges to suggest the passage of time — occupies the upper right corner of the page, from whose heights she stares into space with cool self-possession. A scrap from a chart of the solar system and penciled circles endow her with an otherworldly dimension.’

For Sontag, however, New York wasn’t just a public scene to be conquered — it was also the scene of her most private passions and struggles. She inhabited, perhaps more fully than any other New Yorker, E.B. White’s famous description of Gotham as a city that “blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.” And among Sontag’s more private conquests was that of her own sexuality, underpinned by a characteristically paradoxical fusion of conflictedness and conviction. It was in New York that she met and fell in love with the Cuban-American artist María Irene Fornés. Schreiber explores the relationship between Sontag’s sexuality and her writing:

The published excerpts from Sontag’s journals make clear how close and fulfilling the relationship between her and Fornés was. In them, the extremely vulnerable Sontag sketches the petty jealousies and disappointments she suffered and her own, often exaggerated, demands on her partner. A few years later, the relationship would flounder on such demands. But the greatest discovery in this relationship was Sontag’s unconditional acceptance of the fact that her erotic needs included sexual relations with women. . . . By the end of 1959, she had admitted to herself that she desired women as well as men. With Fornés, she experienced erotic fulfillment such as she had not known before, and she associated it with the renewal of her writing: “I lust to write.”

A couple of years later, Sontag would revisit the interplay between writing and sex in her journal. But her “unconditional acceptance” would quickly be put to the test against the prejudices of her era. Philip Rieff, Sontag’s ex-husband and the father of her son David, ambushed her with a custody lawsuit claiming that she was an unfit mother due to her lesbian relationships. (Rieff, it appears, was no stranger to self-serving and exploitive tactics: their divorce settlement stipulated that he could claim sole authorship of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, a book over which Sontag had tenaciously labored as co-author.) Schreiber writes of the custody battle:

This attempt was a shock to Susan who — herself fatherless as a child — had always strongly insisted that David have a good relationship with his father and had sent him on visits to Rieff in California and Pennsylvania as often as possible.

There ensued a custody battle that was grist for the gossip columns of several New York dailies. The New York Daily News headlined its courtroom commentary “Lesbian Religion Professor Gets Custody.” With his nose for a good story, Alfred Chester reported that Sontag and Fornés appeared in the courtroom “stunning” in dresses, heels, and makeup. The judge was so smitten by the glamorous duo that he could not believe they were lesbians.

Despite winning the case and retaining custody of David, Sontag was shocked by the trial. Although from the beginning it was unlikely that a court of the time would grant custody to the father rather than the mother, the Stonewall Uprising and the birth of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement lay far in the future. Homosexuality was still a punishable offense in New York, even if it was seldom prosecuted if practiced behind closed doors and by women.

Sontag went on to have several significant relationships in her lifetime, most with women. She spent the last fifteen years of her life with legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz. (According to Leibovitz, the couple never liked the terms “companion” or “partner” — after Sontag’s death, Leibovitz said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle: “It was a relationship in all its dimensions. . . I mean, we helped each other through our lives. Call us ‘lovers’ . . . I like ‘lovers.’ You know, ‘lovers’ sounds romantic. I mean, I want to be perfectly clear. I love Susan. I don’t have a problem with that.” One could only imagine how Sontag might have greeted the dawn of marriage equality, had she lived to see it, and how the new politics of sexuality might have translated into her writing.)

Susan Sontag on love — excerpts from her diary, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

In the closing pages, Schreiber returns to the essence of Sontag’s spirit and the very root of her enduring legacy:

Sontag was one of the few figures able to maintain her public status as an intellectual in the new era of theory. One reason was that, as her essays had always shown, she believed implicitly in her mission, namely, to bring together art, literature, film, and politics and communicate their interrelatedness to her readers.

And she accomplished that mission. Her conception of herself as an intellectual and writer on the French model whose passing Barthes mourned and her irresistible combination of braininess and hipness proved compatible with the changing public taste… Both the old and the new generation found a common denominator in her thought and writings. She was capable of building a bridge between the moribund New York Intellectuals of the “old school” and the academic disseminators of cultural studies, semiotics, and deconstructivism. As a transitional figure, she was both the object of a kind of nostalgia and the creator of new impulses, both the relict of a bygone era and the media star of a new one.

Susan Sontag: A Biography is a spectacular read in its entirety, chronicling Sontag’s career and the trajectory of intellectual luminosity, her loves, her political and social activism, her decades-long battles with depression and cancer, and her mission to “defend the universal role of the writer against the opposition of her times.” Complement it with Sontag on the gap between love and sex, “aesthetic consumerism,” beauty vs. interestingness, education, stereotypes, literature and freedom, and why lists appeal to us.

BP

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