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Roland: A Charming Vintage Illustrated Ode to the Imagination and the Animating Power of Kindness

A story of wistfulness and whimsy, told with scruffy tenderness.

Roland: A Charming Vintage Illustrated Ode to the Imagination and the Animating Power of Kindness

“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will,” Baudelaire wrote in his abiding case for the genius of childhood — “a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale.” What keeps the world ceaselessly fresh for the child is the tireless imagination — particularly, Baudelaire believed, the voraciousness with which children absorb and play with form and color, building entire worlds out of the smallest hint of curiosity.

And what more curious a creature of form and color than a zebra to unlatch that irrepressible imagination? That’s what French writer Nelly Stéphane and legendary graphic designer and illustrator André François cast as the protagonist’s whimsical sidekick in the 1958 gem Roland (public library) — the story of a little boy with the magical ability to dream up animals and animate them into life simply by uttering the incantation “Crack!”

Roland discovers his superpower while finding himself in various situations with “nothing to do” — a testament to the creative purpose of boredom, so gravely endangered in our age of distraction, and a lovely counterpart to How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself , that charming vintage field guide to self-reliant play published the same year.

François — who studied with Picasso, illustrated a number of New Yorker covers, and made his American children’s book debut in 1949 with Little Boy Brown — renders Roland’s adventures in his distinctive style of largehearted scruffy tenderness.

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We follow the young imaginator as he first dreams a benevolent beast into being — “Crack! — when the teacher sends him to stand in the corner and he brings an imaginary tiger to life. What makes the story so wonderful is the sincerity with which, just as in the child’s mind, the real world and the imaginary world are integrated. “We have no room for you here,” the teacher calmly says to the tiger, and the tiger simply exits. What could be more ordinary?

Next, bored in the classroom, Roland draws a zebra into his notebook and — Crack! — it leaps to life and disappears over the schoolyard wall.

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In the street, Roland touches his friend Isabel’s fur coat and — Crack! — it turns into a menagerie of small furry animals, who run away. She accuses him of theft, so Roland is taken to prison. But one of the furry animals comes to find and rescue him.

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Together, they trek across rooftops until they dive down a chimney and into the bedroom of a destitute little girl.

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To cheer her up, Roland dreams up a dancing doll and — Crack! — she comes to life as the little boy and little girl watch together in enchanted silence.

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The deliberate discontinuity between the vignettes winks at the wilderness the imagination with which the child fills what the adult sees as barrenness. The zebra reappears in the town square, pulling a cab over which two fancy ladies are arguing. They go on bickering as the zebra frees itself and runs to Roland, who leaps onto its back and gallops into town.

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The zebra slips on a banana peel and Roland flies into the canal, where he catches a swordfish and glimpses a marvelous glowing fish, which he puts in his pocket before walking home. Again, what could be more ordinary in the child’s imagination?

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Wistful about having lost his zebra, Roland draws a pair of donkeys and — Crack! — brings them to life to take home, where he receives a great big jug from his mother to house the glowing fish. But the fish has stopped shining and Roland still misses his zebra.

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His mother encourages him to go visit Isabel and apologize. Roland finds her in bed, ill on account of her runaway coat. An affectionate gesture of apology is due.

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After Roland gives Isabel the fish, it begins to glow again, and he goes home to discover that his zebra has returned and joined the two donkeys — a sweet and redemptive ending, celebrating the greatest animating superpower of all: human kindness.

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The immensely delightful Roland comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion, publisher of such imaginative treasures as What Color Is the Wind?, The Lion and the Bird, Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Pinocchio: The Origin Story, and Louis I, King of the Sheep.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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May Sarton on Anger as Creativity in Reverse and a Safety Valve Against Madness

“The fierce tension in me, when it is properly channeled, creates the good tension for work. But when it becomes unbalanced I am destructive.”

May Sarton on Anger as Creativity in Reverse and a Safety Valve Against Madness

“All too often,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in her incisive inquiry into anger and forgiveness, “anger becomes an alluring substitute for grieving, promising agency and control when one’s real situation does not offer control.” The poet and philosopher David Whyte, in reexamining the deeper meanings of everyday words, argued that anger is a supreme form of compassion: “The internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.” The great Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa found a constructive side to anger’s four faces.

Across the canon of thought, two things emerge as constants: that however varied its manifestations and repressions, the fiery upswell of anger is one of the commonest human experiences; and that it often masks something else — beneath its boiling surface rest deep and murky waters of incredible emotional complexity.

That opaque complexity is what poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in one of the entries from her Journal of a Solitude (public library) — the 1973 masterpiece that gave us Sarton on solitude as the seedbed for self-discovery.

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In an entry from the early autumn of her sixtieth year, Sarton writes:

Sometimes I think the fits of rage are like a huge creative urge gone into reverse, something dammed up that spills over, not an accumulated frustration that must find a way out and blows off at some tiny irrelevant thing.

[…]

I have sometimes wondered also whether in people like me who come to the boil fast (soupe au lait, the French call this trait, like a milk soup that boils over) the tantrum is not a built-in safety valve against madness or illness. My mother buried her anger against my father and I saw the effects in her of this restraint — migraine headaches and tachycardia, to name only two. The nervous system is very mysterious. For the very thing that made her an angry person also gave her amazing strength with which to meet every kind of ordeal. The anger was buried fire; the flame sustained my father and me through the hard years when we were refugees from Belgium and slowly finding our place in American life. The fierce tension in me, when it is properly channeled, creates the good tension for work. But when it becomes unbalanced I am destructive. How to isolate that good tension is my problem these days. Or, put in another way, how to turn the heat down fast enough so the soup won’t boil over!

That delicate dialing of the temperature knob of temperament is, of course, among the great arts of living and among the artist’s central responsibilities to her or his art — for, as Joni Mitchell memorably put it, “an artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion.” Not the cause of the raging turmoil but what we do with it — whether we use it to destructive or constructive ends — is what defines us. Who could forget Bertrand Russell’s abiding wisdom on construction vs. destruction? “Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it… We construct when we increase the potential energy of the system in which we are interested, and we destroy when we diminish the potential energy.”

The artist is one who uses that energetic inner tension, that “divine discontent,” as fuel for creative work — as raw material for building up rather than ammunition for tearing down. Art, after all, is at bottom a coping mechanism.

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The King of the Birds: The Illustrated Story of Flannery O’Connor and Her Beloved Peacock

“It all started with a chicken who could walk backwards and forwards.”

The King of the Birds: The Illustrated Story of Flannery O’Connor and Her Beloved Peacock

On the vast spectrum of great writers and their pets, Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) falls on the odder side. An ardent fan of fowl, O’Connor began her avian collection at the age of five with a backward-walking chicken and went zealously from there, collecting more and fancier birds — turkeys, geese, pheasants, quail, mallard ducks, Japanese silky bantams. Perhaps she saw part of herself in these feathered creatures — she would later describe her young self as “a pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.” Eventually, upon seeing a newspaper ad for the king of all birds, O’Connor had to have this crowning curio of her collection — she mail-ordered four peacocks, which later came to populate her fiction.

Indeed, the appreciation of birds was for O’Connor a special creative capacity, which sprang from the same source as her literary sensibility. In a sentiment analogous to her assertion that art “is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it,” she wrote in a 1961 essay about her life with peacocks:

Many people, I have found, are con­genitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock. Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is “good for” — a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none.

In The King of the Birds (public library), writer Acree Graham Macam and illustrator Natalie Nelson bring to life O’Connor’s unusual and endearing fancy of fowl in a story about her ill-behaved peacock, her efforts to get him to display his tail, and the unplanned consequences of succeeding.

As little Flannery tries over and over to get her prized fowl to perform the very act for which she recruited him, a theme central to O’Connor’s fiction emerges — the notion that foibles lurk underneath even the handsomest exteriors and that forgiveness for those foibles is the most sanctifying and necessary of all human gifts.

Nelson’s distinctive mixed-media art, fusing illustration with archival photographs, is the perfect visual counterpart to this imaginative interpretation of the facts of O’Connor’s life.

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It all started with a chicken who could walk backwards and forwards.

A newspaperman came from New York to see the chicken, and Flannery became famous.

But not long after, people forgot about Flannery. And she began to feel that life was a little too quiet.

More birds would do the trick. She collected her savings and bought one of every type she could find.

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When Flannery eventually sets her heart on a peacock — who is “more exciting than a thousand birds” — she persuades her mother by doing extra chores for a week.

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She mail-orders this fanciest fowl, picks him up at the train station, and promptly appoints him king of her avian kingdom.

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But the peacock finds the scene “a little too quiet” and proceeds to shy away from his chief duty — the display of his magnificent tail. To encourage him, Flannery feeds him flowers, throws him a party, lets him play in the fig tree, leads a parade in his honor — all to no avail.

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One night, a terrible wailing noise awakens her and she knows instantly — we aren’t told how, suggesting either O’Connor’s precociousness or the discomfort of detailing the biology of reproduction in a children’s book — that her peacock is crying for a mate. That afternoon, Flannery supplies her king with a queen, and his tail immediately rises to its evolutionary purpose.

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At first, to everyone’s exasperation, the queen seems more interested in the rocks than in the king.

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But after a courtship propelled by the most glorious plumage, the royal couple jointly solve the quietude problem of the pen.

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Complement The King of the Birds with the charming picture-book about Jane Goodall’s early life and the illustrated story of how Henri Matisse’s childhood shaped his creative legacy, then revisit O’Connor on art, integrity, and the writer’s responsibility to her talent, the difference between belief and faith, her little-known cartoons, and this rare recording of her reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Illustrations © Natalie Nelson, courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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