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The Best Science Books of 2015

From Earth’s largest-hearted creature to the interconnectedness of the universe, by way of Einstein and artificial intelligence.

The Best Science Books of 2015

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E.B. White observed in a wonderful 1969 interview. “You have to write up, not down.” What’s true of great children’s books is true of great science books, which must do three things for the reader — explain, enchant, and elevate. They must tell you what something is and why it matters, captivate you to care about it and tickle you into taking pleasure in understanding it, and leave you in a higher state of awareness regarding whatever subtle or monumental aspect of the world the book had made its subject.

After the best art books of the year, here are the most stimulating science books of 2015, possessing this trifecta of merit.

1. ON THE MOVE

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning mapped the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

The book, made all the more poignant by Dr. Sacks’s death shortly after its release, is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches of City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks’s official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Dive deeper into this enormously rewarding book here.

2. ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT AND THE INVENTION OF NATURE

No thinker has shaped our understanding of the astounding interconnectedness of the universe more profoundly than the great Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769–May 6, 1859), who pioneered the notion that the natural world is a web of intricately entwined elements, each in constant dynamic dialogue with every other — a concept a century ahead of its time. His legacy isn’t so much any single discovery — although he did discover the magnetic equator, invented isotherms, and came up with climate zones — as it is a mindset, a worldview, a singular sensemaking sublimity.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806
Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, remarked that a single day with Humboldt enriched him more than years spent alone, enthusing:

What a man he is! … He has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom. Then he has a many-sidedness such as I have found nowhere else. On whatever point you approach him, he is at home, and lavishes upon us his intellectual treasures. He is like a fountain with many pipes, under which you need only hold a vessel, and from which refreshing and inexhaustible streams are ever flowing.

Darwin asserted that Humboldt’s writings kindled in him a zeal without which he wouldn’t have boarded the Beagle or written On the Origin of Species. Thoreau was an ardent admirer of Humboldt’s “habit of close observation,” without the influence of which there might have been no Walden. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who met Humboldt weeks before his death, marveled in her diary that “no young aspirant in science ever left Humboldt’s presence uncheered,” and his ideas reverberate through her famous assertion that science is “not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Emerson, in his essays and lectures, called Humboldt “a man whose eyes, ears, and mind are armed by all the science, arts, and implements which mankind have anywhere accumulated” and saw him as living proof that “a certain vastness of learning, or quasi omnipresence of the human soul in nature, is possible.”

Goethe's diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt
Goethe’s diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt

In informing and impressing the greatest minds of his time, Humboldt invariably influenced the course of science and its intercourse with the rest of culture in ways innumerable, enduring, and profound. His visionary understanding of nature’s interconnected sparked the basic ecological awareness that gave rise to the environmental movement. His integrated approach to science, incorporating elements of art, philosophy, poetry, politics, and history, provided the last bold counterpoint to the disconnected and dysfunctional “villages” of specialization into which science would fragment a mere generation later. And yet Humboldt, despite his enormous contribution to our most fundamental understanding of life, is largely forgotten today.

In The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (public library), London-based design historian and writer Andrea Wulf sets out to liberate this extraordinary man’s legacy from the grip of obscurity and short-termism, illuminating the myriad threads of influence through which he continues to shape our present thinking about science, society, and life itself.

Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.
Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.

Wulf paints the backdrop for Humboldt’s enduring genius:

Described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, Humboldt was one of the most captivating and inspiring men of his time. Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, he discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked. As a young man he set out on a five-year exploration to Latin America, risking his life many times and returning with a new sense of the world. It was a journey that shaped his life and thinking, and that made him legendary across the globe. He lived in cities such as Paris and Berlin, but was equally at home on the most remote branches of the Orinoco River or in the Kazakh Steppe at Russia’s Mongolian border. During much of his long life, he was the nexus of the scientific world, writing some 50,000 letters and receiving at least double that number. Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everybody.

But knowledge, for Humboldt, wasn’t merely an intellectual faculty — it was an embodied, holistic presence with life in all of its dimensions. A rock-climber, volcano-diver, and tireless hiker well into his eighties, Humboldt saw observation as an active endeavor and continually tested the limits of his body in his scientific pursuits. For him, mind, body, and spirit were all instruments of inquiry into the nature of the world. Two centuries before Carl Sagan sold us on the idea that “science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe,” Humboldt advocated for this then-radical notion amid a culture that drew a thick line between reason and emotion.

Wulf writes:

Fascinated by scientific instruments, measurements and observations, he was driven by a sense of wonder as well. Of course nature had to be measured and analysed, but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions. He wanted to excite a “love of nature.” At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.

Out of this integrated approach to knowledge sprang Humboldt’s revolutionary view of life — the scientifically informed counterpart to Ada Lovelace’s famous assertion that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.” Wulf captures his greatest legacy:

Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.

When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel.

Read more here.

3. DARK MATTER AND THE DINOSAURS

Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.

Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.

Randall writes:

The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.

A 17th-century conception of non-space by the English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

In Humboldt’s tradition of interconnectedness, Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:

Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.

But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity wouldn’t be here to contemplate the complexities of the cosmos. And yet in a few billion years, the Sun will retire into the red giant phase of its stellar lifetime and eventually burn out, extinguishing our biosphere and Blake and Bach and every human notion of truth and beauty. Stardust to stardust.

Read more here.

4. THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

See more here.

5. THE BLUE WHALE

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on the color of distance and desire. No creature compresses the edgeless grandeur of our Pale Blue Dot into a single body as perfectly as the blue whale — an animal absolutely awesome in the true sense of the word. That awe-striking being is what London-based illustrator Jenni Desmond celebrates in the marvelous nonfiction children’s book The Blue Whale (public library) — a loving science lullaby about our planet’s biggest creature, and a beautiful addition to the finest children’s books celebrating science.

Alongside Desmond’s immeasurably warm and largehearted illustrations is her simply worded, deeply intelligent synthesis of what marine biologists know about this extraordinary mammal — in fact, she worked closely with Diane Gendron, a marine biologist who studies blue whales. At the heart of the book is a compassionate curiosity about the beings with whom we share this world, effecting what the great Mary Oliver called a “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Indeed, despite the gaping disparity of scales, we have more in common with this gentle giant of the ocean than we realize — the blue whale, like us, is a highly intelligent mammal and one of the few creatures with a lifespan comparable to our own.

There is a charming meta touch to the story — the protagonist, a little boy with a crown that evokes Maurice Sendak’s Max, is learning and dreaming about blue whales by reading this very book, which he is seen holding in a number of the scenes.

Although the whaling industry of yore may have inspired some legendary art, more than 360,000 blue whales were killed in the first half of the twentieth century as these magnificent creatures were being reduced to oil, blubber, baleen, and meat. A global ban on whale hunting made them a protected species in 1966, but other forms of our arrogant anthropocentrism are putting them in danger anew as our our commercial fishing entangles them in its indiscriminate nets, our passenger ships pollute their habitats, and our general human activity continues to raise ocean temperatures.

And yet it isn’t with alarmism or bitter lamentation but with love befitting this largest-hearted of earthly creatures — its heart alone weighs around 1,300 pounds — that Desmond invites us into the world of the blue whale. She writes in the preface:

Blue whales are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and like all of the natural world they deserve our admiration and care. It is only then that they will flourish and multiply in their native ocean home.

And so it is with admiration and care that Desmond opens our eyes to the glory of this beautiful and intelligent creature — a creature whose own eye measures only six inches wide.

Look closer here.

6. THE PHYSICIST & THE PHILOSOPHER

“It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. A generation earlier, Virginia Woolf contemplated how this insertion engenders the astonishing elasticity of time; a generation later, Patti Smith pondered the subjectivity of how we experience time’s continuous flow. These reflections, once so radical and now so woven into the cultural fabric, wouldn’t have been possible without a fateful conversation that took place on April 6, 1922, which steered the course of twentieth-century science and shaped our experience of time.

So argues science historian Jimena Canales in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time (public library) — a masterwork of cultural forensics, dissecting the many dimensions of the landmark conversation between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson.

einsteinbergson

What makes the encounter particularly notable is that unlike the canon of great public conversations between intellectual titans — including those between David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, and Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel — where surface disagreements are undergirded by and ultimately reveal a larger shared ethos, Einstein and Bergson clashed completely and vehemently on the subject of their conversation: the nature of time. Einstein insisted that only two types of time existed: physical, the kind measured by clocks, and psychological, the subjective kind Virginia Woolf would later observe. For Bergson, this was a barbaric and reductionist perspective robbing time of the philosophical dimension that permeates nearly every aspect of how we experience its flow.

The debris of that disagreement became the foundation of our present ideas about the fabric of existence.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

What the encounter also reveals is the astounding amount of humanity upon which science, with all of its presumed rationalism and universal objectivity, is built. How pause-giving to think that our present understanding of time is largely the function of the personal differences between two men. Canales writes:

While Einstein searched for consistency and simplicity, Bergson focused on inconsistencies and complexities.

[…]

Bergson was the paradigmatic philosopher of memories, dreams, and laughter.

[…]

Time, he argued, was not something out there, separate from those who perceived it. It did not exist independently from us. It involved us at every level.

Bergson found Einstein’s definition of time in terms of clocks completely aberrant. The philosopher did not understand why one would opt to describe the timing of a significant event, such as the arrival of a train, in terms of how that event matched against a watch. He did not understand why Einstein tried to establish this particular procedure as a privileged way to determine simultaneity. Bergson searched for a more basic definition of simultaneity, one that would not stop at the watch but that would explain why clocks were used in the first place.

At that point, Einstein was busy rattling our understanding of time with his relativity theory. Bergson, one of the most prominent philosophers of the century and a major influence on such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Elliot, and William Faulkner, had advanced a theory of time that explained what the mechanics of clock-time could not, from the malleability of memory to the perplexities of premonitions. A staunch defender of intuition over the intellect, Bergson was sometimes accused, most famously by Bertrand Russell, of anti-intellectualism — but he was undeniably one of the most intelligent and incisive minds of his time. Although today Einstein is the better-known of the two, the opposite was true at the time of their confrontation, the consequences of which were profound and rippled out not only across the scientific community but across all of culture.

Read more here.

7. WHAT TO THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK

When Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage invented the world’s first computer, their “Analytical Engine” became the evolutionary progenitor of a new class of human extensions — machines that think. A generation later, Alan Turing picked up where they left off and, in laying the foundations of artificial intelligence with his Turing Test, famously posed the techno-philosophical question of whether a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or compel you to fall in love with it.

From its very outset, this new branch of human-machine evolution made it clear that any answer to these questions would invariably alter how we answer the most fundamental questions of what it means to be human.

That’s what Edge founder John Brockman explores in the 2015 edition of his annual question, inviting 192 of today’s most prominent thinkers to tussle with these core questions of artificial intelligence and its undergirding human dilemmas. The answers, collected in What to Think About Machines That Think: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Age of Machine Intelligence (public library), come from such diverse contributors as physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, music pioneer Brian Eno, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Positive Psychology founding father Martin Seligman, computer scientist and inventor Danny Hillis, TED curator Chris Anderson, neuroscientist Sam Harris, legendary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, and yours truly.

Art from Neurocomic, a graphic novel about how the brain works

The answers are strewn with a handful of common threads, a major one being the idea that artificial intelligence isn’t some futuristic abstraction but a palpably present reality with which we’re already living.

Beloved musician and prolific reader Brian Eno looks at the many elements of his day, from cooking porridge to switching on the radio, that work seamlessly thanks to an invisible mesh of connected human intelligence — a Rube Goldberg machine of micro-expertise that makes it possible for the energy in a distant oil field to power the stove built in a foreign factory out of components made by scattered manufacturers, and ultimately cook his porridge. In a sentiment that calls to mind I, Pencil — that magnificent vintage allegory of how everything is connected — Eno explains why he sees artificial intelligence not as a protagonist in a techno-dystopian future but as an indelible and fruitful part of our past and present:

My untroubled attitude results from my almost absolute faith in the reliability of the vast supercomputer I’m permanently plugged into. It was built with the intelligence of thousands of generations of human minds, and they’re still working at it now. All that human intelligence remains alive, in the form of the supercomputer of tools, theories, technologies, crafts, sciences, disciplines, customs, rituals, rules of thumb, arts, systems of belief, superstitions, work-arounds, and observations that we call Global Civilization.

Global Civilization is something we humans created, though none of us really know how. It’s out of the individual control of any of us — a seething synergy of embodied intelligence that we’re all plugged into. None of us understands more than a tiny sliver of it, but by and large we aren’t paralyzed or terrorized by that fact — we still live in it and make use of it. We feed it problems — such as “I want some porridge” — and it miraculously offers us solutions that we don’t really understand.

[…]

We’ve been living happily with artificial intelligence for thousands of years.

Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes. Click image for more.

In one of the volume’s most optimistic essays, TED curator Chris Anderson, who belongs to the increasingly endangered tribe of public idealists, considers how this “hive mind” of semi-artificial intelligence could provide a counterpoint to some of our worst human tendencies and amplify our collective potential for good:

We all know how flawed humans are. How greedy, irrational, and limited in our ability to act collectively for the common good. We’re in danger of wrecking the planet. Does anyone thoughtful really want humanity to be evolution’s final word?

[…]

Intelligence doesn’t reach its full power in small units. Every additional connection and resource can help expand its power. A person can be smart, but a society can be smarter still…

By that logic, intelligent machines of the future wouldn’t destroy humans. Instead, they would tap into the unique contributions that humans make. The future would be one of ever richer intermingling of human and machine capabilities. I’ll take that route. It’s the best of those available.

[…]

Together we’re semiunconsciously creating a hive mind of vastly greater power than this planet has ever seen — and vastly less power than it will soon see.

“Us versus the machines” is the wrong mental model. There’s only one machine that really counts. Like it or not, we’re all — us and our machines — becoming part of it: an immense connected brain. Once we had neurons. Now we’re becoming the neurons.

Astrophysicist and philosopher Marcelo Gleiser, who has written beautifully about how to live with mystery in a culture obsessed with knowledge, echoes this idea by pointing out the myriad mundane ways in which “machines that think” already permeate our daily lives:

We define ourselves through our techno-gadgets, create fictitious personas with weird names, doctor pictures to appear better or at least different in Facebook pages, create a different self to interact with others. We exist on an information cloud, digitized, remote, and omnipresent. We have titanium implants in our joints, pacemakers and hearing aids, devices that redefine and extend our minds and bodies. If you’re a handicapped athlete, your carbon-fiber legs can propel you forward with ease. If you’re a scientist, computers can help you extend your brainpower to create well beyond what was possible a few decades back. New problems that once were impossible to contemplate, or even formulate, come around every day. The pace of scientific progress is a direct correlate of our alliance with digital machines.

We’re reinventing the human race right now.

Another common thread running across a number of the answers is the question of what constitutes “artificial” intelligence in the first place and how we draw the line between machine thought and human thought. Caltech theoretical physicist and cosmologist Sean Carroll performs elegant semantic acrobatics to invert the question:

We are all machines that think, and the distinction between different types of machines is eroding.

We pay a lot of attention these days, with good reason, to “artificial” machines and intelligences — ones constructed by human ingenuity. But the “natural” ones that have evolved through natural selection, like you and me, are still around. And one of the most exciting frontiers in technology and cognition is the increasingly permeable boundary between the two categories.

Art from Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore, an allegory of quantum physics inspired by Alice in Wonderland

In my own contribution to the volume, I consider the question of “thinking machines” from the standpoint of what thought itself is and how our human solipsism is limiting our ability to envision and recognize other species of thinking:

Thinking isn’t mere computation — it’s also cognition and contemplation, which inevitably lead to imagination. Imagination is how we elevate the real toward the ideal, and this requires a moral framework of what is ideal. Morality is predicated on consciousness and on having a self-conscious inner life rich enough to contemplate the question of what is ideal. The famous aphorism attributed to Einstein — “Imagination is more important than knowledge” — is interesting only because it exposes the real question worth contemplating: not that of artificial intelligence but of artificial imagination.

Of course, imagination is always “artificial,” in the sense of being concerned with the unreal or trans-real — of transcending reality to envision alternatives to it — and this requires a capacity for accepting uncertainty. But the algorithms driving machine computation thrive on goal-oriented executions in which there’s no room for uncertainty. “If this, then that” is the antithesis of imagination, which lives in the unanswered, and often vitally unanswerable, realm of “What if?” As Hannah Arendt once wrote, losing our capacity for asking such unanswerable questions would be to “lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the unanswerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

[…]

Will machines ever be moral, imaginative? It’s likely that if and when they reach that point, theirs will be a consciousness that isn’t beholden to human standards. Their ideals will not be our ideals, but they will be ideals nonetheless. Whether or not we recognize those processes as thinking will be determined by the limitations of human thought in understanding different — perhaps wildly, unimaginably different — modalities of thought itself.

See more responses here.

BONUS: THUNDER & LIGHTNING

Although this gem is among the best art books of the year, it is also a project of significant scientific scholarship, so it warrants inclusion among the year’s best science books as well.

“Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer,” E.B. White wrote in his elevating letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, adding: “I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly.” Our most steadfast companion since the dawn of our species, the weather seeded our earliest myths, inspired some of our greatest art, affects the way we think, and continues to lend itself to such apt metaphors for the human experience. Its reliable inconstancy constantly assures us that neither storm nor sunshine lasts forever; that however thick the gloom which shrouds today, the sun always rises tomorrow.

That abiding and dimensional relationship with the weather is what artist, Guggenheim Fellow, and American Museum of Natural History artist-in-residence Lauren Redniss explores in the beguiling Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (public library).

Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin’s inclination for “air baths.” Although Redniss’s selections might give the impression of trivia at first brush, make no mistake — these are not random factlets that trivialize their subject but an intentional kaleidoscopic gleam that shines the light of attention onto some of the most esoteric and enchanting aspects of the weather.

Like Redniss’s previous book — her astonishing visual biography of Marie Curie — this project is enormously ambitious both conceptually and in its execution. Redniss created her illustrations using copperplate etching, an early printmaking technique popular prior to 1820, and typeset the text in an original font she designed herself, which she titled Qanec LR after the Eskimo word for “falling snow.”

Take a closer look here.

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the best science books of 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

BP

Patti Smith on the Two Kinds of Masterpieces and Her Fifty Favorite Books

“Everything pours forth. Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds.”

“Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book,” Patti Smith exhales within the pages of M Train (public library) — her astonishingly beautiful meditation on time, transformation, and how the radiance of love redeems the rupture of loss, embedded into which is an affectionate memoir of reading. Half a century after Susan Sontag extolled the rewards of rereading as rebirth, Smith journeys to the final resting places of great writers, photographing their tombstones and the ephemera that survived them — Virginia Woolf’s cane, Hermann Hesse’s typewriter, Robert Graves’s straw hat, Samuel Beckett’s spectacles — as she revisits her most beloved books. Through the devotional culvert of memory, she looks back on a lifetime of reading and communes with the authors who most animated her inner life.

After finding herself under a monthlong spell of obsessively reading nothing but Haruki Murakami, Smith considers how great books bewitch the human spirit:

There are two kinds of masterpieces. There are the classic works monstrous and divine like Moby-Dick or Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books. Like 2666 or The Master and Margarita. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is such a book. I finished it and was immediately obliged to reread it. For one thing I did not wish to exit its atmosphere. But also, the ghost of a phrase was eating at me. Something that untied a neat knot and let the frayed edges brush against my cheek as I slept.

Leo Tolstoy’s bear, Moscow (Photograph: Patti Smith)

Much like the lifelong reading list extracted from Gabriel García Márquez’s autobiography, I’ve assembled a reading list of the books Smith mentions in her memoir — some in direct and effusive homages, others obliquely, all lovingly. What emerges is a self-portrait of a creatively voracious mind, passionately painted on the canvas of literature.

  1. After Nature (public library) by W.G. Sebald
  2. At one time the three lengthy poems in this slim volume had such a profound effect on me that I could hardly bear to read them. Scarcely would I enter their world before I’d be transported to a myriad of other worlds. Evidences of such transports are crammed onto the endpapers as well as a declaration I once had the hubris to scrawl in a margin — I may not know what is in your mind, but I know how your mind works.

    Max Sebald! … He sees, not with eyes, and yet he sees. He recognizes voices within silence, history within negative space. He conjures ancestors who are not ancestors, with such precision that the gilded threads of an embroidered sleeve are as familiar as his own dusty trousers.

    […]

    What a drug this little book is; to imbibe it is to find oneself presuming his process. I read and feel that same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself.

  3. The Thief’s Journal (public library) by Jean Genet
  4. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (public library) by Haruki Murakami
  5. A Wild Sheep Chase (public library) by Haruki Murakami
  6. Kafka on the Shore (public library) by Haruki Murakami
  7. Dance Dance Dance (public library) by Haruki Murakami
  8. 2666 (public library) by Roberto Bolaño
  9. Roberto Bolaño’s chair (Photograph: Patti Smith)
  10. Amulet (public library) by Roberto Bolaño
  11. The First Man (public library) by Albert Camus
  12. A photograph of Albert Camus hung next to the light switch. It was a classic shot of Camus in a heavy overcoat with a cigarette between his lips, like a young Bogart, in a clay frame made by my son, Jackson… My son, seeing him every day, got the idea that Camus was an uncle who lived far away. I would glance up at him from time to time as I was writing.

  13. The Divine Comedy (public library) by Dante Alighieri
  14. The Story of Davy Crockett (public library) by Enid Meadowcroft
  15. The Little Lame Prince (public library) by Rosemary Wells
  16. Ariel (public library) by Sylvia Plath
  17. My copy of Ariel [was] given to me when I was twenty. Ariel became the book of my life then, drawing me to a poet with hair worthy of a Breck commercial and the incisive observational powers of a female surgeon cutting out her own heart. With little effort I visualized my Ariel perfectly. Slim, with faded black cloth, that I opened in my mind, noting my youthful signature on the cream endpaper. I turned the pages, revisiting the shape of each poem.

  18. The Master and Margarita (public library) by Mikhail Bulgakov
  19. Winter Trees (public library) by Sylvia Plath
  20. Four Major Plays (public library) by Henrik Ibsen
  21. After-Dinner Declarations (public library) by Nicanor Parra
  22. Letters from Iceland (public library) by W.H. Auden
  23. The Petting Zoo (public library) by Jim Carroll
  24. Essential to anyone in search of concrete delirium.

  25. Tractatus Logico (public library) by Ludwig Wittgenstein
  26. A Dog of Flanders (public library) by Ouida
  27. The Prince and the Pauper (public library) by Mark Twain
  28. The Blue Bird (public library) by Maurice Maeterlinck
  29. Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (public library) by Margaret Sidney
  30. Little Women (public library) by Louisa May Alcott
  31. Through the Looking-Glass (public library) by Lewis Carroll
  32. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (public library) by Betty Smith
  33. The Glass Bead Game (public library) by Hermann Hesse
  34. Hermann Hesse’s typewriter (Photograph: Patti Smith)
  35. The Journey to the East (public library) by Hermann Hesse
  36. Lolita (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov
  37. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (public library) by César Aira
  38. A Night of Serious Drinking (public library) by René Daumal
  39. Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (public library) by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
  40. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (public library) by Arthur Conan Doyle
  41. Orphée (public library) by Jean Cocteau
  42. The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (public library) by Bertram David Wolfe
  43. Anthology (public library) by Artaud
  44. The Confusions of Young Törless (public library) by Robert Musil
  45. The Women of Cairo (public library) by Gérard De Nerval
  46. Black Spring (public library) by Henry Miller
  47. The Setting Sun (public library) by Osamu Dazai
  48. No Longer Human (public library) by Osamu Dazai
  49. Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov
  50. Hawk Moon (public library) by Sam Shepard
  51. A Scarcity of Love (public library) by Anna Kavan
  52. Moby-Dick (public library) by Herman Melville
  53. Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus (public library) by Mary Shelley
  54. Wuthering Heights (public library) by Emily Brontë
  55. The Beach Café (public library) by Mohammed Mrabet, translated by Paul Bowles
  56. The Sheltering Sky (public library) by Paul Bowles
  57. I was first introduced to Bowles in a serendipitous way. In the summer of 1967, shortly after I left home and went to New York City, I passed a large box of overturned books spilling out into the street. Several were scattered across the sidewalk, and a dated copy of Who’s Who in America lay open before my feet. I bent down to look, as a photograph caught my eye above an entry for Paul Frederic Bowles. I had never heard of him but I noticed we shared the same birthday, the thirtieth of December. Believing it to be a sign, I tore out the page and later searched out his books, the first being The Sheltering Sky. I read everything he wrote as well as his translations, introducing me to the work of Mohammed Mrabet and Isabelle Eberhardt.

    Three decades later, in 1997, I was asked by German Vogue to interview him in Tangier. I had mixed feelings about my assignment, for they mentioned he was ill. But I was assured that he had readily agreed and that I would not be disturbing him. Bowles lived in a three-room apartment on a quiet street in a straightforward fifties-modern building in a residential section. A high stack of well-traveled trunks and suitcases formed a column in the entranceway. There were books lining the walls and halls, books that I knew and books I wished to know. He sat propped up in bed, wearing a soft plaid robe, and appeared to brighten when I entered the room.

    I crouched down trying to find a graceful position in the awkward air. We spoke of his late wife, Jane, whose spirit seemed to be everywhere. I sat there twisting my braids, speaking about love. I wondered if he was really listening.

    —Are you writing? I asked.
    —No, I am no longer writing.
    —How do you feel now? I asked.
    —Empty, he answered.

    I left him to his thoughts and went upstairs to the patio on the roof.

    […]

    Everything pours forth. Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds. The spirits rose like an ether that spun an arabesque and touched down as gently as a benevolent mask.

Patti Smith with Paul Bowles, Tangier, 1997 (Photograph: Tim Richmond)

After her Murakami-induced meditation on the two types of masterpieces, Smith herself attempts to compose a deliberate list of her favorite books. But, overwhelmed by the volume of potential candidates and bedeviled by the difficulty of drawing the line between a “masterpiece” and a book that is “merely beloved,” she eventually resigns. Shoving the piece of paper into her pocket, she concludes:

The truth is that there is only one kind of masterpiece: a masterpiece.

M Train is nothing short of a masterpiece. Devour a richer taste of it here, then revisit the lifelong reading lists of David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

For more of Smith’s reflections on a lifetime of affectionate reading, treat yourself to her wonderful conversation with the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber:

You think some things will go on forever — your children will always be small, your husband will always be alive — but time passes… Memory is our most fertile souvenir.

BP

Creative Courage for Young Hearts: 15 Emboldening Picture Books Celebrating the Lives of Great Artists, Writers, and Scientists

Jane Goodall, Julia Child, Pablo Neruda, Marie Curie, E.E. Cummings, Albert Einstein, Ella Fitzgerald, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Frida Kahlo, and more.

UPDATE: Also see other recently added picture-book biographies of Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, Wangari Maathai, Virginia Woolf, Galileo, Nellie Bly, Paul Erdos, Louis Braille, Mary Lou Williams, John Lewis, Muddy Waters, Paul Gauguin, and Jane Jacobs.

Margaret Mead extolled the value of “spiritual and mental ancestors” in how we form our identity — those people to whom we aren’t related but whose values we try to cultivate in ourselves; role models we seek out not from our immediate genetic pool but from the pool of culture the surrounds us, past and present. Seneca saw in reading, one of the oldest and most reliable ways to identify and contact these cultural ancestors, a way of being adopted into the “households of the noblest intellects.” And what better time to meet such admirable models of personhood than in childhood, that fertile seedbed for the flowering of values and identity?

Collected here are thirteen wonderful picture-books celebrating such worthwhile “spiritual and mental ancestors.” It is, of course, an incomplete reading list, yet it is a deliberate one — a great many such books exist, but few feature the trifecta of wonderfulness: a cultural icon notable for his or her lasting contribution to humanity beyond mere fame; an intelligent and nuanced life-story lovingly told; and beautiful, imaginative illustrations rewarding in their own right. Please enjoy.

JANE GOODALL

“One should want only one thing and want it constantly,” young André Gide half-observed, half-resolved in his journal. “Then one is sure of getting it.” More than a century later, Werner Herzog wrote passionately of the “uninvited duty” that a sense of purpose plants in the heart, leaving one with “no choice but to push on.” That combination of desiring something with inextinguishable intensity — which begins with letting your life speak and daring to listen — and pursuing it with steadfast doggedness is perhaps the single common thread in the lives of those we most admire as luminaries of enduring genius. It is also at the heart of what it means to find your purpose and live it.

In Me…Jane (public library), celebrated cartoonist, author, and animal rights advocate Patrick McDonnell chronicles the early life of pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) and tells the heartening story of how the seed planted by a childhood dream blossomed, under the generous beams of deep dedication, into the reality of a purposeful life.

McDonnell’s protagonist is not Jane Goodall the widely influential and wildly revered science and spiritualitysage of science and the human spirit — one of a handful of people in history to have both the titles Dame and Doctor — but little Jane, the ten-year-old girl who decided that she was going to work with animals in Africa when she grew up and, despite her family’s poverty, despite living in an era when girls were not encouraged to live the life of science or adventure, despite nearly everyone telling her that it was impossible, turned her dream into reality.

With simple, enormously expressive illustrations and an eloquent economy of words, McDonnell — creator of the beloved MUTTS comic strip — begins at the very beginning: that fateful day when little Jane was given a stuffed monkey named Jubilee.

Jane and Jubilee became inseparable, and she shared with him everything she loved — especially the outdoors. Together, they watched the birds and the spiders and the squirrels fill the backyard with aliveness.

At night, Jane and Jubilee read books to better understand what they saw.

One day, tickled to find out where eggs came from, they snuck into grandma’s chicken coop and observed the miracle of life.

It was a magical world full of joy and wonder, and Jane felt very much a part of it.

Jane liked to climb her beloved beech tree with Jubilee on her back, then sit perched on its branches reading and rereading Tarzan, imagining herself in place of that other Jane, wild and filled with wonder amid the jungles of Africa.

That dream soon became an all-consuming desire not just to go to Africa but to live there, trying to understand the animals and help them.

Every night Jane tucked Jubilee into bed and fell asleep with that dream, until one day — and such is the genius of McDonnell’s elegantly simple message of the dreamer’s doggedness — she awakes in a tent in the Gombe, the seedbed of what would become a remarkable career and an extraordinary life of purpose.

Goodall herself — who founded the heartening youth-led learning and community action initiative Roots & Shoots — writes in the afterword:

We cannot live through a single day without making an impact on the world around us — and we have a choice as to what sort of difference we make… Children are motivated when they can see the positive results their hard work can have.

See more, including a wonderful jazz tribute to Goodall, here.

PABLO NERUDA

Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda was not only one of the greatest poets in human history, but also a man of extraordinary insight into the human experience and the creative impulse — take, for instance, his remarkable reflection on what a childhood encounter taught him about why we make art, quite possibly the most beautiful metaphor for the creative impulse ever committed to paper.

His story and spirit spring alive in Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (public library) by writer Monica Brown, with absolutely stunning illustrations and hand-lettering by artist Julie Paschkis.

The story begins with the poet’s birth in Chile in 1904 with the given name of Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto — to evade his father’s disapproval of his poetry, he came up with the pen name “Pablo Neruda” at the age of sixteen when he first began publishing his work — and traces his evolution as a writer, his political awakening as an activist, his deep love of people and language and the luminosity of life.

Neftalí wasn’t very good at soccer or at throwing acorns like his friends, but he loved to read and discovered magic between the pages.

Embedded in the story is a sweet reminder of what books do for the soul and a heartening assurance that creative genius isn’t the product of conforming to common standards of excellence but of finding one’s element.

In fact, the book is as much a celebration of Neruda as it is a love letter to language itself — swirling through Paschkis’s vibrant illustrations are words both English and Spanish, beautiful words like “fathom” and “plummet” and “flicker” and “sigh” and “azul.”

Originally featured here.

E.E. CUMMINGS

“In a Cummings poem,” Susan Cheever wrote in her spectacular biography of E. E. Cummings, “the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.” Such a burst is what rewards the reader, whatever his or her age, in Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (public library) — an uncommonly delightful picture-book celebration of Cummings’s life by Brooklyn-based poet Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (the artist behind the wonderful alphabet book Take Away the A).

To reimagine the beloved poet’s life in a tango of word and image is quite befitting — unbeknownst to many, Cummings had a passion for drawing and once described himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”

The project comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — publisher of some of the most daring and tender children’s books of our time — and was first envisioned by ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, who approached Burgess about writing a children’s biography of Cummings. Miraculously, Burgess had visited Cummings’s home at 4 Patchin Place in New York City three years earlier, after a serendipitous encounter with the current resident — an experience that had planted a seed of quietly germinating obsession with the legendary poet’s life.

And so the collaboration stretched between them, as Cummings might say, like “a pleasant song” — Burgess and Bedrick worked side by side for four years to bring this wonder of a book to life.

The story begins with Cummings, already known as “E. E.” and living in his New York City home where he spent the last forty years of his life, typing away as the love of his life, the fashion model and photographer Marion Moorehouse, summons him to tea-time with an elephant-shaped bell.

From there, Burgess takes the reader on an affectionate biographical detective story, tracing how Edward Estlin became E. E., what brought him to Manhattan from his native Cambridge, and how elephants (and trees, and birds) became his lifelong creative companions in the circus of his imagination.

Young Estlin’s first poem “poured out of his mouth when he was only three.”

With the loving support of the unsung champions with whom the history of creative culture is strewn — the mother who began recording his spontaneous recitations in a little book titled “Estlin’s Original Poems”; the father who stomped on his hands and knees, play-pretending into existence the mighty elephant that was little Estlin’s creative muse; the teacher who encouraged him to pursue his love of words; the uncle who gave him a book on how to write poetry — he eventually made it to Harvard.

There, he came upon the words of his favorite poet, John Keats — “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination” — which awakened young Estlin’s creative courage. After graduation, he began experimenting with poetry and moved to New York City, falling in love with its “irresistibly stupendous newness.”

But then World War I struck and Estlin went to France, volunteering as an ambulance-driver. While working in the French countryside, he was mistaken for a spy and sent to prison for several months.

When the war ended, he wrote a book about his experience, titled The Enormous Room. Estlin was reborn as E. E.

The following year, he published his first book of poems, Tulips & Chimneys.

Burgess writes:

Using a style all his own,
e. e. put lowercase letters where capitals normally go,
and his playful punctuation grabbed readers’ attention.

His poems were alive with experimentation
and surprise!

And because of his love for lowercase letters,
his name began to appear with two little e’s (& a little c, too).

But his expansive experimentation was too much for the small-minded literary pantheon:

Some people criticized him for painting with words.
Other said his poems were
too strange
too small.
Some said they were
no good at all.

And yet Cummings, who viewed society’s criteria for what it means to be a successful artist with mischievous wryness, was undeterred. A century before Neil Gaiman’s memorable advice that the artist’s only appropriate response to criticism is to make good art, Cummings embodied this ethos. Burgess captures this spirit with quiet elegance, weaving one of Cummings’s poems into the story:

But no matter what the world was giving or taking,
E. E. went right on dreaming and making.
For inside, he knew his poems were new and true.

love is a place

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds.

His poems were his way
of saying YES.

YES to the heart
and the roundness of the moon,
to birds, elephants, trees,
and everything he loved.

YES to spring, too
which always brought him back
to childhood, when the first
sign of his favorite season
was the whistling arrival
of the balloon man.

The book’s epigraph is a celebration of this unflinching yes-saying: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

With that courage he catapulted himself into the open arms of those who also hungered for beauty and meaning, and became one of the world’s most beloved poets — a capital-A Artist of his own lowercase making.

Originally featured here.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) may have eventually bequeathed some excellent advice on the secret to learning anything, but the great scientist himself didn’t learn one of the most basic human skills — speaking — until he was nearly four years old. On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (public library) by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky — the talent behind Mark Twain’s irreverent Advice to Little Girls — tells the tale of how an unusual and awkward child blossomed into becoming “the quintessential modern genius” by the sheer virtue of his unrelenting curiosity.

The story begins with Albert’s birth — a beautiful but odd baby boy who turns one and doesn’t say a word, turns two, then three, and nary a word.

Instead, he “just looked around with his big curious eyes,” wondering about the world. His parents worried that there might be something wrong, but loved him unconditionally. And then:

One day, when Albert was sick in bed, his father brought him a compass — a small round case with a magnetic needle inside. No matter which way Albert turned the compass, the needle always pointed north, as if held by an invisible hand. Albert was so amazed his body trembled.

Suddenly, he knew there were mysteries in the world — hidden and silent, unknown and unseen. He wanted, more than anything, to understand those mysteries.

This was that pivotal spark of curiosity that catapulted his young mind into a lifetime of exploring those mysteries. (One can’t help but wonder whether a similar child, today, would have a similar awakening of mind while beholding a smartphone’s fully automated GPS map. But, perhaps, that modern child would be developing a wholly different type of intelligence.)

Young Albert began asking countless questions at home and at school — so much so, that his teachers chastised him for being a disturbance, admonishing the little boy that he would get nowhere in life unless he learned to follow the rules and behave like the other kids. And yet the mysteries of the universe drew Albert deeper into inquiry.

One day, while riding his bicycle, he gazes at the rays of sunlight beaming from the Sun to the Earth and wonders what it would be like to ride on them, transporting himself into that fantasy:

It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.

So he set out to answer them by burying himself in books, reading and discovering the poetry of numbers, that special secret language for decoding the mysteries of the universe.

Once he graduated from college, unable to find a teaching position, he settled for a low-key, quiet government job that allowed him to spend plenty of time with his thoughts and his mathematical explorations, pondering the everyday enigmas of life, until his thoughts coalesced into ideas that made sense of it all — ideas about atoms and motion and space and time. Soon, Albert became an internationally celebrated man of genius.

But with that came the necessary amount of eccentricity — or at least what seemed eccentric from the outside, but is in fact a vital part of any creative mind. Albert, for instance, liked to play his violin when he was having a hard time solving a particularly tricky problem — a perfect way to engage the incubation stage of the creative process, wherein the mind, engulfed in unconscious processing, makes “no effort of a direct nature” in order to later arrive at “sudden illumination.”

Some of his habits, however, were decidedly, and charmingly, quirky: He regularly wandered around town eating an ice-cream cone, and he preferred to wear no socks — not because he tried to be a pseudo-nonconformist, but because he “even chose his clothes for thinking,” often clad in his signature “comfy, old saggy-baggy sweaters and pants.”

Still, everywhere he went, he remained mesmerized by the mysteries of the universe, and the echoes of his thoughts framed much of our modern understanding of the world:

Albert’s ideas helped build spaceships and satellites that travel to the moon and beyond. His thinking helped us understand the universe as no one ever had before.

And yet the central message of this altogether wonderful picture-book is that despite his genius — or, perhaps, precisely because of it — Einstein’s greatest legacy to us isn’t all the answers he bequeathed but all the open questions he left for today’s young minds to grow up pondering. Because, after all, it is “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science and our understanding of life.

The final spread, reminiscent of these illustrated morphologies of Susan Sontag’s favorite things and Ronald Barthes’s likes and dislikes, captures Einstein’s life in eight essentials:

Originally featured here.

ELLA FITZGERALD

From writer Roxanne Orgill and mixed-media artist Sean Qualls comes Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald (public library) — the wonderfully illustrated rags-to-riches story of how The First Lady of Song sang her way from the streets of Yonkers to the cultural hall of fame, with a National Medal of Art, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and thirteen Grammys, including one for Lifetime Achievement.

From how she cranked the phonograph as a little girl to hear the Boswell Sisters’ honey-voices to how she saved her nickels to take the train to Harlem “forty-five minutes and a world away” for an audition to how her early passion for dancing became a lifelong love affair with song, the story captures not only her journey to public stardom but also the private gleam of this beautiful soul’s inner starlight.

For a touch loveliness, interwoven throughout the biographical narrative are snippets of Fitzgerald’s most celebrated songs, extending to kids a warm invitation to discover the wonders of jazz — a modern-day counterpart to Langston Hughes’s vintage treasure The First Book of Jazz.

HENRI MATISSE

At 8PM on the last day of 1869, a little boy named Henri entered the world in a gray textile-mill town in the north of France, in a rundown two-room cottage with a leaky roof. He didn’t have much materially, but he was blessed with perhaps the greatest gift a child could have — an unconditionally loving, relentlessly supportive mother. Like many creative icons whose destinies were shaped by the unflinching encouragement of loved ones, little Henri became the great Henri Matisse thanks to his mother’s staunch support, which began with an unusual ignition spark: At the age of twenty, Henri was hospitalized for appendicitis and his mother brought him a set of art supplies with which to occupy his recovery. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands,” Matisse recounted, “I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.” And that thing flowed from love, too — it was Matisse’s mother who encouraged her son, like E.E. Cummings encouraged all aspiring artists, to disregard the formal rules of art and instead paint from the heart. “My mother loved everything I did,” he asserted. Decades later, thanks to Gertrude Stein’s patronage, which catalyzed his career and sparked his friendship with Picasso, the world too would come to love what Matisse did.

In The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse (public library), writer Patricia MacLachlan and illustrator Hadley Hooper tell the heartening story of young Henri’s childhood and how it shaped his artistic path long before he began painting — how his mother, in an attempt to brighten the drab and sunless days, put bright red rugs on the floors and painted colorful plates to hang on the walls, letting little Henri mix the paints; how his father gave him pigeons, whose iridescent plumage the boy observed with endless fascination; how the beautiful silks woven by the townspeople beguiled him with their bright patterns.

With a gentle sidewise gleam, the story offers a nuanced answer to the eternal nature-versus-nurture question of whether genius is born or made. Embedded in it is a wonderful testament to the idea that attentive presence rather than praise is the key to great parenting, especially when it comes to nurturing young talent. (Indeed, such maternal presence is what legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom provided for many of the young authors and artists — including, most notably, Maurice Sendak — whom she nurtured over the course of her reign as the twentieth century’s greatest patron saint of children’s books.)

For a delightful touch of empathy via a twist of perspective, MacLachlan places the reader in little Henri’s shoes:

If you were a boy named Henri Matisse who lived in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were gray

And the days were cold

And you wanted color and light

And sun,

And your mother, to brighten your days,

Painted plates to hang on the walls

With pictures of meadows and trees,

Rivers and birds,

And she let you mix the colors of paint…

… And you raised Pigeons

Watching their sharp eyes
And red feet,

And their colors that changed with the light
As they moved…

… Would it be a surprise that you became
A fine painter who painted
Light
and
Movement

And the iridescence of birds?

Beneath the biographical particulars of the story itself is MacLachlan’s larger inquiry into the enduring question of whether artists draw what they see or what they feel and remember — Matisse’s life, she writes in the afterword, attests to the fact that the two are inextricably entwined: “He painted his feelings and he painted his childhood.”

Hooper’s illustrations are themselves a masterwork of artistry, scholarship, and creative ingenuity. She spent considerable time studying Matisse’s sensibility and colors in reproductions of his drawings, cutouts, and paintings, then researched textile patterns from the era of his childhood and even used Google Maps to picture the actual streets that he walked as a little boy. The result is not imitation but dimensional celebration. Hooper reflects on the unusual and inventive technique she chose:

I decided to try relief printing, which forced me to simplify my shapes and allowed me to focus on the color and composition. I cut the characters and backgrounds out of stiff foam and cardboard, inked them up, made prints, and scanned the results into Photoshop. The approach felt right.

Originally featured here.

MARIE CURIE

Marie Curie (November 7, 1867–July 4, 1934) is one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science and a tireless champion of curiosity and wonder. A pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, she was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences: chemistry and physics. In Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (public library), artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Curie through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and love. It’s a turbulent story — a passionate romance with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — under which lie poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

Most remarkable of all, however, is the thoughtfulness with which Redniss tailored her medium to her message, turning the book into a work of art in and of itself, every detail meticulously moulded to fit the essence of the narrative.

To stay true to Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in an early-20th-century image printing process called cyanotype, critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep blue color. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

See more, including a behind-the-scenes look at Redniss’s impressive creative process, here.

HARVEY MILK

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his indispensable 1963 letter from Birmingham City Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” One rainy January Sunday fifteen years later, long before Edie Windsor catalyzed the triumph of marriage equality, Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930–November 27, 1978) was sworn into office on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall and became the first openly gay elected city official in America. His assassination eleven months later devastated millions and rendered him modernity’s great secular martyr for love. His tenure, however tragically brief, forever changed the landscape of civil rights.

In The Harvey Milk Story (public library) — a wonderful addition to the best LGBT children’s books — writer Kari Krakow and artist David Gardner tell the heartening and heartbreaking story of how a little boy with big ears grew up to hear the cry for social justice and how he answered it with a groundbreaking clarion call for equality in the kingdom of love.

Harvey was Born the second child of a middle-class Jewish family in upstate New York. He was a boy at once brimming with joy, frequently entertaining the family by conducting an invisible orchestra in the living room, and full of deep sensitivity to the suffering of others.

He was deeply moved when his mother, Minnie, told him the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews who courageously defended themselves even as the Nazis outnumbered them — a story that imprinted him with a profound empathy for the oppressed even before he had a clear sense that he would grow up to be one of them.

Although Harvey was athletic and popular in school, he anguished under the burden of a deep wistfulness — by the time he was fourteen, he knew he was gay, but like many queer people of his time, he kept this centerpiece of identity a closely guarded secret for a great many years to come.

He came of age, after all, in an era when queer couples celebrated their love only in private and when geniuses as vital to humanity as computing pioneer Alan Turing were driven to suicide after being criminally prosecuted by the government for being gay.

After graduating from college, Harvey joined the Navy, becoming an expert deep-sea diver and ascending through the ranks until he came to head a submarine rescue vessel.

When he went to his bother Robert’s wedding, he looked so handsome in his navy uniform that his family and friends all wondered when he would settle down and get married to the “right girl.”

But instead, like the hero of the heartwarming King & King fairy tale, Harvey fell in love and settled down with the right boy, a young man named Joe.

They moved together to a little town in New York, where Harvey became a high school math and science teacher. But after six years, Harvey and Joe separated — as Krakow points out, the pressure to hide their relationship in fear of losing their jobs put an undue strain on their love. Weary of hiding his identity, Harvey moved to San Francisco’s gay-friendly Castro neighborhood — where queer couples walked down the street holding hands like any other couple would in any other city — and he fell in love again.

Together with Scott, his new partner, Harvey opened a small store called Castro Camera, which soon turned into a community center as Harvey became a one-man Craigslist, counseling neighbors on everything from finding apartments to applying for jobs.

The more Harvey listened to the people, the more he sensed that they needed a leader — not only an informal one, but one who fought on their behalf in the eyes of the law, standing up to the police who harassed them constantly and fighting against the daily indignities of discrimination, from which the political system failed to protect them. Harvey saw only one course of action — to apply for office. His customers and the community embraced his campaign and volunteered their time.

Eleven-year-old Medora Payne came every day after school to lick envelopes and hand out brochures for Harvey. She organized a fundraiser at her school, earning $39.28 for his campaign.

Bigots believed that it wasn’t right or even possible for an openly gay candidate to be elected. Indeed, Harvey lost three consecutive election cycles between 1973 and 1976, but didn’t lose faith. He remained emboldened by the unflinching conviction that the rights of minorities — not only the LGBT community, but also African Americans, Asian Americans, senior citizens, and the disabled — weren’t adequately represented in and protected by the government. His people loved him for the dedication.

At last, in 1977, he was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors and sworn into office the following January as Supervisor Milk. He immediately set out to champion greater quality of life for the people of the city — a kind of Robert Moses without the evil genius, bolstering the city’s parks, schools, and police protection. Eventually, he introduced a pioneering gay bill of rights. After ten of the city’s eleven supervisors voted for it, Mayor George Moscone signed it into law, proclaiming with gusto as Milk stood by his side:

I don’t do this enough, taking swift and unambiguous action on a substantial move for civil rights.

It was a historic moment, marked by a moving speech Milk made in front of City Hall, calling for a gay rights march in Washington.

But as the city celebrated, one man sat consumed with hateful bigotry and personal jealousy — Dan White, the only Supervisor who hadn’t voted for Milk’s bill and who had resigned from office in a petty act of protest, only to ask for his job back ten days later. Sensing his ill will, Mayor Moscone had refused to hire him back.

On a gloomy November morning, White crept into City Hall through a basement window, with a loaded gun. He barged into Moscone’s office and shot the mayor, promptly reloading his gun and heading down the hall to Harvey Milk’s office. Five shots echoed through the marble building.

Harvey Milk was dead.

People everywhere were stunned by the news of the double assassination. They left their homes, jobs and schools to mourn the loss of these two great leaders. Crowds began forming in front of City Hall. By nightfall thousands filled the mile-long street and ran from the Castro to City Hall. They stood in silence, carrying candles. That night the people of San Francisco wept.

Harvey Milk was gone, but his legacy only gained momentum in the fight for civil rights. The following October, a hundred thousand people brought his dream to life and took to the streets of Washington in the capital’s first-ever Gay Pride March, many carrying portraits of the slain San Francisco hero.

Thirty-four years later, one brave woman picked up where he left off and made possible a dream even Milk didn’t dare to dream — one which the president himself proclaimed “a victory for American democracy,” the triumphant road to which Milk had paved.

Originally featured here.

MARIA MERIAN

Inspired children’s books about science are woefully rare in our culture — as rare, perhaps, as are homages to pioneering female scientists and celebrations of the intersection of art and science. The confluence of these three rarities is what makes Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (public library) — a young-readers counterpart to Taschen’s lavish volume Maria Sibylla Merian: Insects of Surinam — so wonderful. Writer Margarita Engle and artist Julie Paschkis tell the story of 17th-century German naturalist and illustrator Maria Merian, whose studies of butterfly metamorphosis are among the most important contributions to the field of entomology in the history of science and forever transformed natural history illustration.

There are many ennobling and empowering threads to the story of Merian’s life — how she began studying insects as a young girl, two centuries before the dawn of science education for women; how she trained tirelessly in art, then brought those skills to illuminating science, all while raising her daughters; how she traveled to South Africa with her young daughter in an era when women had practically no agency of mobility; how she continued to work even after a stroke left her paralyzed.

But perhaps most pause-giving of all is the reminder of just how much superstition early scientists had to overcome in the service of simple truth: In Merian’s time, people considered insects evil and found the “supernatural” process of metamorphosis particularly ominous, believing it was witchcraft that transformed the insect from one state to another.

By meticulous and attentive observation, Merian proved that the process was very much a natural one, and beautifully so. She was only thirteen. Her groundbreaking work was a prescient testament to Richard Feynman’s famous assertion that science only adds to the mystery and the awe of the natural world.

When people understand the life cycles of creatures that change forms, they will stop calling small animals evil. They will learn, as I have, by seeing a wingless caterpillar turn into a flying summer bird.

On her site, Paschkis shares her research process and offers a fascinating history of insect illustration.

Originally featured here.

ANTOINE DE SAINT EXUPÉRY

“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) — 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.

Originally featured here.

IBN SINA

Humanity’s millennia-old quest to understand the human body is strewn with medical history milestones, but few individual figures merit as much credit as Persian prodigy-turned-polymath Ibn Sina (c. 980 CE–1037 AD), commonly known in the West as Avicenna — one of the most influential thinkers in our civilization’s unfolding story. He authored 450 known works spanning physics, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, logic, poetry, and medicine, including the seminal encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine, which forever changed our understanding of the human body and its inner workings. This masterwork of science and philosophy — or metaphysics, as it was then called — remained in use as a centerpiece of medieval medical education until six hundred years after Ibn Sina’s death.

His story comes to life in The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina (public library) by Lebanese writer Fatima Sharafeddine, Iran-based Iraqi illustrator Intelaq Mohammed Ali, and Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books — a fine addition to the loveliest children’s books celebrating science.

In stunning illustrations reminiscent of ancient Islamic manuscript paintings, this lyrical first-person biography traces Ibn Sina’s life from his childhood as a voracious reader to his numerous scientific discoveries to his lifelong project of advancing the art of healing.

A universal celebration of curiosity and the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge, the story is doubly delightful for adding a sorely needed touch of diversity to the homogenous landscape of both science history and contemporary children’s books — here are two Middle Eastern women, telling the story of a pioneering scientist from the Islamic Golden Age.

Originally featured here.

FRIDA KAHLO

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) was a woman of vibrantly tenacious spirit who overcame an unfair share of adversity to become one of humanity’s most remarkable artists and a wholehearted human being out of whom poured passionate love letters and compassionate friend-letters.

The polio she contracted as a child left her right leg underdeveloped — an imperfection she’d later come to disguise with her famous colorful skirts. As a teenager, having just become one of only thirty-five female students at Mexico’s prestigious Preparatoria school, Kahlo was in a serious traffic accident that sent an iron rod through her stomach and uterus. She spent three months in a full-body cast and even though the doctors didn’t believe it possible, she willed her way to walking again. Although the remainder of her life was strewn with relapses of extreme pain, frequent hospital visits, and more than thirty operations, that initial recovery period was a crucial part of her creative journey.

True to Roald Dahl’s conviction that illness emboldens creativity, Kahlo made her first strides in painting while bedridden, as a way of occupying herself, painting mostly her own image. Today, she remains best-known for her vibrant self-portraits, which comprise more than a third of her paintings, blending motifs from traditional Mexican art with a surrealist aesthetic. Above all, she became a testament to the notion that we can transcend external limitations to define our scope of possibility.

Kahlo’s singular spirit and story spring to life in the immeasurably wonderful Viva Frida (public library) by writer/illustrator Yuyi Morales and photographer Tim O’Meara.

In simple, lyrical words and enchanting photo-illustrations, this dreamlike bilingual beauty tells the story of an uncommon Alice in a luminous Wonderland of her own making.

Morales, who painstakingly handcrafted all the figurines and props and staged each vignette, writes in the afterword:

When I think of Frida Kahlo, I think of orgullo, pride. Growing up in Mexico, I wanted to know more about this woman with her mustache and unibrow. Who was this artist who had unapologetically filled her paintings with old and new symbols of Mexican culture in order to tell her own story?

I wasn’t always so taken by Frida. When I was younger, I often found her paintings tortuous and difficult to understand. The more I learned about Frida’s life, the more her paintings began to take on new light for me. I finally saw that what had terrified me about Frida’s images was actually her way of expressing the things she felt, feared, and wanted.

[…]

Her work was proud and unafraid and introduced the world to a side of Mexican culture that had been hidden from view.

As a child, while learning to draw, I would often study my own reflection in the mirror and think about Frida. Did she know how many artists she influenced with her courage and her ability to overcome her own limitations?

See more, including a behind-the-scenes look at Morales’s meticulous craftsmanship and creative process, here.

ERNEST SHACKLETON

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

JULIA CHILD

Legendary chef Julia Child (August 15, 1912–August 13, 2004) not only revolutionized the world of cookbooks but was also a remarkable beacon of entrepreneurship and perseverance more than a decade before women started raising their voices in the media world. Her unrelenting spirit and generous heart cast her as one of modern history’s most timeless role models, and that’s precisely what writer and illustrator Jessie Hartland celebrates in the endlessly wonderful Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child (public library) — a heartening illustrated biography of the beloved chef, intended to enchant young readers with her story but certain to delight all of us. Hartland’s vibrant drawings — somewhere between Maira Kalman, Wendy MacNaughton, and Vladimir Radunsky — exude the very charisma that made Childs an icon, and infuse her legacy with fresh joy.

Amidst the beautiful illustrations are practical glimpses of Child’s culinary tricks and the context of her recipes:

At the end of the story, as at the end of her life, Child emerges not only as a masterful cook but also as a fierce entrepreneur, a humble human, and restlessly creative soul.

Originally featured here.

HENRI ROUSSEAU

“People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her fantastic manifesto for the creative life, one of the best books of the year, “because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized.” Few artists in history have lived through this street combat with more dignity and resilience of spirit than French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (May 21, 1844–September 2, 1910). Long before history came to celebrate him as one of the greatest artists of his era, long before he was honored by major retrospectives by such iconic institutions as the MoMA and the Tate Museum, long before Sylvia Plath began weaving homages to him into her poetry, he spent a lifetime being not merely dismissed but ridiculed. And yet Rousseau — who was born into poverty, began working alongside his plumber father as a young boy, still worked as a toll collector by the age of forty, and was entirely self-taught in painting — withstood the unending barrage of harsh criticism with which his art was met during his entire life, and continued to paint from a deep place of creative conviction, with an irrepressible impulse to make art anyway.

In The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (public library, writer Michelle Markel and illustrator Amanda Hall tell an emboldening real-life story, and a stunningly illustrated one, of remarkable resilience and optimism in the face of public criticism; of cultivating a center so solid and a creative vision so unflinching that no outside attack can demolish it and obstruct its transmutation into greatness; of embodying Ray Bradbury’s capacity for weathering the storm of rejection and Picasso’s conviction about never compromise in one’s art.

Henri Rousseau wants to be an artist.
Not a single person has ever told him he is talented.
He’s a toll collector.
He’s forty years old.

But he buys some canvas, paint, and brushes, and starts painting anyway.

Rousseau’s impulse for art sprang from his deep love of nature — a manifestation of the very thing that seventeen-year-old Virginia Woolf intuited when she wrote in her diary that the arts “imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see”.

Unable to afford art lessons, Rousseau educated himself by going to the Louvre to study the paintings of his favorite artists and examining photographs, magazines, and catalogs to learn about the anatomy of the human body.

At the age of forty-one, he showed his work as part of a big art exhibition, but his art — vibrant, flat, seemingly childish — was met, as Markel writes, with “only mean things.” Even so, Rousseau saved the reviews and pasted them into his scrapbook.

With his voracious appetite for inspiration, Rousseau visited the World’s Fair, where he was especially enchanted by the exhibits of exotic lands. “They remind him of adventure stories he loved when he was a boy,” Markel writes. The vivid images haunted him for days, until he finally turned to the easel to exorcise his restless imagination.

He holds his paintbrush to the canvas. A tiger crawls out. Lightning strikes, and wind whips the jungle grass.

Sometimes Henri is so startled by what he paints that he has to open the window to let in some air.

But for all his earnest creative exuberance, he is met with derision.

Every year Henri goes back to the art exhibition to show new paintings. He fusses over the canvases and retouches them until the last minute.

And every year the art experts make fun of him. They say it looks like he closed his eyes and painted with his feet.

And yet Rousseau manages to embody Georgia O’Keeffe’s credo that “whether you succeed or not is irrelevant… making your unknown known is the important thing” — he continues to paint, to study nature, and to rejoice in the process itself.

One night, he dreams up a painting of which he is especially proud, depicting a lion looking over a sleeping gypsy with friendly curiosity.

Once again he takes his work to the art show. This time, perhaps, he’ll please the experts. His pulse races.

The experts say he paints like a child. “If you want to have a good laugh,” one of them writes, “go see the paintings by Henri Rousseau.”

By now Henry is used to the nasty critics. He knows his shapes are simpler and flatter than everyone else’s, but he thinks that makes them lovely.

Everything he earns by giving music lessons, he spends on art supplies. But he lives by Thoreau’s definition of success.

His home is a shabby little studio, where one pot of stew must last the whole week. But every morning he wakes up and smiles at his pictures.

At sixty-one, Rousseau is still living in poverty, but happily paints his jubilant junglescapes. He continues to hope for critical acclaim and continues to be denied it, cruelly, by the “experts,” one of whom even says that “only cavemen would be impressed by his art.”

At last, Rousseau, already an old man, gets a break — but the recognition comes from a new generation of younger artists, who befriend him and come to admire his work. More than his talent and his stomach for criticism, however, one comes to admire his immensely kind and generous heart.

Whenever Henri has money to spare, and stages a concert in his little studio, all the artists come. Along with the grocer, locksmith, and other folks from the neighborhood, they listen to Henri’s students and friends play their musical instruments. Henri gives the shiniest, reddest apples to the children.

Eventually, even Picasso pays heed and throws old Henri a banquet, at which “the old man sits upon a makeshift throne” playing his violin as people dance and celebrate around him, his heart floating “like a hot-air balloon above the fields.”

At the end of his life, Rousseau paints his masterwork “The Dream” and finally becomes successful by a public standard as the critics, at last, grant him acclaim. But the beautiful irony and the ennobling message of the story is that he was successful all along, for he had found his purpose — a feat with which even Van Gogh struggled for years — and filled each day with the invigorating joy of making his unknown known.

A hundred years later, the flowers still blossom, the monkeys still frolic, and the snakes keep slithering through Henri’s hot jungles. His paintings now hang in museums all over the world. And do you think experts call them “foolish,” “clumsy,” or “monstrous”? Mais non! They call them works of art.

By an old man,
by a onetime toll collector,
by one of the most gifted self-taught artists in history:
Henri Rousseau

Originally featured here.

* * *

For a different, more grownup celebration of notable lives, complement these children’s-books treasures with the graphic-novel biographies of Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dalí, Karl Marx, Robert Moses, Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Francis Bacon, Richard Feynman, Steve Jobs, and Hunter S. Thompson.

BP

Consolation for Life’s Darkest Hours: 7 Unusual and Wonderful Books that Help Children Grieve and Make Sense of Death

From Japanese pop-up magic to Scandinavian storytelling to Maurice Sendak, a gentle primer on the messiness of mourning and the many faces and phases of grief.

UPDATE: Also see three more recent crown jewels of the genre: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, and Duck, Death and the Tulip.

 data-recalc-dims=“If you are protected from dark things,” Neil Gaiman said in the context of his fantastic recent adaptation of the Brothers Grimm, “then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.” Maurice Sendak was equally adamant about not shielding young minds from the dark. Tolkien believed that there is no such thing as “writing for children” and E.B. White admonished that kids shouldn’t be written down to but written up to. In her wise reflection on the difference between myth and deception, Margaret Mead asserted that “children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know … that this is a truth of a different kind.”

And yet we hardly tell children — nor ourselves — those truths. Half a century after children’s literature patron saint Ursula Nordstrom lamented that “some mediocre ladies in influential positions are actually embarrassed by an unusual book,” most books for young readers still struggle to validate children’s darker emotions and make room for difficult, complex, yet inescapable experiences like loss, loneliness, and uncertainty.

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UPDATE: For three more recent additions, see Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Danish duo Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi, The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book , illustrated by the great Quentin Blake.

Here are some proudly unusual books addressing these all too common yet commonly shirked emotional realities.

1. MY FATHER’S ARMS ARE A BOAT

For more than a decade, Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion — an independent one-woman children’s book powerhouse — has been churning out some of the bravest and most sensitive picture-books of our time, championing foreign writers and artists who create layered universes of experience outside the unimaginative bounds of the pantheon. Among them is My Father’s Arms Are a Boat (public library) by writer Stein Erik Lunde and illustrator Øyvind Torseter (of The Hole fame), translated by Kari Dickson.

This tender Norwegian gem tells the story of an anxious young boy who climbs into his father’s arms seeking comfort on a cold sleepless night. The two step outside into the winter wonderland as the boy asks questions about the red birds in the spruce tree to be cut down the next morning, about the fox out hunting, about why his mother will never wake up again. With his warm and comforting answers, the father watches his son make sense of this strange world of ours, where love and loss go hand in hand.

Above all, it is story about the quiet way in which boundless love and unconditional assurance can embolden even the heaviest of spirits to rise from the sinkhole of anxiety and anguish.

Lunde, who also writes lyrics and has translated Bob Dylan into Norwegian, is a masterful storyteller who unfolds incredible richness in few words. Meanwhile, Torseter’s exquisite 2D/3D style combining illustration and paper sculpture, reminiscent of Soyeon Kim’s wonderful You Are Stardust, envelops the story in a sheath of delicate whimsy.

2. THE FLAT RABBIT

When death comes and brings grief with it, as Joan Didion memorably put it, it’s “nothing like we expect it to be.” What we need isn’t so much protection from that engulfing darkness 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) — 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.”

The Flat Rabbit was one of the best children’s books of 2014.

3. DAVEY MCGRAVY

If grief is so Sisyphean a struggle even for grownups, how are tiny humans to handle a weight so monumental once it presses down? Poet David Mason offers an uncommonly comforting answer in Davey McGravy (public library) — a lyrical litany of loss for children of all ages. Across a series of poems, accompanied by early-Sendakesque etchings by artist Grant Silverstein, we meet a little boy named Davey McGravy living in the tall-treed forest with his father and brothers. A few tender verses in, we realize that Davey is caught in the mire of mourning his mother.

Without invalidating the deep melancholy that has set in, Mason makes room for the mystery of life and death, inviting in the miraculous immortality of love. With great gentleness, he reminds us that whenever we grieve for someone we love, we grieve for our entire world, for the entire world; that whenever one grieves, the whole world grieves.

THE KITCHEN

He walked to where his father stood
and hugged him by a leg
and wept like the babe he used to be
in the green house by the lake

He wept for the giants in the woods
for the otter that swam in the waves.
He wept for his mother in the fog
so far away.

And then he felt a hand,
a big hand in his hair.
“It’s Davey McGravy,” his father said.
“I’m glad you’re here.”

“Davey McGravy,” he said again,
“How’s that for a brand new name?
Davey McGravy. Not so bad.
I like a name that rhymes.”

And there was his father on his knees
holding our boy in his arms.
And Davey McGravy felt the scratch
of whiskers and felt warm.

“Nobody else has a name like that.
It’s all your own.
Davey McGravy. Davey McGravy.
You could sing it in a song.

And then his father kissed him,
ruffled his hair and said,
“Supper time, Davey McGravy.
Then it’s time for bed.”

TO LOVE

May I call you Love?

Very well, then, you are Love,
and this is a tale about a boy
named Davey.

Never mind the rest of his name.
You need only know that he was born
in the land of rain
and the tallest of tall trees —

great shaggy cedars like the boots
of giants covered in green,
and where the giants had gone
no one could ever tell.

Only their boots remained
on the wet green grass,
surrounded by ferns on the shore
of a long, cold, windy lake.

That’s where Davey was born, Love.
That’s where you must imagine him,
a wee squall of tears and swaddling,
a babe, as you were too a babe,

with parents and the whole canoe,
the whole catastrophe
we call a family —
the human zoo.

Only a rare poet can merge the reverence of Thoreau with the irreverence of Zorba the Greek to create something wholly unlike anything else — and that is what Mason accomplishes in Davey McGravy.

4. WE ARE ALL IN THE DUMPS WITH JACK AND GUY

The 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (public library), which I’ve covered extensively here, is the darkest yet most hopeful book Maurice Sendak ever created, as well as one of his most personal. It’s an unusual fusion of two traditional Mother Goose nursery rhymes — “In the Dumps” and “Jack and Gye” — reimagined and interpreted by Sendak’s singular sensibility, and permeated by many layers of cultural and personal subtext.

On a most basic level, the story follows a famished black baby, part of a clan of homeless children dressed in newspaper and living in boxes, kidnapped by a gang of giant rats. Jack and Guy, who are strolling nearby and first brush the homeless kids off, witness the kidnapping and set out to rescue the boy. But the rats challenge them to a rigged game of bridge, with the child as the prize. After a series of challenges that play out across a number of scary scenes, Jack and Guy emerge victorious and save the boy with the help of the omniscient Moon and a mighty white cat that chases the rats away.

Created at the piercing pinnacle of the AIDS plague and amid an epidemic of homelessness, it is a highly symbolic, sensitive tale that reads almost like a cry for mercy, for light, for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of incomprehensible heartbreak and grimness. It is, above all, a living monument to hope — one built not on the denial of hopelessness but on its delicate demolition.

But the book’s true magic lies in its integration of Sendak’s many identities — the son of Holocaust survivors, a gay man witnessing the devastation of AIDS, a deft juggler of darkness and light.

Jack and Guy appear like a gay couple, and their triumph in rescuing the child resembles an adoption, two decades before that was an acceptable subject for a children’s book. “And we’ll bring him up / As other folk do,” the final pages read — and, once again, a double meaning reveals itself as two characters are depicted with wings on their backs, lifting off into the sky, lending the phrase “we’ll bring him up” an aura of salvation. In the end, the three curl up as a makeshift family amidst a world that is still vastly imperfect but full of love.

We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are thumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Without walls

Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do

In many ways, this is Sendak’s most important and most personal book. In fact, Sendak would resurrect the characters of Jack and Guy two decades later in his breathtaking final book, a posthumously published love letter to the world and to his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. Jack and Guy, according to playwright Tony Kushner, a dear friend of Sendak’s, represented the two most important people in the beloved illustrator’s life — Jack was his real-life brother Jack, whose death devastated Sendak, and Guy was Eugene, the love of Sendak’s life, who survived him after half a century of what would have been given the legal dignity of a marriage had Sendak lived to see the dawn of marriage equality. (Sendak died thirteen months before the defeat of DOMA.)

All throughout, the book emanates Sendak’s greatest lifelong influence — like the verses and drawings of William Blake, Sendak’s visual poetry in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is deeply concerned with the human spirit and, especially, with the plight of children. See more of it here.

5. LOVE IS FOREVER

In Love is Forever (public library), writer Casey Rislov, who holds a master’s degree in elementary education and has an intense interest in special needs, and artist Rachel Balsaits unpack the complexities of loss with elegant simplicity.

The sweet verses and tender illustrations tell the story of Little Owl, who loves her Grandfather Owl very much. With the help of her parents and baby brother, Little Owl processes the profound sadness over her grandfather’s death by learning to keep his love alive forever.

Our love is a gift, a treasure to hold,
a story in our hearts forevermore.

This gift of love we have been given
is one that is pure, constant and sure.

The final pages feature a short guide for parents and teachers to the basic psychological phenomena that the mourner experiences and how to address those in children.

6. NICOLAS

Nicolas (public library), the debut of Quebecois cartoonist Pascal Girard, is a kind of children’s book for grownups chronicling the many faces and phases of grief in a series of autobiographical sketches that unfold over the decades since the childhood death of Girard’s younger brother, Nicolas. With great subtlety, honesty, and unsentimental sensitivity, he explores the multitude of complex emotions — sadness, numbness, restlessness, anxiety, even boredom, in Kierkegaard’s sense of existential emptiness — and their disorienting nonlinear flow.

From the confusing first days after Nicolas’s death from lactic acidosis in 1990, to Girard’s teenage years awkwardly telling kids in high school about his loss, to life as an adult paralyzed with dread over having a child of his own on account of everything that might go wrong, this moving visual narrative is at once utterly harrowing and tenaciously hopeful, told with gentle humor and great humanity.

Woven throughout the deeply personal story are the common threads of mourning, universal to the human experience — how we cling to the illusion that understanding the details of death would make processing its absoluteness easier, how we channel our restlessness into an impulse to do something (there is Girard as a boy, fundraising for lactic acidosis research in his neighborhood; there he is as a teenager, numbing the unprocessed grief with drugs), how bearing witness to the mourning of others rekindles our own but also makes more deeply empathetic (Nicolas, one realizes midway through the book, died exactly eleven years before the 9/11 attacks, the news of which resurfaces Girard’s grief as he is bowled over with empathy for the tragedy of others), and most of all how “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses.”

What emerges is the elegant sidewise assurance that while grief never fully leaves us, we can be okay — more than that, in the words of Rilke, we can arrive at the difficult but transformative understanding that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”

7. LITTLE TREE

Pop-up books have a singular magic, but even the pioneering vintage “interactive” picture-books of Italian graphic designer Bruno Munari can’t compare to the beauty, subtlety, and exquisite elegance of those by Japanese graphic designer and book artist Katsumi Komagata.

When his daughter was born in 1990, Komagata expanded his graphic design studio, One Stroke, into publishing and began making extraordinary picture-books — including some particularly thoughtful and beguiling masterpieces for children with disabilities, from tactile pop-up gems to sign-language stories.

In 2008, Komagata released Little Tree (public library) — a most unusual and immeasurably wonderful story tracing the life-cycle of a single tree as it explores, with great subtlety and sensitivity, deeper themes of impermanence and the cycle of all life.

I received this delicate treasure as a gift from a dear friend, who had met Komagata at the Guadalajara International Book Fair. The book, she said, was inspired by a young child struggling with making sense of life and death after the loss of a beloved father, one of Komagata’s own dear friends.

On each spread of this whimsical trilingual story — told in Japanese, French, and English — a different stage of the tree’s growth unfolds, beginning with the tiny promise of a seedling poking through the snow.

No one notices such a small presence … be still here in the snow

Slowly, it grows into the recognizable shape of a tree and makes its way through the season — shy leaves greet the world in spring, a lush crown bathes in summer’s sunshine and turns a warm yellow, then a glowing red, as autumn embraces it.

A family of birds packs its nest, preparing to fly away for the winter.

When winter descends — that philosophical staple of intelligent children’s books — the mood darkens.

Clouds cover the sky
The wind blows hard, almost breaking the branches
Sheets of rain fill the darkness … be still here in the dark

But spring eventually returns, and the whole cycle repeats and repeats, until the tree grows “tall enough to look around when at the beginning it was too small and everything was big.”

Indeed, the book is very much a study in perspective — the existential through the spatial — as the tree’s height increases and its shadow shifts. With his gentle genius, Komagata casts the shadows of all peripheral characters and objects — a street lamp, a man walking his dog, a bird — not from the perspective of the reader but from that of the tree, appearing upside-down on the page. (To capture Komagata’s intended vignettes, I photographed the book from the top of the page facing down, following the tree’s viewpoint.)

And so the cycle of life continues — a new crow takes the nest built by last year’s bird, and as it observes these rhythms, the tree’s “point of view keeps changing.”

The man who lost a friend lays a flower down
It can’t be helped … be still here

But as wistful as the story is, the book is ultimately optimistic — a beautiful allegory for the same notion found in Rilke’s philosophy of befriending death in order to live more fully. At the end, the seed spurs a new turn of the cycle of life, going back to the beginning.

The seed was carried somewhere unknown
Surely it will exist for someone even though no one notices such a small presence at the beginning

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For a grownup counterpart, see Meghan O’Rourke’s moving memoir of learning to live with loss, Anne Lamott on grief and gratitude, Atul Gawande’s indispensable Being Mortal, and Joanna Macy on how Rilke can help us befriend our mortality.

BP

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