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Inside the Rainbow: Gorgeous Vintage Russian Children’s Book Illustrations from the 1920s-1930s

“A lovely primary-colored geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun.”

Since the golden age of children’s literature in mid-century America and Europe, we’ve seen children’s books used for purveying everything from philosophy to propaganda to science. But two decades before this Western surge of design innovation and conceptual experimentation in children’s books, a thriving scene of literature and art for young readers was taking root on the other side of the soon-to-be Iron Curtain. Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times (public library), edited by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, collects the most vibrant masterpieces of Russian children’s literature from the short but pivotal period between 1920 and 1935 — a time-capsule of the ambitious aesthetic and imaginative ideology that burned bright for a few brief moments before the onset of communism cast down its uniform grayness.

Philip Pullman, who knows a thing or two about the permeating power of children’s storytelling, writes in the foreword:

The world of Russian children’s illustrated books in the first twenty years or so of Soviet rule is almost incomparably rich. What were they doing, these commissars and party secretaries, to allow this wonderland of modern art to grow under their very noses? I expect the rule that applies to children’s books was just as deeply interiorized in the Soviet Union as it has been in the rest of the world: they don’t matter. They can be ignored. They’re not serious.

(Coincidentally, Neil Gaiman recently lamented that “there is [no] such a thing as a bad book for children. … Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading.”)

Pullman contrasts the distinctive, indigenous style of this Russian book art with its Western counterparts from the same era:

The kind of modern art that lives so vigorously and joyously in these pages is, of course, one with a Russian ancestry. There is no Cubism here … no Post-Impressionism … no Dada. What there is is Constructivism, and plenty of it, and of its metaphysical parent, Suprematism. Basic geometrical shapes, the square, the circle, the rectangle, are everywhere; flat primary colors dominate.

And yet, conceptually, many of these illustrations find — and often presage — certain Western counterparts. Take, for instance, these spreads from Boris Ermolenko’s 1930 visual taxonomy of occupations, Special Clothing, which call to mind beloved French illustrator Blebolex’s book People, one of the best children’s books of 2011:

Among the visual ephemera are also some instructional manuals on child-rearing and child-care, like this list of tips on upbringing found in the reception rooms of Crèches and the Museums of Mother and Child — a curious mix of practical common sense, questionable advice, and timeless, remarkably timely wisdom:


It is very hard to give due education to a single child, for a child needs the company of others his own age. Never take a child to motion pictures or the theatre.

Do not carry a child in your arms for any length of time; he must move.

Do not help a child who is in a difficult situation unless it be dangerous; he must learn to care for himself. If you are ill, upset or unhappy, do not let the child feel it.

Never whip, kick, or spit on a child.

Parents and elders should agree on what is allowed to and forbidden to children. It is bad to have one parent allow what the other forbids

A well-balanced routine makes a child grow healthy and accustoms him to organized social life.

Teach a child to work for others.

Understand and take part in a child’s happiness and sorrow, and he will come to you when he needs you. Do not disturb a child while he plays, or he will disturb you while you work.

If a child is annoyed with a toy, take it away and give it to him after he has forgotten his grievance.

Be careful of any trifle which a child considers a toy, even though it may only be a piece of wood or a stone.

Not everything you see in the toyshop is a good toy. Before buying a toy, see if you have anything in the house which will serve the same purpose.

Never forbid a child to play with other healthy children.

Do not tell stories to a child before he goes to sleep, for you will disturb him with new impressions.

Do not awaken a child without need when he should be sleeping.

Fresh air is as necessary in a child’s room in winter as in summer.

A child should be given a chance to urinate before and after sleeping.

Do not allow a child to stay up later than eight o’clock in the evening.

Sleep for a child under three years of age is as necessary during the day as during the night.

Each child must sleep in an individual bed; and each bed must consist of a hair mattress, an oilcloth, a pillow, blankets and sheets.

A child must spend between three and four hours outdoors each day, and, if he is old enough, he should walk during that time.

Some of the most charming pieces explore the burgeoning world of transportation:

Then there are the sheer, unmediated delights, such as Kornei Chukovsky’s playful 1927 poetry book The Telephone.

It begins:

Ting-a-ling-a-ling… A telephone ring! “Hallo! Hallo!”
“Who are you?” “Jumbo Joe,
“I live at the zoo!” “What can I do?” “Send me some jam For my little Sam.” “Do you want a lot?” “A five-ton pot,
And send me some cake — The poor little boy
Has swallowed a toy
And his tummy will ache If he gets no cake.”
“How many tons of cake will you take?” “Only a score.
He won’t be able to eat any more —
My little Sam is only four!”
And after a while
A crocodile rang from the Nile:
“I will be ever so jolly
If you send us a pile
Of rubber galoshes —
The kind that one washes —
For me and my wife and for Molly!”
“You’re talking too fast! Why, the week before last I posted ten pair
Of galoshes by air.”
“Now, doctor, be steady!
We’ve eaten already
The pile that you posted!
We ate them all roasted,
And the dish it was simply delicious, So everyone wishes
You would send to the Nile
A still bigger pile
That would do for a dozen more dishes.”

What’s most striking about these vibrant, colorful, exuberant images and verses, however, is their stark contrast to the cultural context in which they were born — alongside them we find grim photographs of desolate little faces in shabby schoolrooms, the faces of a generation that would be soon engulfed by communism’s dark descend. And yet these children’s books, Pullman marvels, emanate “a lovely primary-colored geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun” — a light at once heartening as a glimmer of generational hope and bittersweet against the historical backdrop of the oppressive regime that would eventually extinguish it as communism sought to purge the collective conscience of whimsy and imaginative sentimentality.

Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times is an absolute treasure trove, both as a portable museum of magnificent graphic design and as a time-capsule of a pivotal moment in world history. Complement it with these vintage Soviet art and propaganda posters from the same era.


The Prescient Poem 10-Year-Old Anne Frank Penned in Her Schoolmate’s Friendship Book


Long before Facebook, young people exchanged musings on life in friendship books (abbreviated, amusingly enough, as FBs) — small booklets or hand-bound pamphlets, also known as poetry albums, which a person would pass around for friends and penpals to fill with verses and inspirational quotes. This shared journal was a kind of primitive cross between Tumblr and Facebook — yet another example of vintage versions of modern social media. In the Netherlands, these booklets were known as pöesiealbums and were especially popular among schoolgirls.

In The Secret Museum (public library) — which also gave us Van Gogh’s never-before-seen sketchbooks and the surprisingly dark story of how the Nobel Prize was bornMolly Oldfield unearths a friendship book entry by none other than Anne Frank, who penned a short verse in her friend Juultje Ketellapper’s poetry album in June of 1939, a couple of weeks after Anne’s tenth birthday.

Anne Frank’s entry in Juultje Ketellapper’s friendship book

On the third page of the book, Anne glued a photograph of herself, then inscribed each corner of the page with “For-get-me-not.” On page four, she wrote her short poem:

Dear Juultje,

What shall I write here?
Wait, Dear Juul, I have an idea:
Good health and all the best!
Be good be full of zest,
And whatever fate may be divining,
Remember every cloud has a silver lining.

In memory of your friend
Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s tenth birthday, 1939. Anne is the second girl from the left, and Juultje the fifth.

Oldfield ponders:

I could imagine Anne sticking in that photograph herself — that same fun, expressive face, now famous — then carefully writing her words into her friend’s book. Her writing was very neat.

It was a time when Jews were still treated largely on par with Amsterdam’s non-Jewish citizens — a time when it was possible for a child as bright and joyful as Anne to have many friends, both Jewish and not, and to inhabit her childhood with the beautiful buoyancy of trusting the future stretched wide open with hope and promise. The poem is thus at once optimistic and crushingly ominous in its prescience of what that future, so grimly different from her childhood hope, held for Anne.

Anne Frank’s bedroom

While it’s hard — morally repugnant, even — to consider anything about Anne’s tragedy a “silver lining,” the closest we get to such consolation is her enduring legacy, preserved thanks to her famous, existentially indispensable diary. In it, with equally heartbreaking prescience, she writes:

You’ve known for a long time that my greatest wish is to be a journalist and, later on, a famous writer.

And if anyone had the right — the desperate urgency — to seek such a “silver lining,” it was Anne’s father, Otto, who was the only surviving member of the family and who honored his daughter’s wish by bringing her diary to life with a wish of his own:

I hope Anne’s book will have an effect on the rest of your life so that, insofar as possible in your own circumstances, you will work for unity and peace.

Photographs from The Secret Museum, courtesy of Molly Oldfield / Harper Collins


The Science of Dreams and Why We Have Nightmares

The psychology of our built-in nocturnal therapy.

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind,” Freud argued in his influential treatise The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. “The earth is heavy and opaque without dreams,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1940. “In the olden days, people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future,” Alain de Botton told a little kid who wanted to know about dreaming. But what, exactly, are dreams and why do we have them? Modern psychology has given us a fair amount of insight on the creative purpose of daydreaming, but — aside from Rosalind Cartwright’s compelling research on how dreams and REM sleep mediate our negative emotions — the study of dreams has largely stagnated since Freud’s day.

In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library) — one of the best science books of 2012, exploring what happens while you sleep and how it affects your every waking moment, which also gave us this fascinating read on sleep and the teenage brainDavid K. Randall traces psychologists’ evolving understanding of why we dream.

Freud’s theories — premised on the idea that the symbolism of dreams encoded the dreamer’s subconscious desires and concerns, often of a sexual nature — were systematically challenged and dismissed over the course of the 20th century, but without much of a viable alternative theory. It wasn’t until Calvin Hall, a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University, set out to record and catalog people’s dreams in the 1950s that glimmers of illumination began piercing the darkness shrouding this psychological mystery. Randall writes of Hall’s empirical findings, which came diametrically opposed to Freud’s theories:

By the time [Hall] died in 1985, Hall had synopses of more than fifty thousand dreams from people of all age groups and nationalities. From this large database, he created a coding system that essentially treated each dream like it was a short story. He recorded, among other things, the dream’s setting, its number of characters and their genders, any dialogue, and whether what happened in the dream was pleasant or frightening. He also noted basics about each dreamer as well, such as age, gender, and where the person lived.

Hall introduced the world of dream interpretation to the world of data. He pored through his dream collection, bringing numbers and statistical rigor into a field that had been split into two extremes. He tested what was the most likely outcome of, say, dreaming about work. Would the dreamer be happy? Angry? And would the story hew close to reality or would the people in the dream act strange and out of character? If there were predictable outcomes, then maybe dreams followed some kind of pattern. Maybe they even mattered.

Hall’s conclusion was the opposite of Freud’s: Far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, Hall could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. A dream featuring a man whom the dreamer doesn’t know in real life, for instance, almost always entails a plot in which the stranger is aggressive. Adults tend to dream of other people they know, while kids usually dream of animals. About three out of every four characters in a man’s dream will be other men, while women tend to encounter an equal number of males and females. Most dreams take place in the dreamers’ homes or offices and, if they have to go somewhere, they drive cars or walk there. And not surprisingly, college students dream about sex more often than middle-aged adults.

In other words, he found that dreams are far from surreal wonderlands where our imaginations roam wildly — rather, they are explorations of our mundane concerns, recast in a light only slightly removed from reality.

And yet theories continue to differ. Ernest Hartmann, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, studies the content of dreams and how it relates to their function:

Hartmann sees dreams as a form of built-in nocturnal therapy. In dreams, he says, the mind takes what is new or bothersome and blends it into what the brain already knows, making the new information seem less novel or threatening. … Hartmann argues that the life of early man was filled with the kind of traumas — watching friends gored by animals with sharp tusks or fall through holes in the ice and drown, just to give you two possibilities — that few people experience today. Those who were able to regain their emotional balance after living through a traumatic event were more likely to survive over the long run than those who dwelled on the negative.

As evidence of his theory, Hartmann points to the fact that the mind has a tendency to replay scary or harrowing experiences in dreams almost exactly as they happened in real life for several nights after the event. … For some people, however, the brain gets stuck replaying traumas, like a band that only knows one song. When the brain fails to set aside the event in its long-term memory — a move that researchers see as a sign that the emotional system has come to accept what happened and can now put it into perspective — a person may experience recurring nightmares, which is one of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Grim as this may sound, however, let’s not forget that dreams also help us do the very opposite — they allow our brains to digest and regulate negative emotions. And, if all else fails, there’s always the option of training yourself to control your dreams.

Dreamland remains a must-read in its entirety. Complement it with the science of internal time.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons


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