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The Best Children’s Books of 2016

From love to mortality to the lives of Einstein and Louise Bourgeois, by way of silence and the color of the wind.

The Best Children’s Books of 2016

In his meditation on the three ways of writing for children and the key to authenticity in all writing, C.S. Lewis admonished against treating children, in literature or life, as “a strange species whose habits you have ‘made up’ like an anthropologist or a commercial traveller.” J.R.R. Tolkien expressed the same sentiment in his timeless insistence on why there is no such thing as writing “for children.” And a generation later, Maurice Sendak, perhaps the most beloved creator of so-called “children’s” books in our own era, scoffed in his final interview: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

After the year’s greatest science books, here are the picture-books I found most imaginative, intelligent, and warmhearted this year — books that speak, even sing, to hearts of all ages and embody E.B. White’s proclamation that successful writers of children’s books “have to write up, not down.”

CRY, HEART, BUT NEVER BREAK

cryheartbutneverbreak“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote, “so why … be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Half a millennium earlier, Montaigne posed the same question somewhat differently in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.”

Yet mortality continues to petrify us — our own, and perhaps even more so that of our loved ones. And if the adult consciousness is so thoroughly unsettled by the notion of death, despite intellectually recognizing it as a necessary and inevitable part of life, how is the child consciousness to settle into comprehension and comfort?

Now comes a fine addition to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books about making sense of death — the crowning jewel of them all, even, and not only because it bears what might be the most beautiful children’s book title ever conceived: Cry, Heart, But Never Break (public library) by beloved Danish children’s book author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi, translated into English by Robert Moulthrop.

Although Ringtved is celebrated for his humorous and mischievous stories, this contemplative tale sprang from the depths of his own experience — when his mother was dying and he struggled to explain what was happening to his young children, she offered some words of comfort: “Cry, Heart, but never break.” It was the grandmother’s way of assuring the children that the profound sadness of loss is to be allowed rather than resisted, then folded into the wholeness of life, which continues to unfold. (I’m reminded of Maira Kalman’s unforgettable words: “When Tibor died, the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.”)

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This warmly wistful story begins outside the “small snug house” where four children live with their beloved grandmother. Not wanting to scare the young ones, Death, who has come for the old lady, has left his scythe by the door. Immediately, in this small and enormously thoughtful gesture, we are met with Death’s unexpected tenderness.

Inside, he sits down at the kitchen table, where only the youngest of the kids, little Leah, dares look straight at him.

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What makes the book particularly touching, thanks to Pardi’s immensely expressive illustration, is just how crestfallen — broken, even — Death himself looks the entire time he is executing his mission, choked up with some indiscernible fusion of resignation and recompense.

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THE WHITE CAT AND THE MONK

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work,” Muriel Spark counseled, “you should acquire a cat.” Long before the cat became a modern literary muse, a monk whose identity remains a mystery immortalized his beloved white cat named Pangur. Sometime in the ninth century, somewhere in present-day southern Germany, this solitary scholar penned a beautiful short poem in Old Irish, titled “Pangur Bán” — an ode to the parallel pleasures of man and feline as one pursues knowledge and the other prey, and to how their quiet companionship amplifies their respective joys.

The poem has been translated and adapted many times over the centuries (perhaps most famously by W.H. Auden), but nowhere more delightfully than in The White Cat and the Monk (public library) by writer Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrator Sydney Smith — one of four wonderful children’s books about the creative life, which I recently reviewed for The New York Times.

Smith, who has previously illustrated the immeasurably wonderful Sidewalk Flowers, imbues the ancient text with contemporary visual language through his singular, elegantly minimalist graphic novel aesthetic.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

We see the old monk poring over his manuscripts in search of wisdom as Pangur prances around their spartan shared abode, chasing after a mouse and a butterfly. Each is totally absorbed in his task.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

In a subtle story-with-a-story, one of the monk’s manuscripts contains an even more ancient depiction of another monk and another cat — a reminder that this creaturely communion is a primal joy of the human experience.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

At the end of each day, the two rest into their respective gladnesses in quiet camaraderie.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

Written as a playful ode in the ninth century, today the poem lives partway between lamentation and celebration — it stands as counterpoint to our culture of competitive striving and ceaseless self-comparisons, but it also reminds us that the accomplishments of others aren’t to the detriment of our own; that we can remain purposeful about our pursuits while rejoicing in those of others; that we can choose to amplify each other’s felicity because there is, after all, enough to go around even in the austerest of circumstances.

See more here.

CLOTH LULLABY

“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer,” the great French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010) wrote in her diary toward the end of her long and illustrious life. That perfect fabric metaphor is not coincidental. Psychologists now know that metaphorical thinking is the birthplace of the imagination, “essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent,” and it begins in childhood as young minds transmute the namable things that surround them into fresh metaphors for the unnamable things that they experience inside.

Born into a family that restored tapestries for a living, Bourgeois wove the world of colorful textiles into her imagination and into the very work that would establish her as one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century. It was in this family trade that she came to see her beloved mother as a deft, patient spider repairing broken threads — the metaphor at the heart of the iconic large-scale spider sculptures for which Bourgeois is best known and which earned her the moniker Spiderwoman.

In Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois (public library) — one of four marvelous children’s books about the life of ideas I recently reviewed for The New York Times and a crowning curio among the loveliest picture-books celebrating cultural icons — writer Amy Novesky and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault trace the thread of Bourgeois’s creative development from the formative years of her unusual childhood to the pinnacle of her success as an artist.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Novesky, who has previously authored a children’s book about Billie Holiday, tells the story of Bourgeois’s life in a wonderfully lyrical way. Arsenault — whom I have long considered one of the most gifted and unrepeatable artists of our time, the kind whose books will be cherished a century from now — carries the story with her soft yet vibrantly expressive illustrations.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Louise kept diaries of her days. And in a cloth tent pitched in the garden, she and her siblings would stay till the dark surprised them, the light from the house, and the sound of a Verdi opera, far away through the trees.

Sometimes, they’d spend the night, and Louise would study the web of stars, imagine her place in the universe, and weep, then fall asleep to the rhythmic rock and murmur of river water.

The ever-flowing blue strand of the river becomes the thread of continuity across Bourgeois’s life. It flows into the Siene and takes young Louise along to Paris, where she attends university studying mathematics and astronomy.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Bourgeois’s studies are severed by her mother’s sudden death, the devastation of which drives the young woman to abandon science and turn to the certain uncertainty of art. She cuts up all the fabric she owns — her dresses, her bed linens, her new husband’s handkerchiefs — and spends the remainder of her life making it and making herself whole again, putting it all together into cloth sculptures, colorful hand-sewn spirals, cloth drawings, cloth books, and many, many, many spiders.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

See more here.

DU IZ TAK?

“It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating art and the human future. The beautiful Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi invites us to find meaning and comfort in impermanence, and yet so much of our suffering stems from our deep resistance to the ruling law of the universe — that of impermanence and constant change. How, then, are we to accept the one orbit we each have along the cycle of life and inhabit it with wholeheartedness rather than despair?

That’s what illustrator and author Carson Ellis explores with great subtlety and warmth in Du Iz Tak? (public library) — a lyrical and imaginative tale about the cycle of life and the inexorable interdependence of joy and sorrow, trial and triumph, growth and decay.

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The marvelously illustrated story is written in the imagined language of bugs, the meaning of which the reader deduces with delight from the familiar human emotions they experience throughout the story — surprise, exhilaration, fear, despair, pride, joy. We take the title to mean “What is that?” — the exclamation which the ento-protagonists issue upon discovering a swirling shoot of new growth, which becomes the centerpiece of the story as the bugs try to make sense, then make use, of this mysterious addition to their homeland. “Ma nazoot,” answers another — “I don’t know.”

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The discoverers of the shoot enlist the help of a wise and many-legged elder who lives inside a tree stump — a character reminiscent in spirit of Owl in Winnie-the-Pooh. He lends the operation his ladder and the team begins building an elaborate fort onto the speedily growing plant.

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But their joyful plan is unceremoniously interrupted by a giant spider, who envelops their new playground in a web — a reminder that in nature, where one creature’s loss is another’s gain and vice versa, gain and loss are always counterbalanced in perfect equilibrium with no ultimate right and ultimate wrong.

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As the bugs witness the spider’s doing in dejected disbelief, a bird — a creature even huger and more formidable — swoops in to eat the spider and further devastates the stalk-fort. At its base, we see the bugs grow from disheartened to heartbroken.

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But when the bird leaves, one of them discovers — with the excited exclamation “Su!,” which we take to mean “Look!” — that the plant has not only survived the invasion but has managed, in the meantime, to produce a glorious, colorful bud.

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As the bugs resume repair and construction, the bud blossoms into invigorating beauty. Drawn to the small miracle of the flower, other tiny forest creatures join the joyful labor — the ants interrupt their own industry, the slug slides over in wide-eyed wonder, the bees and the butterflies hover in admiration, and even the elder’s wife emerges from the tree trunk, huffing a pipe as she marvels at the new blossom.

But then, nature once again asserts her central dictum of impermanence and constant change: The flower begins to wilt.

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The fort collapses and the bugs, looking not terribly distraught — perhaps because they know that this is nature’s way, perhaps because they know that they too will soon follow the flower’s fate in this unstoppable cycle of life — say farewell and walk off.

Night comes, then autumn, bringing their own magic as the world silently performs its eternal duty of churning the cycle of growth and decay.

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The remnants of the wilted flower sink into the forest bed as a nocturnal serenade unfolds overhead before a blanket of snow stills the forest.

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In the final pages, we see spring arrive with its redemptive bounty to reveal not one shoot but the promise of an entire flower garden. “Du iz tak?” exclaims a new bug who walks onto the scene — a gentle invitation to reflect on where the others have gone as the seasons turned, presenting a subtle opportunity for parents to broach the cycle of life.

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See more here.

A CHILD OF BOOKS

Half a millennium before Carl Sagan pointed to books as “proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Galileo saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers. For Kafka, books were “the axe for the frozen sea within us,” while James Baldwin found in them a way to change one’s destiny. “A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her lyrical meditation on the intimacy of reading and writing. But what, exactly, is the lifeblood pumping through that heart? Perhaps Hermann Hesse put it best in his beautiful essay on reading:

At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.

That transcendent stream is what London-based typographic fine artist Sam Winston and Belfast-born, Brooklyn-based artist and children’s book maestro Oliver Jeffers plunge us into with A Child of Books (public library) — a serenading invitation into the joyful wonderland of reading, extended by a courageous little girl besotted with books to a little boy timorous to take the dive.

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An homage to literary classics carries the story as an undercurrent of affectionate appreciation for the way in which literature carves our interior landscapes. Jeffers is no stranger to appropriating existing art in original storytelling. Here, his unmistakable illustrations animate Winston’s landscapes, crafted from the texts of classic children’s stories, nursery rhymes, and lullabies — typographic topographies composed of multigenerational cultural treasures like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Frankenstein.

See more here.

THE DAY I BECAME A BIRD

In what remains the greatest definition of love, Tom Stoppard described the real thing as “knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.” And yet the grandest paradox of love — the source of its necessary frustration, the root of the inescapable lover’s sulk — is our insistence on crafting and putting on ever more elaborate masks under the mistaken belief that these idealized selves, presented to the object of our infatuation, would render us more desirable and worthier of love. We tuck our messy real selves behind polished veneers, orchestrate grand gestures, and perform various psychoemotional acrobatics driven by the illusion that love is something we must earn by what we do, rather than something that comes to us unbidden simply for who we are.

The deconditioning of that dangerous delusion is what French children’s book author Ingrid Chabbert and Spanish artist Guridi explore with imaginative subtlety in The Day I Became a Bird (public library).

The protagonist of this minimalist, maximally expressive story is a tenderhearted little boy who falls in love for the first time the day he starts school.

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Because love always sneaks in through the backdoor of our awareness before it makes a home in the heart, not until a few pages into the book do we find out that the object of his affection is a classmate named Sylvia — a passionate bird enthusiast who seems to only have eyes for feathered creatures.

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PINOCCHIO

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them,” Albert Camus wrote. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, observed a century earlier as she contemplated the nature of the imagination and its three core faculties: “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently… that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us.”

This “discovering faculty” of the imagination, which breathes life into both the most captivating myths and the deepest layers of reality, is what animated Italian artist Alessandro Sanna one winter afternoon when he glimpsed a most unusual tree branch from the window of a moving train — a branch that looked like a sensitive human silhouette, mid-fall or mid-embrace.

As Sanna cradled the enchanting image in his mind and began sketching it, he realized that something about the “body language” of the branch reminded him of a small, delicate, terminally ill child he’d gotten to know during his visits to Turin’s Pediatric Hospital. In beholding this common ground of tender fragility, Sanna’s imagination leapt to a foundational myth of his nation’s storytelling — the Pinocchio story.

In the astonishingly beautiful and tenderhearted Pinocchio: The Origin Story (public library), Sanna imagines an alternative prequel to the beloved story, a wordless genesis myth of the wood that became Pinocchio, radiating a larger cosmogony of life, death, and the transcendent continuity between the two.

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A fitting follow-up to The River — Sanna’s exquisite visual memoir of life on the Po River in Northern Italy, reflecting on the seasonality of human existence — this imaginative masterwork dances with the cosmic unknowns that eclipse human life and the human mind with their enormity: questions like what life is, how it began, and what happens when it ends.

Origin myths have been our oldest sensemaking mechanism for wresting meaning out of these as-yet-unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions. But rather than an argument with science and our secular sensibility, Sanna’s lyrical celebration of myth embodies Margaret Mead’s insistence on the importance of poetic truth in the age of facts.

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The tree is an organic choice for this unusual cosmogony — after all, trees have inspired centuries of folk tales around the world; a 17th-century English gardener marveled at how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons” and Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.”

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It is both a pity and a strange comfort that Sanna’s luminous, buoyant watercolors and his masterful subtlety of scale don’t fully translate onto this screen — his analog and deeply humane art is of a different order, almost of a different time, and yet woven of the timeless and the eternal.

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THE SOUND OF SILENCE

“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,” Henry David Thoreau observed in contemplating how silence ennobles speech. A year earlier, he had written in his journal: “I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.” It’s a sentiment of almost unbearable bittersweetness today, a century and a half later, as we find ourselves immersed in a culture that increasingly mistakes loudness for authority, vociferousness for voice, screaming for substance. We seem to have forgotten what Susan Sontag reminded us half a century ago — that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” that it has its own aesthetic, and that learning to wield it is among the great arts of living.

Of the nine kinds of silence that Sontag’s contemporary and friend Paul Goodman outlined, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul” is the kind we seem to have most hastily forsaken — and yet it is also the one we most urgently need if we are to reclaim the aesthetic of silence in the art of living.

That ennobling, endangered kind of silence is what writer Katrina Goldsaito and illustrator Julia Kuo celebrate in The Sound of Silence (public library) — the story of a little boy named Yoshio, who awakens to the elusive beauty of silence amid Tokyo’s bustle and teaches himself its secret language.

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Conceptually, the book is a trans-temporal counterpart to In Praise of Shadows — that magnificent 1933 serenade to ancient Japanese aesthetics, lamenting how excessive illumination obscures so many of life’s most beautiful dimensions, just as today’s excessive noise silences life’s subtlest and most beautiful signals.

Goldsaito’s lyrical writing, part ballad and part haiku, and Kuo’s illustrations, midway between manga and Chris Ware yet thoroughly original, carry the story with effortless poetic enchantment.

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We follow Yoshio as he leaves home one rainy morning and steps into the symphony of urban sounds cascading through the city — “raindrops pattering on his umbrella,” “boots squishing and squashing through the puddles.”

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As he makes his way through this aural wonderland, he is suddenly enthralled by a most magical sound. He follows it to discover a koto player tuning her instrument.

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Then the koto player played. The notes were twangy and twinkling; they tickled Yoshio’s ears! When the song finished, Yoshio said, “Sensei, I love sounds, but I’ve never heard a sound like that!”

The koto player laughed, and it sounded like the metal bell that swayed in the wind in Mama’s garden.

“Sensei,” Yoshio said, “do you have a favorite sound?”

“The most beautiful sound,” the koto player said, “is the sound of ma, of silence.”

“Silence?” Yoshio asked. But the koto player just smiled a mysterious smile and went back to playing.

Puzzled and vitalized by the cryptic message, the little boy sets out to find the sound of silence.

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WE FOUND A HAT

“If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be,” legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser observed in his conversation with Debbie Millman. One might say that it is difficult, perhaps even delusional, to elect perception over the hard facts of physical reality — after all, if there is only one apple in front of you, how could you perceive your way to having two? And yet the great physicist David Bohm, a scientist grounded in the fundamental building blocks of physical reality, articulated a parallel truth in contemplating how our perceptions shape our reality:

Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.

Beloved children’s book author and illustrator Jon Klassen explores this disorienting paradox with great subtlety, simplicity, and sensitivity in We Found a Hat (public library) — the conclusion of his celebrated hat trilogy, following I Want My Hat Back (2011) and This Is Not My Hat.

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The story follows two turtles who discover a hat together — a very winsome hat, they both feel — and are suddenly faced by a practical predicament: There is one hat to be had, and two of them who want to have it.

Carrying Klassen’s minimalist, maximally expressive illustrations — entire worlds of emotion and intent are intimated by the turn of the turtles’ black-and-white eyes — are his equally spartan words, which envelop his protagonists’ interior worlds in sweetness and gentleness as he tells this touching story of covetousness transformed into generosity and justice.

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We found a hat.

We found it together.

But there is only one hat.

And there are two of us.

How does it look on me?

It looks good on you.

How does it look on me?

It looks good on you too.

It looks good on both of us.

But it would not be right if one of us had a hat and the other did not.

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DAYTIME VISIONS

“We live in the word,” Elizabeth Alexander observed in contemplating writing and the self in language, “and the word is one of the ways we have to reach across to each other.” And it is often in learning to live in the word — that is, in those formative years of first understanding how sounds make shapes to make words — that we also begin mastering the art of human connection. That’s what lends imaginative alphabet books their magic and their singular place in the developmental journey, and among the most imaginative is Daytime Visions: An Alphabet (public library) by beloved Argentinian musician, artist, and children’s book author Isol.

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Instead of consciously considering the semantic aspect of the images and vignettes she drew for each of the letters, Isol let the shape of the letter lead her brush toward a spontaneous burst of visual meaning — a sort of creative game that produced something utterly magical, more dream than dictionary, populated by kiwis and caterpillars and otherworldly creatures animated by the most inescapable emotional dimensions of human life: loneliness, gladness, petulance, tenderness, joy.

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PREACHING TO THE CHICKENS

Civil rights icon and nonviolent resistance leader John Lewis (b. February 21, 1940) is rightly celebrated as a true “healer of the heart of democracy.” He is also a testament to how the humblest beginnings can produce lives of towering heroism. Long before Congressman Lewis became a key figure in ending racial segregation in America, little John was one of nine siblings living on the family’s farm in southern Alabama. It was in that unlikely environment, heavy with labor and love, that young Lewis found his voice as a leader.

Writer Jabari Asim and illustrator E.B. Lewis tell the improbable and inspiring origin story of this largehearted legend in Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis (public library) — a superb addition to the greatest picture-book biographies of cultural icons.

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Little John Lewis loved the spring. He loved it not only because it was the time when the whole planet came alive, but also because it was the season of the chicks. Winter was too cold to bring them safely into the world, and summer was too hot. Spring was just right.

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John’s mother cooked the family meals from vegetables she grew — collards, tomatoes, sweet potatoes — and other goodies. She cleaned the family’s clothes in a big iron pot, stirring them in the boiling water and washing them with homemade soap before hanging them on the line to dry.

Yes, Lord, plenty of work on a farm.

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One day, John is put in charge of the chickens and so begins his foray into leadership. His heart ablaze with the dream of becoming a preacher, the boy begins practicing before his willing — or, at least, tacitly agreeable — avian audience. E.B. Lewis’s luminous watercolors are the perfect complement to Asim’s lyrical prose, which together carry the story of how John Lewis incubated his talent for wielding words that move and mobilize mind, body, and spirit.

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THE POLAR BEAR

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote 150 years ago in his ode to the spirit of sauntering. But in a world increasingly unwild, where we are in touch with nature only occasionally and only in fragments, how are we to nurture the preservation of our Pale Blue Dot?

That’s what London-based illustrator and Sendak Fellow Jenni Desmond explores in The Polar Bear (public library), also among the year’s best science books — the follow-up to The Blue Whale, Desmond’s serenade to the science and life of Earth’s largest-hearted creature, which was among the best science books of 2015.

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The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the science behind it — its love of solitude, the black skin that hides beneath its yellowish-white fur, the built-in sunglasses protecting its eyes from the harsh Arctic light, why it evolved to have an unusually long neck and slightly inward paws, how it maintains the same temperature as us despite living in such extreme cold, why it doesn’t hibernate.

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Beyond its sheer loveliness, the book is suddenly imbued with a new layer of urgency. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls on solely on parents and educators. Desmond’s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection.

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WHAT COLOR IS THE WIND?

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince. Those bereft of vision, therefore, need not be bereft of the essential — they discern it by means other than sight.

The richness of that otherness is what Belgian artist and author Anne Herbauts came to see in a surprising and profound question from a blind child. During a bookmaking workshop she was leading, a little boy asked her whether she, as an artist, could tell him what color the wind was — a notion of the same trans-sensory, synesthetic quality as Helen Keller’s electrifying account of “hearing” Beethoven.

Touched by the sincerity of the boy’s curiosity, Herbauts set out to offer her answer in What Color Is the Wind? (public library), translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick — a largehearted, unusual book that takes the reader on a sensorial adventure, with the tactile magic of The Black Book of Colors and the die-cut delight of Bruno Munari’s visionary vintage gems.

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The story’s protagonist, whom Herbauts affectionately calls “the little giant,” goes in search of an answer to his synesthetic question. Every piece of nature he encounters gives him a different answer — to the bee, the wind is the warm color of the sun; the old dog, who perceives the world through smell, experiences it as “pink, flowery, pale white”; to the wolf, it smells of the forest; for the mountain, the wind is a bird; for the window, it is the color of time.

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Herbauts paints the sensory landscape with extraordinarily inventive bookmaking techniques to which this screen can do no justice — appleseeds peek through a die-cut hole, raindrops gleam embossed on a laminated page, debossed grooves invite the touch of tree bark. What emerges is a parallel invitation to empathy and self-expansion in imagining the world as the unsighted experience it and exploring a different sensorial space than the one we sighted humans ordinarily inhabit. Just as the universe of smell unlocks hidden layers of reality, so does the universe of touch.

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The little giant asks the bird,
What color…

But the bird has flown away.

And the enormous giant,
with a slow gesture says:
The color of the wind?

It is everything at once.
This whole book.

Then he takes the book and,
thumb against its edge,
he lets the pages fly.

See more here.

THE PANCAKE KING

At a dinner some years ago, I had the good fortune of being seated next to the great graphic designer and illustrator Seymour Chwast (b. August 18, 1931). A warm but reticent conversation companion, he became, like Oliver Sacks, unusually animated when it came to his creative passions. At one point in the evening, I asked Chwast what his favorite project was from the entire span of his illustrious career. Here was a man whose work had influenced generations of designers and had received just about every imaginable accolade in the graphic arts. So I was both surprised and utterly delighted by his answer, which he offered without hesitation but with a certain wistfulness — an obscure vintage children’s book by Phyllis La Farge he had illustrated in 1971, which had since fallen out of print and sunk into oblivion.

The following day, invigorated by curiosity, I set about finding a surviving copy. Victorious at last with a bedraggled book discarded by the Breton Downs Library and found at a thrift bookseller, I instantly knew why Chwast had so fondly and resolutely chosen this forgotten gem as the favorite of a lifetime — it was a sweet, subversive parable about the tradeoffs of creativity and commerce, the messy relationship between success and life-satisfaction, the treacherous way in which prestige can hijack our sense of purpose, and what happens when a personal labor of love becomes a “brand.” A story, in other words, both timeless and immensely time today, when the integrity of every creative life is bending under the ever-growing pressures of bigger-better-faster.

So imagine my enormous gladness at the news that Princeton Architectural Press is bringing The Pancake King (public library) back to life as part of the same vintage children’s book revival series that also resurrected the marvelous The Brownstone by graphic design legend (and, incidentally, Chwast’s spouse of four decades) Paula Scher.

See more here.

EINSTEIN

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) is celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius” and his groundbreaking discoveries have changed the course of science, but he was also a man of enormous and thus inescapably fallible humanity, whose confusion and conflictedness were inseparable from his genius.

This seething cauldron of brilliant complexity is what Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon explore in Einstein (public library) — the third installment in their series of illustrated biographies of thinkers who have shaped modern life, following Freud and Marx.

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From Einstein’s formative childhood experiences to his arrival in America, from his annus mirabilis to his Nobel Prize, from his views on religion to his civil rights activity, the graphic novel unfolds with elegant simplicity of language and intelligent playfulness that would have delighted Einstein, who was known for his irreverent wit.

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See more here.

WHAT CAN I BE

In the late 1950s, children’s book author Ann Rand collaborated with her then-husband, the graphic design legend Paul Rand, on a series of unusual and imaginative children’s books — Sparkle and Spin and I Know a Lot of Things. Even after they divorced in 1958, they continued working together and published the loveliest of their collaborations, Little 1, in 1961.

After Rand’s death in 2012, a marvelous unpublished manuscript of hers from the 1970s was discovered — a most unusual concept book, partway between graphic design primer, Norton Juster’s The Dot and the Line, and Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s books, exploring how our imagination combines lines and shapes to build an entire world.

Four decades later, this forgotten masterpiece is brought to life as What Can I Be? (public library) with stunning illustrations by painter and architecture professor Ingrid Fiksdahl King.

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It is hardly a coincidence that King co-authored the 1977 architecture and urbanism classic A Pattern Language — a pioneering inquiry into how the elements of urban design and their arrangement form the patterns that compose the language of community livability. It is our ability to imagine, after all — to combining basic elements into a language of the possible — that makes life livable.

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With simple, inviting words, Rand constructs a poetic game of possibility.

See more here.

* * *

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the best children’s books of 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

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The Greatest Science Books of 2016

From the sound of spacetime to time travel to the microbiome, by way of polar bears, dogs, and trees.

I have long believed that E.B. White’s abiding wisdom on children’s books — “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.” — is equally true of science books. The question of what makes a great book of any kind is, of course, a slippery one, but I recently endeavored to synthesize my intuitive system for assessing science books that write up to the reader in a taxonomy of explanation, elucidation, and enchantment.

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Gathered here are exceptional books that accomplish at least two of the three, assembled in the spirit of my annual best-of reading lists, which I continue to consider Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — not a list of priorities for the year ahead, but a reflection on the reading most worth prioritizing in the year being left behind.

BLACK HOLE BLUES

In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library), cosmologist, novelist, and unparalleled enchanter of science Janna Levin tells the story of the century-long vision, originated by Einstein, and half-century experimental quest to hear the sound of spacetime by detecting a gravitational wave. This book remains one of the most intensely interesting and beautifully written I’ve ever encountered — the kind that comes about once a generation if we’re lucky.

Everything we know about the universe so far comes from four centuries of sight — from peering into space with our eyes and their prosthetic extension, the telescope. Now commences a new mode of knowing the cosmos through sound. The detection of gravitational waves is one of the most significant discoveries in the entire history of physics, marking the dawn of a new era as we begin listening to the sound of space — the probable portal to mysteries as unimaginable to us today as galaxies and nebulae and pulsars and other cosmic wonders were to the first astronomers. Gravitational astronomy, as Levin elegantly puts it, promises a “score to accompany the silent movie humanity has compiled of the history of the universe from still images of the sky, a series of frozen snapshots captured over the past four hundred years since Galileo first pointed a crude telescope at the Sun.”

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Astonishingly enough, Levin wrote the book before the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) — the monumental instrument at the center of the story, decades in the making — made the actual detection of a ripple in the fabric of spacetime caused by the collision of two black holes in the autumn of 2015, exactly a century after Einstein first envisioned the possibility of gravitational waves. So the story she tells is not that of the triumph but that of the climb, which renders it all the more enchanting — because it is ultimately a story about the human spirit and its incredible tenacity, about why human beings choose to devote their entire lives to pursuits strewn with unimaginable obstacles and bedeviled by frequent failure, uncertain rewards, and meager public recognition.

Indeed, what makes the book interesting is that it tells the story of this monumental discovery, but what makes it enchanting is that Levin comes at it from a rather unusual perspective. She is a working astrophysicist who studies black holes, but she is also an incredibly gifted novelist — an artist whose medium is language and thought itself. This is no popular science book but something many orders of magnitude higher in its artistic vision, the impeccable craftsmanship of language, and the sheer pleasure of the prose. The story is structured almost as a series of short, integrated novels, with each chapter devoted to one of the key scientists involved in LIGO. With Dostoyevskian insight and nuance, Levin paints a psychological, even philosophical portrait of each protagonist, revealing how intricately interwoven the genius and the foibles are in the fabric of personhood and what a profoundly human endeavor science ultimately is.

She writes:

Scientists are like those levers or knobs or those boulders helpfully screwed into a climbing wall. Like the wall is some cemented material made by mixing knowledge, which is a purely human construct, with reality, which we can only access through the filter of our minds. There’s an important pursuit of objectivity in science and nature and mathematics, but still the only way up the wall is through the individual people, and they come in specifics… So the climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms.

For a taste of this uncategorizably wonderful book, see Levin on the story of the tragic hero who pioneered gravitational astronomy and how astronomer Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars.

TIME TRAVEL

Time Travel: A History (public library) by science historian and writer extraordinaire James Gleick, another rare enchanter of science, is not a “science book” per se, in that although it draws heavily on the history of twentieth-century science and quantum physics in particular (as well as on millennia of philosophy), it is a decidedly literary inquiry into our temporal imagination — why we think about time, why its directionality troubles us so, and what asking these questions at all reveals about the deepest mysteries of our consciousness. I consider it a grand thought experiment, using physics and philosophy as the active agents, and literature as the catalyst.

Gleick, who examined the origin of our modern anxiety about time with remarkable prescience nearly two decades ago, traces the invention of the notion of time travel to H.G. Wells’s 1895 masterpiece The Time Machine. Although Wells — like Gleick, like any reputable physicist — knew that time travel was a scientific impossibility, he created an aesthetic of thought which never previously existed and which has since shaped the modern consciousness. Gleick argues that the art this aesthetic produced — an entire canon of time travel literature and film — not only permeated popular culture but even influenced some of the greatest scientific minds of the past century, including Stephen Hawking, who once cleverly hosted a party for time travelers and when no one showed up considered the impossibility of time travel proven, and John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term “black hole” and coined “wormhole,” both key tropes of time travel literature.

Gleick considers how a scientific impossibility can become such fertile ground for the artistic imagination:

Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast? For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.

Wells’s Time Machine revealed a turning in the road, an alteration in the human relationship with time. New technologies and ideas reinforced one another: the electric telegraph, the steam railroad, the earth science of Lyell and the life science of Darwin, the rise of archeology out of antiquarianism, and the perfection of clocks. When the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, scientists and philosophers were primed to understand time in a new way. And so were we all. Time travel bloomed in the culture, its loops and twists and paradoxes.

I wrote about Gleick’s uncommonly pleasurable book at length here.

FELT TIME

A very different take on time, not as cultural phenomenon but as individual psychological interiority, comes from German psychologist Marc Wittmann in Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time (public library) — a fascinating inquiry into how our subjective experience of time’s passage shapes everything from our emotional memory to our sense of self. Bridging disciplines as wide-ranging as neuroscience and philosophy, Wittmann examines questions of consciousness, identity, happiness, boredom, money, and aging, exposing the centrality of time in each of them. What emerges is the disorienting sense that time isn’t something which happens to us — rather, we are time.

One of Wittmann’s most pause-giving points has to do with how temporality mediates the mind-body problem. He writes:

Presence means becoming aware of a physical and psychic self that is temporally extended. To be self-conscious is to recognize oneself as something that persists through time and is embodied.

In a sense, time is a construction of our consciousness. Two generations after Hannah Arendt observed in her brilliant meditation on time that “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,” Wittmann writes:

Self-consciousness — achieving awareness of one’s own self — emerges on the basis of temporally enduring perception of bodily states that are tied to neural activity in the brain’s insular lobe. The self and time prove to be especially present in boredom. They go missing in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, which results from the acceleration of social processes. Through mindfulness and emotional control, the tempo of life that we experience can be reduced, and we can regain time for ourselves and others.

Perception necessarily encompasses the individual who is doing the perceiving. It is I who perceives. This might seem self-evident. Perception of myself, my ego, occurs naturally when I consider myself. I “feel” and think about myself. But who is the subject if I am the object of my own attention? When I observe myself, after all, I become the object of observation. Clearly, this intangibility of the subject as a subject — and not an object — poses a philosophical problem: as soon as I observe myself, I have already become the object of my observation.

More here.

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

All life is lived in the shadow of its own finitude, of which we are always aware — an awareness we systematically blunt through the daily distraction of living. But when this finitude is made acutely imminent, one suddenly collides with awareness so acute that it leaves no choice but to fill the shadow with as much light as a human being can generate — the sort of inner illumination we call meaning: the meaning of life.

That tumultuous turning point is what neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi chronicles in When Breath Becomes Air (public library) — his piercing memoir of being diagnosed with terminal cancer at the peak of a career bursting with potential and a life exploding with aliveness. Partway between Montaigne and Oliver Sacks, Kalanithi weaves together philosophical reflections on his personal journey with stories of his patients to illuminate the only thing we have in common — our mortality — and how it spurs all of us, in ways both minute and monumental, to pursue a life of meaning.

What emerges is an uncommonly insightful, sincere, and sobering revelation of how much our sense of self is tied up with our sense of potential and possibility — the selves we would like to become, those we work tirelessly toward becoming. Who are we, then, and what remains of “us” when that possibility is suddenly snipped?

Paul Kalanithi in 2014 (Photograph: Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Hospital and Clinics)
Paul Kalanithi in 2014 (Photograph: Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Hospital and Clinics)

A generation after surgeon Sherwin Nuland’s foundational text on confronting the meaning of life while dying, Kalanithi sets out to answer these questions and their myriad fractal implications. He writes:

At age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land, from Gilead to Jericho to the Mediterranean Sea. I could see a nice catamaran on that sea that Lucy, our hypothetical children, and I would take out on weekends. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could see myself finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be.

And then the unthinkable happens. He recounts one of the first incidents in which his former identity and his future fate collided with jarring violence:

My back stiffened terribly during the flight, and by the time I made it to Grand Central to catch a train to my friends’ place upstate, my body was rippling with pain. Over the past few months, I’d had back spasms of varying ferocity, from simple ignorable pain, to pain that made me forsake speech to grind my teeth, to pain so severe I curled up on the floor, screaming. This pain was toward the more severe end of the spectrum. I lay down on a hard bench in the waiting area, feeling my back muscles contort, breathing to control the pain — the ibuprofen wasn’t touching this — and naming each muscle as it spasmed to stave off tears: erector spinae, rhomboid, latissimus, piriformis…

A security guard approached. “Sir, you can’t lie down here.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, gasping out the words. “Bad … back … spasms.”

“You still can’t lie down here.”

[…]

I pulled myself up and hobbled to the platform.

Like the book itself, the anecdote speaks to something larger and far more powerful than the particular story — in this case, our cultural attitude toward what we consider the failings of our bodies: pain and, in the ultimate extreme, death. We try to dictate the terms on which these perceived failings may occur; to make them conform to wished-for realities; to subvert them by will and witless denial. All this we do because, at bottom, we deem them impermissible — in ourselves and in each other.

I wrote about the book at length here.

THE CONFIDENCE GAME

“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,” Carl Sagan urged in his excellent Baloney Detection Kit — and yet our tendency is to do just that, becoming increasingly attached to what we’ve come to believe because the belief has sprung from our own glorious, brilliant, fool-proof minds. How con artists take advantage of this human hubris is what New Yorker columnist and psychology writer Maria Konnikova explores in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time (public library) — a thrilling psychological detective story investigating how con artists, the supreme masterminds of malevolent reality-manipulation, prey on our hopes, our fears, and our propensity for believing what we wish were true. Through a tapestry of riveting real-life con artist profiles interwoven with decades of psychology experiments, Konnikova illuminates the inner workings of trust and deception in our everyday lives.

She writes:

It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it… For our minds are built for stories. We crave them, and, when there aren’t ready ones available, we create them. Stories about our origins. Our purpose. The reasons the world is the way it is. Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation. A confidence artist is only too happy to comply — and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.

Konnikova describes the basic elements of the con and the psychological susceptibility into which each of them plays:

The confidence game starts with basic human psychology. From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are, after all, the best deceivers of our own minds. At each step of the game, con artists draw from a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief. And as we become more committed, with every step we give them more psychological material to work with.

Needless to say, the book bears remarkable relevance to the recent turn of events in American politics and its ripples in the mass manipulation machine known as the media.

More here.

THE GENE

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary. For Tolstoy, this was a philosophical inquiry — or a metaphysical one, as it would have been called in his day. But between his time and ours, science has unraveled the inescapable physical dimensions of this elemental question, rendering the already disorienting attempt at an answer all the more complex and confounding.

In The Gene: An Intimate History (public library), physician and Pulitzer-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee offers a rigorously researched, beautifully written detective story about the genetic components of what we experience as the self, rooted in Mukherjee’s own painful family history of mental illness and radiating a larger inquiry into how genetics illuminates the future of our species.

Mukherjee writes:

Three profoundly destabilizing scientific ideas ricochet through the twentieth century, trisecting it into three unequal parts: the atom, the byte, the gene. Each is foreshadowed by an earlier century, but dazzles into full prominence in the twentieth. Each begins its life as a rather abstract scientific concept, but grows to invade multiple human discourses — thereby transforming culture, society, politics, and language. But the most crucial parallel between the three ideas, by far, is conceptual: each represents the irreducible unit — the building block, the basic organizational unit — of a larger whole: the atom, of matter; the byte (or “bit”), of digitized information; the gene, of heredity and biological information.

Why does this property — being the least divisible unit of a larger form — imbue these particular ideas with such potency and force? The simple answer is that matter, information, and biology are inherently hierarchically organized: understanding that smallest part is crucial to understanding the whole.

Among the book’s most fascinating threads is Mukherjee’s nuanced, necessary discussion of intelligence and the dark side of IQ.

THE POLAR BEAR

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote 150 years ago in his ode to the spirit of sauntering. But in a world increasingly unwild, where we are in touch with nature only occasionally and only in fragments, how are we to nurture the preservation of our Pale Blue Dot?

That’s what London-based illustrator and Sendak Fellow Jenni Desmond explores in The Polar Bear (public library) — the follow-up to Desmond’s serenade to the science and life of Earth’s largest-hearted creature, The Blue Whale, which was among the best science books of 2015.

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The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the science behind it — its love of solitude, the black skin that hides beneath its yellowish-white fur, the built-in sunglasses protecting its eyes from the harsh Arctic light, why it evolved to have an unusually long neck and slightly inward paws, how it maintains the same temperature as us despite living in such extreme cold, why it doesn’t hibernate.

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Beyond its sheer loveliness, the book is suddenly imbued with a new layer of urgency. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls on solely on parents and educators. Desmond’s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection.

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Look closer here.

THE BIG PICTURE

“We are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious,” the poet Mark Strand marveled in his beautiful meditation on the artist’s task to bear witness to existence, adding: “We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself… It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.” Scientists are rightfully reluctant to ascribe a purpose or meaning to the universe itself but, as physicist Lisa Randall has pointed out, “an unconcerned universe is not a bad thing — or a good one for that matter.” Where poets and scientists converge is the idea that while the universe itself isn’t inherently imbued with meaning, it is in this self-conscious human act of paying attention that meaning arises.

Physicist Sean Carroll terms this view poetic naturalism and examines its rewards in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (public library) — a nuanced inquiry into “how our desire to matter fits in with the nature of reality at its deepest levels,” in which Carroll offers an assuring dose of what he calls “existential therapy” reconciling the various and often seemingly contradictory dimensions of our experience.

With an eye to his life’s work of studying the nature of the universe — an expanse of space and time against the incomprehensibly enormous backdrop of which the dramas of a single human life claim no more than a photon of the spotlight — Carroll offers a counterpoint to our intuitive cowering before such magnitudes of matter and mattering:

I like to think that our lives do matter, even if the universe would trundle along without us.

[…]

I want to argue that, though we are part of a universe that runs according to impersonal underlying laws, we nevertheless matter. This isn’t a scientific question — there isn’t data we can collect by doing experiments that could possibly measure the extent to which a life matters. It’s at heart a philosophical problem, one that demands that we discard the way that we’ve been thinking about our lives and their meaning for thousands of years. By the old way of thinking, human life couldn’t possibly be meaningful if we are “just” collections of atoms moving around in accordance with the laws of physics. That’s exactly what we are, but it’s not the only way of thinking about what we are. We are collections of atoms, operating independently of any immaterial spirits or influences, and we are thinking and feeling people who bring meaning into existence by the way we live our lives.

Carroll’s captivating term poetic naturalism builds on a worldview that has been around for centuries, dating back at least to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. It fuses naturalism — the idea that the reality of the natural world is the only reality, that it operates according to consistent patterns, and that those patterns can be studied — with the poetic notion that there are multiple ways of talking about the world and of framing the questions that arise from nature’s elemental laws.

I wrote about the book at length here.

THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES

Trees dominate the world’s the oldest living organisms. Since the dawn of our species, they have been our silent companions, permeating our most enduring tales and never ceasing to inspire fantastical cosmogonies. Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.” A forgotten seventeenth-century English gardener wrote of how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.”

But trees might be among our lushest metaphors and sensemaking frameworks for knowledge precisely because the richness of what they say is more than metaphorical — they speak a sophisticated silent language, communicating complex information via smell, taste, and electrical impulses. This fascinating secret world of signals is what German forester Peter Wohlleben explores in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (public library).

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Wohlleben chronicles what his own experience of managing a forest in the Eifel mountains in Germany has taught him about the astonishing language of trees and how trailblazing arboreal research from scientists around the world reveals “the role forests play in making our world the kind of place where we want to live.” As we’re only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousnesses, what emerges from Wohlleben’s revelatory reframing of our oldest companions is an invitation to see anew what we have spent eons taking for granted and, in this act of seeing, to care more deeply about these remarkable beings that make life on this planet we call home not only infinitely more pleasurable, but possible at all.

Read more here.

BEING A DOG

“The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking itself,” the great science storyteller Lewis Thomas wrote in his beautiful 1985 meditation on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge. But, like the conditioned consciousness out of which our thoughts arise, our olfactory perception is beholden to our cognitive, cultural, and biological limitations. The 438 cubic feet of air we inhale each day are loaded with an extraordinary richness of information, but we are able to access and decipher only a fraction. And yet we know, on some deep creaturely level, just how powerful and enlivening the world of smell is, how intimately connected with our ability to savor life. “Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes,” Anna Quindlen advised in her indispensable Short Guide to a Happy Life — but the noticing eclipses the getting, for the salt water breeze is lost on any life devoid of this sensorial perception.

Dogs, who “see” the world through smell, can teach us a great deal about that springlike sensorial aliveness which E.E. Cummings termed “smelloftheworld.” So argues cognitive scientist and writer Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, in Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell (public library) — a fascinating tour of what Horowitz calls the “surprising and sometimes alarming feats of olfactory perception” that dogs perform daily, and what they can teach us about swinging open the doors of our own perception by relearning some of our long-lost olfactory skills that grant us access to hidden layers of reality.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

The book is a natural extension of Horowitz’s two previous books, exploring the subjective reality of the dog and how our human perceptions shape our own subjective reality. She writes:

I am besotted with dogs, and to know a dog is to be interested in what it’s like to be a dog. And that all begins with the nose.

What the dog sees and knows comes through his nose, and the information that every dog — the tracking dog, of course, but also the dog lying next to you, snoring, on the couch — has about the world based on smell is unthinkably rich. It is rich in a way we humans once knew about, once acted on, but have since neglected.

Savor more of the wonderland of canine olfaction here.

I CONTAIN MULTITUDES

“I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,” Galileo marveled as he peered through his microscope — a tool that, like the telescope, he didn’t invent himself but he used with in such a visionary way as to render it revolutionary. The revelatory discoveries he made in the universe within the cell are increasingly proving to be as significant as his telescopic discoveries in the universe without — a significance humanity has been even slower and more reluctant to accept than his radical revision of the cosmos.

That multilayered significance is what English science writer and microbiology elucidator Ed Yong explores in I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (public library) — a book so fascinating and elegantly written as to be worthy of its Whitman reference, in which Yong peels the veneer of the visible to reveal the astonishing complexity of life thriving beneath and within the crude confines of our perception.

Early-twentieth-century drawing of Radiolaria, one of the first microorganisms, by Ernst Haeckel
Early-twentieth-century drawing of Radiolarians, some of the first microorganisms, by Ernst Haeckel

Artist Agnes Martin memorably observed that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” but Yong offers a biopoetic counterpoint in the fact that we are never truly alone. He writes:

Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis — a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right — a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.

[…]

All zoology is really ecology. We cannot fully understand the lives of animals without understanding our microbes and our symbioses with them. And we cannot fully appreciate our own microbiome without appreciating how those of our fellow species enrich and influence their lives. We need to zoom out to the entire animal kingdom, while zooming in to see the hidden ecosystems that exist in every creature. When we look at beetles and elephants, sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends, we see individuals, working their way through life as a bunch of cells in a single body, driven by a single brain, and operating with a single genome. This is a pleasant fiction. In fact, we are legion, each and every one of us. Always a “we” and never a “me.”

There are ample reasons to admire and appreciate microbes, well beyond the already impressive facts that they ruled “our” Earth for the vast majority of its 4.54-billion-year history and that we ourselves evolved from them. By pioneering photosynthesis, they became the first organisms capable of making their own food. They dictate the planet’s carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus cycles. They can survive anywhere and populate just about corner of the Earth, from the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean to the loftiest clouds. They are so diverse that the microbes on your left hand are different from those on your right.

But perhaps most impressively — for we are, after all, the solipsistic species — they influence innumerable aspects of our biological and even psychological lives. Young offers a cross-section of this microbial dominion:

The microbiome is infinitely more versatile than any of our familiar body parts. Your cells carry between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but it is estimated that the microbes inside you wield around 500 times more. This genetic wealth, combined with their rapid evolution, makes them virtuosos of biochemistry, able to adapt to any possible challenge. They help to digest our food, releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients. They produce vitamins and minerals that are missing from our diet. They break down toxins and hazardous chemicals. They protect us from disease by crowding out more dangerous microbes or killing them directly with antimicrobial chemicals. They produce substances that affect the way we smell. They are such an inevitable presence that we have outsourced surprising aspects of our lives to them. They guide the construction of our bodies, releasing molecules and signals that steer the growth of our organs. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They affect the development of the nervous system, and perhaps even influence our behaviour. They contribute to our lives in profound and wide-ranging ways; no corner of our biology is untouched. If we ignore them, we are looking at our lives through a keyhole.

In August, I wrote about one particularly fascinating aspect of Yong’s book — the relationship between mental health, free will, and your microbiome.

HIDDEN FIGURES

“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in American science, admonished the first class of female astronomers at Vassar in 1876. By the middle of the next century, a team of unheralded women scientists and engineers were powering space exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Meanwhile, across the continent and in what was practically another country, a parallel but very different revolution was taking place: In the segregated South, a growing number of black female mathematicians, scientists, and engineers were steering early space exploration and helping American win the Cold War at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Long before the term “computer” came to signify the machine that dictates our lives, these remarkable women were working as human “computers” — highly skilled professional reckoners, who thought mathematically and computationally for their living and for their country. When Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon, his “giant leap for mankind” had been powered by womankind, particularly by Katherine Johnson — the “computer” who calculated Apollo 11’s launch windows and who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama at age 97 in 2015, three years after the accolade was conferred upon John Glenn, the astronaut whose flight trajectory Johnson had made possible.

Katherine Johnson at her Langley desk with a globe, or "Celestial Training Device," 1960 (Photographs: NASA)
Katherine Johnson at her Langley desk with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device,” 1960 (Photographs: NASA)

In Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (public library), Margot Lee Shetterly tells the untold story of these brilliant women, once on the frontlines of our cultural leaps and since sidelined by the selective collective memory we call history.

She writes:

Just as islands — isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity — have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life.

Against a sobering cultural backdrop, Shetterly captures the enormous cognitive dissonance the very notion of these black female mathematicians evokes:

Before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female.

Shetterly herself grew up in Hampton, which dubbed itself “Spacetown USA,” amid this archipelago of women who were her neighbors and teachers. Her father, who had built his first rocket in his early teens after seeing the Sputnik launch, was one of Langley’s African American scientists in an era when words we now shudder to hear were used instead of “African American.” Like him, the first five black women who joined Langley’s research staff in 1943 entered a segregated NASA — even though, as Shetterly points out, the space agency was among the most inclusive workplaces in the country, with more than fourfold the percentage of black scientists and engineers than the national average.

Over the next forty years, the number of these trailblazing black women mushroomed to more than fifty, revealing the mycelia of a significant groundswell. Shetterly’s favorite Sunday school teacher had been one of the early computers — a retired NASA mathematician named Kathleen Land. And so Shetterly, who considers herself “as much a product of NASA as the Moon landing,” grew up believing that black women simply belonged in science and space exploration as a matter of course — after all, they populated her father’s workplace and her town, a town whose church “abounded with mathematicians.”

Embodying astronomer Vera Rubin’s wisdom on how modeling expands children’s scope of possibility, Shetterly reflects on this normalizing and rousing power of example:

Building 1236, my father’s daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.

[…]

The community certainly included black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors, and contractors, black cobblers, wedding planners, real estate agents, and undertakers, several black lawyers, and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.

Katherine Johnson, age 98 (Photograph: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair)
Katherine Johnson, age 98 (Photograph: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair)

But despite the opportunities at NASA, almost countercultural in their contrast to the norms of the time, life for these courageous and brilliant women was no idyll — persons and polities are invariably products of their time and place. Shetterly captures the sundering paradoxes of the early computers’ experience:

I interviewed Mrs. Land about the early days of Langley’s computing pool, when part of her job responsibility was knowing which bathroom was marked for “colored” employees. And less than a week later I was sitting on the couch in Katherine Johnson’s living room, under a framed American flag that had been to the Moon, listening to a ninety-three-year-old with a memory sharper than mine recall segregated buses, years of teaching and raising a family, and working out the trajectory for John Glenn’s spaceflight. I listened to Christine Darden’s stories of long years spent as a data analyst, waiting for the chance to prove herself as an engineer. Even as a professional in an integrated world, I had been the only black woman in enough drawing rooms and boardrooms to have an inkling of the chutzpah it took for an African American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the Moon.

[…]

And while the black women are the most hidden of the mathematicians who worked at the NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and later at NASA, they were not sitting alone in the shadows: the white women who made up the majority of Langley’s computing workforce over the years have hardly been recognized for their contributions to the agency’s long-term success. Virginia Biggins worked the Langley beat for the Daily Press newspaper, covering the space program starting in 1958. “Everyone said, ‘This is a scientist, this is an engineer,’ and it was always a man,” she said in a 1990 panel on Langley’s human computers. She never got to meet any of the women. “I just assumed they were all secretaries,” she said.

These women’s often impossible dual task of preserving their own sanity and dignity while pushing culture forward is perhaps best captured in the words of African American NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan:

What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured.

Dive in here.

THE GLASS UNIVERSE

Predating NASA’s women mathematicians by a century was a devoted team of female amateur astronomers — “amateur” being a reflection not of their skill but of the dearth of academic accreditation available to women at the time — who came together at the Harvard Observatory at the end of the nineteenth century around an unprecedented quest to catalog the cosmos by classifying the stars and their spectra.

Decades before they were allowed to vote, these women, who came to be known as the “Harvard computers,” classified hundreds of thousands of stars according to a system they invented, which astronomers continue to use today. Their calculations became the basis for the discovery that the universe is expanding. Their spirit of selfless pursuit of truth and knowledge stands as a timeless testament to pioneering physicist Lise Meitner’s definition of the true scientist.

The "Harvard Computers" at work, circa 1890.
The “Harvard computers” at work, circa 1890.

Science historian Dava Sobel, author of Galileo’s Daughter, chronicles their unsung story and lasting legacy in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (public library).

Sobel, who takes on the role of rigorous reporter and storyteller bent on preserving the unvarnished historical integrity of the story, paints the backdrop:

A little piece of heaven. That was one way to look at the sheet of glass propped up in front of her. It measured about the same dimensions as a picture frame, eight inches by ten, and no thicker than a windowpane. It was coated on one side with a fine layer of photographic emulsion, which now held several thousand stars fixed in place, like tiny insects trapped in amber. One of the men had stood outside all night, guiding the telescope to capture this image, along with another dozen in the pile of glass plates that awaited her when she reached the observatory at 9 a.m. Warm and dry indoors in her long woolen dress, she threaded her way among the stars. She ascertained their positions on the dome of the sky, gauged their relative brightness, studied their light for changes over time, extracted clues to their chemical content, and occasionally made a discovery that got touted in the press. Seated all around her, another twenty women did the same.

Women working at the Harvard Observatory, with Williamina Fleming (standing) supervising
The “computers” working at the Harvard Observatory, with Williamina Fleming (standing) supervising. (Harvard University Archives)

Among the “Harvard computers” were Antonia Maury, who had graduated from Maria Mitchell’s program at Vassar; Annie Jump Cannon, who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory; Henrietta Swan Levitt, a Radcliffe alumna whose discoveries later became the basis for Hubble’s Law demonstrating the expansion of the universe and whose work was so valued that she was paid 30 cents an hour, five cents over the standard salary of the computers; and Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, who became not only the first woman but the first person of any gender to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy.

Helming the team was Williamina Fleming — a Scotswoman whom Edward Charles Pickering, the thirty-something director of the observatory, first hired as a second maid at his residency in 1879 before recognizing her mathematical talents and assigning her the role of part-time computer.

Dive into their story here.

WOMEN IN SCIENCE

For a lighter companion to the two books above, one aimed at younger readers, artist and author Rachel Ignotofsky offers Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (public library) — an illustrated encyclopedia of fifty influential and inspiring women in STEM since long before we acronymized the conquest of curiosity through discovery and invention, ranging from the ancient astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Hypatia in the fourth century to Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, born in 1977.

True as it may be that being an outsider is an advantage in science and life, modeling furnishes young hearts with the assurance that people who are in some way like them can belong and shine in fields comprised primarily of people drastically unlike them. It is this ethos that Igontofsky embraces by being deliberate in ensuring that the scientists included come from a vast variety of ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, orientations, and cultural traditions.

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womeninscience_igontofsky_wangzhenyi

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There are the expected trailblazers who have stood as beacons of possibility for decades, even centuries: Ada Lovelace, who became the world’s first de facto computer programmer; Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and to this day the only person awarded a Nobel in two different sciences; Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who once elicited the exclamation “Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century!” (and was subsequently excluded from the Nobel she deserved); Maria Sybilla Merian, the 17th-century German naturalist whose studies of butterfly metamorphosis revolutionized entomology and natural history illustration; and Jane Goodall — another pioneer who turned her childhood dream into reality against tremendous odds and went on to do more for the understanding of nonhuman consciousness than any scientist before or since.

Take a closer look here.

* * *

On December 2, I joined Science Friday alongside Scientific American editor Lee Billings to discuss some of our favorite science books of 2016:

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the best science books of 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

BP

Conundrum: Pioneering Trans Writer Jan Morris on Gender, Identity, Belonging, and the Integration of Body and Spirit

“There is no norm. We are all different; none of us is entirely wrong; to understand is to forgive.”

Conundrum: Pioneering Trans Writer Jan Morris on Gender, Identity, Belonging, and the Integration of Body and Spirit

“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” Virginia Woolf observed in her astute reflection on gender. “The androgynous mind is resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided,” she wrote more than half a century before modern psychologists came to see that psychological androgyny is essential for creativity. And yet while the mind might thrive on such fluidity, our bodies — bodies that encode so much of our psychological and emotional reality — are born into a biological binary. So what happens to the person ripped asunder by a psyche and a body cast in different genders?

That’s what the celebrated Welsh historian and travel writer Jan Morris (b. October 2, 1926), a pioneer who helped make a home for the T of LGBT in the popular imagination, explores in Conundrum (public library) — her stunning 1974 memoir of transitioning from James Morris, an accomplished solider in the British military during WWII and a daredevil reporter, to the Jan she knew she was since childhood.

Jan Morris (Photograph: Jim Richardson / National Geographic)
Jan Morris (Photograph: Jim Richardson / National Geographic)

Writing a decade after the start of her medical transition, Morris begins at the beginning, mapping her interior landscape with the same sublimely lyrical prose familiar from her writings about the external world. Reflecting on her childhood as the youngest of three brothers in a family soon rendered fatherless, she writes:

I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.

I was sitting beneath my mother’s piano, and her music was falling around me like cataracts, enclosing me as in a cave. The round stumpy legs of the piano were like three black stalagmites, and the sound-box was a high dark vault above my head. My mother was probably playing Sibelius, for she was enjoying a Finnish period then, and Sibelius from underneath a piano can be a very noisy composer; but I always liked it down there, sometimes drawing pictures on the piles of music stacked around me, or clutching my unfortunate cat for company.

What triggered so bizarre a thought I have long forgotten, but the conviction was unfaltering from the start. On the face of things it was pure nonsense. I seemed to most people a very straightforward child, enjoying a happy childhood. I was loved and I was loving, brought up kindly and sensibly, spoiled to a comfortable degree, weaned at an early age on Huck Finn and Alice in Wonderland, taught to cherish my animals, say grace, think well of myself, and wash my hands before tea. I was always sure of an audience. My security was absolute. Looking back at my infancy, as one might look back through a windswept avenue of trees, I see there only a cheerful glimpse of sunshine… More to my point, by every standard of logic I was patently a boy. I was James Humphry Morris, male child.

This self-discovery of yet-to-be-named Jan under the pouring piano was monumental, but its tumult was silent — a sacred silence that lasted for decades. Morris writes:

I cherished it as a secret, shared for twenty years with not a single soul. At first I did not regard it as an especially significant secret. I was as vague as the next child about the meaning of sex, and I assumed it to be simply another aspect of differentness. For different in some way I recognized myself to be. Nobody ever urged me to be like other children: conformity was not a quality coveted in our home. We sprang, we all knew, from a line of odd forebears and unusual unions, Welsh, Norman, Quaker, and I never supposed myself to be much like anyone else.

Art from Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a tender modern fable of gender identity and acceptance

James was already a solitary and self-conscious child, but this unspoken secret imbued the aloneness with a special loneliness, a bone-deep nonbelonging to the rest of humanity. Young Morris “wandered lonely as a cloud over the hills” and, like Oliver Sacks, who used the telescope as a tool for connection amid loneliness, peered through a telescope into the seething cauldron of life unfolding all around — ordinary life of unexceptional normalcy, to which everyone else seemed to naturally belong. Morris writes:

The people I could see from my hilltop, farming their farms, tending their shops, flirting their way through seaside holidays, inhabited a different world from mine. They were all together, I was all alone. They were members, I was a stranger. They talked to each other in words they all understood about matters that interested them all. I spoke a tongue that was only mine, and thought things that would bore them. Sometimes they asked if they might look through my telescope, and this gave me great pleasure. The instrument played an important part in my fancies and conjectures, perhaps because it seemed to give me a private insight into distant worlds.

In a sentiment that calls to mind what Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers the very same year that Morris was finalizing this book (“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”), Morris adds:

Wherever I looked I could see some aspect of myself — an unhealthy delusion, I have since discovered, for it later made me feel that no country or city was worth visiting unless I either owned a house there, or wrote a book about it. Like all Napoleonic fantasies, it was a lonely sensation too. If it all belonged to me, then I belonged to no particular part of it.

[…]

My emotions, though, were far less distinct or definable. My conviction of mistaken sex was still no more than a blur, tucked away at the back of my mind, but if I was not unhappy, I was habitually puzzled. Even then that silent fresh childhood above the sea seemed to me strangely incomplete. I felt a yearning for I knew not what, as though there were a piece missing from my pattern, or some element in me that should be hard and permanent, but was instead soluble and diffuse. Everything seemed more determinate for those people down the hill.

This perpetual puzzlement would never quite leave Morris and would come to be the defining dilemma of her life.

From James to Jan
From James to Jan

I’ve always wondered whether the timing of Morris’s memoir was fortuitous happenstance or a deliberate decision aligned with the groundswell of cultural change at that moment: In 1974, the year the book was published, the mental health bible known as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) was revised to finally cease classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder — the beginning of a tidal wave in both psychology and popular culture, sweeping in an increasingly nuanced understanding of gender, sexuality, and gender identity. It is from the precipice of this tectonic shift that Morris writes:

Nobody really knows why some children, boys and girls, discover in themselves the inexpungeable belief that, despite all the physical evidence, they are really of the opposite sex. It happens at a very early age. Often there are signs of it when the child is still a baby, and it is generally profoundly ingrained, as it was with me, by the fourth or fifth year. Some theorists suppose the child to be born with it: perhaps there are undiscovered constitutional or genetic factors, or perhaps, as American scientists have lately suggested, the fetus has been affected by misdirected hormones during pregnancy. Many more believe it to be solely the result of early environment: too close an identification with one or the other parent, a dominant mother or father, an infancy too effeminate or too tomboyish. Others again think the cause to be partly constitutional, partly environmental — nobody is born entirely male or entirely female, and some children may be more susceptible than others to what the psychologists call the “imprint” of circumstance.

She points out the vital difference between the transgender experience and homosexuality or transvestism — while homosexuality means falling in love with and experiencing sexual desire for people of the same sex, and transvestism is predicated on the enjoyment of dressing like the opposite sex, neither entails a desire to actually change one’s sex. Transsexualism, on the other hand, is not about sex. What is at stake, Morris argues, is something larger, deeper, and more elemental — something of which the sexual body is an indelible part but only one part. In a sentiment that calls to mind Rilke’s immortal words about the body and the soul, she writes:

Transsexualism … is not a sexual mode or preference. It is not an act of sex at all. It is a passionate, lifelong, ineradicable conviction, and no true transsexual has ever been disabused of it… I equate it with the idea of soul, or self, and I think of it not just as a sexual enigma, but as a quest for unity. For me every aspect of my life is relevant to that quest — not only the sexual impulses, but all the sights, sounds, and smells of memory, the influences of buildings, landscapes, comradeships, the power of love and of sorrow, the satisfactions of the senses as of the body. In my mind it is a subject far wider than sex: I recognize no pruriency to it, and I see it above all as a dilemma neither of the body nor of the brain, but of the spirit.

As Morris grew older, this irreconcilable spiritual tension became unbearable and she came to feel that her life was bedeviled by perfidy, her true female identity masked by a false and ill-fitting male exterior. In a beautiful testament to the life-changing, life-saving power of an accepting environment, she recounts an existential turning point:

Oxford made me… It remains for me … an image of what I admire most in the world: a presence so old and true that it absorbs time and change like light into a prism, only enriching itself by the process, and finding nothing alien except intolerance.

Of course when I speak of Oxford, I do not mean simply the city, or the university, or even the atmosphere of the place, but a whole manner of thought, an outlook, almost a civilization. I came to it an anomaly, a contradiction in myself, and were it not for the flexibility and self-amusement I absorbed from the Oxford culture — which is to say, the culture of traditional England — I think I would long ago have ended in that last haven of anomaly, the madhouse. For near the heart of the Oxford ethos lies the grand and comforting truth that there is no norm. We are all different; none of us is entirely wrong; to understand is to forgive.

Art from Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a tender modern fable of gender identity and acceptance

But quite apart from its profound empathic rewards, Morris’s story radiates enormous insight into some of the most universal and most central questions of the human experience, above all that of self-creation — whether and to what degree we get to shape our own personhood and identity. More than four decades ago, Morris reflects on one elemental aspect of this question — the shifting fault lines of sex and gender:

I wonder if, by denying physical sex a supreme importance in my life (for such of course must be one moral of my epic) I am ahead of my time. I notice that a change of sex surprises and excites the middle-aged far more than the young, and I wonder if this means that sex is past its heyday. It has long lost the sanctity it commanded in our grandmothers’ day. Degraded by publicity, made casual by tolerance, defused by post-Freudian psychiatry, made unnecessary by artificial insemination, it is already becoming a matter not of the spirit but of the mechanism.

Peering into a future that is now a prominently present present, she adds:

Sexual intercourse will always remain a pleasure, of course, but I suspect it will become a pleasure entirely functional, like eating or drinking; and I am not the first to discover that one recipe for an idyllic marriage is a blend of affection, physical potency, and sexual incongruity.

Gender is a different matter. I foresee the day when scientists can evolve a reproductive system of choice, so that parents or more likely Governments can decree the sex of anyone, or organize the sexual balance of society. It will be harder to systematize gender. It is a more nebulous entity, however you conceive it. It lives in cavities. It cannot be computerized or tabulated. It transcends the body as it defies the test tube, yet the consciousness of it can be so powerful that it can drive someone like me relentlessly and unerringly through every stage of life.

We are all, of course, products of our place and time in many ways — a fact imbued with inescapable wistfulness whenever we consider the contrast between the finitude of our allotted lifespans and the infinite possibility of the future. It is with this wistfulness that Morris wonders nearly half a century before Transparent and today’s heartening groundswell of growing acceptance of trans people and compassion for their singular plight:

Would my conflict have been so bitter if I had been born now, when the gender line is so much less rigid? If society had allowed me to live in the gender I preferred, would I have bothered to change sex? Is mine only a transient phenomenon, between the dogmatism of the last century, when men were men and women were ladies, and the eclecticism of the next, when citizens will be free to live in the gender role they prefer? … I hope so. For every transsexual who grasps that prize, Identity, ten, perhaps a hundred discover it to be only a mirage in the end, so that their latter quandary is hardly less terrible than their first.

She returns to the crux of the quest — her own quest as a trans woman at last living out her true selfhood, and the general human quest to inhabit our most authentic identity:

I believe the transsexual urge, at least as I have experienced it, to be far more than a social compulsion, but biological, imaginative, and essentially spiritual, too. On a physical plane I have myself achieved, as far as is humanly possible, the identity I craved. Distilled from those sacramental fancies of my childhood has come the conviction that the nearest humanity approaches to perfection is in the persons of good women—and especially perhaps in the persons of kind, intelligent, and healthy women of a certain age, no longer shackled by the mechanisms of sex but creative still in other kinds, aware still in their love and sensuality, graceful in experience, past ambition but never beyond aspiration. In all countries, among all races, on the whole these are the people I most admire: and it is into their ranks, I flatter myself, if only in the rear file, if only on the flank, that I have now admitted myself.

In a closing passage evocative of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando — a staple in Morris’s childhood home — she adds:

But if my sense of isolation has gone, my sense of difference remains, and this is inevitable… I can never be as other people. My past is with me, and there is more to come. For to my journey there was always that trace of mysticism, madness if you will, and the unity I sought, I know now, was more than a unity of sex and gender, and reached towards the further vision… So I do not mind my continuing ambiguity. I have lived the life of man, I live now the life of woman, and one day perhaps I shall transcend both — if not in person, then perhaps in art, if not here, then somewhere else. There is no norm, no criterion, and perhaps no explanation.

In the introduction to the 2001 edition, Morris sums up the rewards of that ambiguity beautifully:

I never did think that my own conundrum was a matter either of science or of social convention. I thought it was a matter of the spirit, a kind of divine allegory, and that explanations of it were not very important anyway. What was important was the liberty of us all to live as we wished to live, to love however we wanted to love, and to know ourselves, however peculiar, disconcerting or unclassifiable, at one with the gods and angels.

Conundrum remains an exquisite read — a rare gift of empathic insight into an experience which most of us will never have but which is strewn with elements of the struggle for belonging, acceptance, and authenticity that most of us face daily in one form or another.

Complement it with spoken-word poet Lee Mokobe on what it’s like to be transgender, Hannah Arendt on the power and privilege of outsiderdom, and the wonderful Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress — one of the loveliest LGBT children’s books.

BP

The Best Children’s Books of 2015

From power-hungry sheep to power-hungry tigers, by way of ghosts, E.E. Cummings, and the unseen Dr. Seuss.

The Best Children’s Books of 2015

“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Some generations earlier, J.R.R. Tolkien vehemently asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and C.S. Lewis cautioned against treating children as a different species, while E.B. White saw them as “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers” among our own species.

With this lens, on the heels of the year’s best science books and best art books, here are the year’s most intelligent and imaginative books published “for children” but immeasurably rewarding for all readers.

1. ENORMOUS SMALLNESS

“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.”

See more here.

2. LOUIS I, KING OF THE SHEEP

“Never be hard upon people who are in your power,” Charles Dickens counseled in a letter of advice to his young son. And yet power has a way of calling forth the hardest and most unhandsome edges of human nature — something John F. Kennedy observed in his spectacular eulogy to Robert Frost, lamenting that power “leads men towards arrogance” and “narrows the areas of man’s concern.” Redemption, he argued, is only possible when we recognize that “what counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity.”

It’s a difficult lesson to impart even on the most intelligent and receptive of grownups, and one especially crucial in planting the seeds of good personhood in childhood, when we first brush with power dynamics in ways so real and raw that they can imprint us for life.

That’s what French illustrator Olivier Tallec accomplishes with extraordinary humor, sensitivity, and warmth in Louis I, King of the Sheep (public library) — one of the loveliest children’s books I’ve ever encountered.

Inspired by watching children tussle with power on the playground, it tells the story of a humble sheep named Louis who becomes self-appointed king after a fickle gust of wind deposits a royal crown at his feet.

As Louis I rises to power by nothing more than chance, he gradually transmogrifies into an entitled and arrogant tyrant — a woefully familiar behavioral pattern calling to mind the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment, that cornerstone of social psychology in which students were randomly assigned to be either prison guards or prisoners in a mock-jail and the “guards” proceeded to exploit their randomly assigned power to a point of devastating inhumanity.

Intoxicated with his newfound authority, Louis I goes on to find himself a throne “from which to hand down justice,” begins addressing the people, and embarks upon such royal activities as hunting — even for lions.

Eventually, he becomes so drunk on power that he decides he must bring order to his dominion by driving out all sheep who don’t resemble him — perhaps Tallec’s subtle invitation to parents to teach kids about the Holocaust, that darkest of episodes in the history of human nature, undergirded by the very same atrocious impulses.

And then, just like that, another fickle gust of wind takes the crown away.

See more here.

3. SIDEWALK FLOWERS

“How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her magnificent defense of living with presence. But in our age of productivity, we spend our days running away from boredom, never mind its creative and spiritual benefits, and toward maximum efficiency. Under the tyranny of multitasking, the unitasking necessary for the art of noticing has been exiled from our daily lives. And yet, as we grow increasingly disillusioned with the notion of “work/life balance,” something in our modern souls is aching for the resuscitation of this dying capacity for presence. That capacity is especially essential in parenting, where the cultural trope of the device-distracted parent is an increasingly disquieting pandemic.

Half a century after Ruth Krauss wrote, and Maurice Sendak illustrated, one of the loveliest lines in the history of children’s books — “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.” — poet JonArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith team up on a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.

Sidewalk Flowers (public library) tells the wordless story of a little girl on her way home with her device-distracted father, a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood walking through the urban forest. Along the way, she collects wildflowers and leaves them as silent gifts for her fellow participants in this pulsating mystery we call life — the homeless man sleeping on a park bench, the sparrow having completed its earthly hours, the neighbor’s dog and, finally, her mother’s and brothers’ hair.

The flowers become at once an act of noticing and a gift of being noticed, a sacred bestowing of attention with which the child beckons her father’s absentee mind back to mindful presence.

See more here.

4. THE LITTLE GARDENER

The Little Gardener (public library) by Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes comes on the heels and in the spirit of her wondrous debut, Wild — one of the best children’s books of 2014.

Here, Hughes tells the story of a tiny boy, no larger than a thumb, and his garden. The charming, immeasurably sweet tale calls to mind what Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “Whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!” It is at heart a parable of purpose — tender assurance for anyone who has ever undertaken a labor of love against seemingly insurmountable odds and persevered through hardship, continuing to nourishing that labor until the love emanates out, becomes contagious, and draws in kindred spirits as a centripetal force of shared purpose and enthusiasm.

Hughes’s illustrations, vibrant and deeply alive, capture that strange tapestry of tenderness and wilderness of which the human soul is woven.

This was the garden.
It didn’t look like much, but it meant everything to its gardener.
It was his home. It was his supper.
It was his joy.

But the little gardener, joyful and hardworking as he is, isn’t “much good at gardening,” for he is “just too little” — a beautiful metaphor for that feeling familiar to any artist and entrepreneur at the outset of a creative project, that sense of smallness in the face of a seemingly enormous endeavor, that moment where humility and faith must converge in order for one to surmount the mental barrier and march forward.

Mismatch of task and capability notwithstanding, the little gardener’s hard work pays off and one thing does blossom.

It was a flower.

It was alive and wonderful.

It gave the gardener hope and made him want to work even harder.

And so he does — he toils day and night, tirelessly tending to his jungle of a garden.

Even so, it begins to perish, his home, his supper, and his joy all at stake.

One particularly hopeless night, the little gardener peers out the window of his tiny straw hut and sends a single wish into the night sky — he wished that he could have some help, so his beloved garden would be saved.

No one heard his little voice, but someone saw his flower.

It was alive and wonderful.

It gave the someone hope.

It made the someone want to work harder.

As he blows his wish into the cosmos with a heavy heart, the little gardner drifts into sleep just as heavy — he sleeps a whole day, a whole week, a whole month. But, meanwhile, the Gulliveresque girl enchanted by that single flower — the little gardener’s sole labor of love — begins tending to the whole garden.

By the time the little gardener awakens, the garden is transformed into a blooming wonderland, nurtured by the largeness of a contagious love the seed for which he had planted in the heart of another.

This is the garden now.

And this is its gardener.

He doesn’t look like much,
but he means everything to his garden.

See more here.

5. THE TIGER WHO WOULD BE KING

“Power narrows the areas of man’s concern,” John F. Kennedy asserted in one of the greatest speeches of all time, adding: “What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation.” A century earlier, Nietzsche admonished against the self-aggrandizement aspect of power as he contemplated the fine line between constructive and destructive rebellion. But no one has addressed the ego’s blind lust for power with starker simplicity and more acuity of sentiment than beloved humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (December 8, 1894–November 2, 1961).

In 1927, the year his friend E.B. White helped him join the staff of the New Yorker for what would become a decades-long editorial relationship, young Thurber penned a short and piercing fable about a power-hungry tiger who sets out to become the king of beasts and ends up decimating the jungle into a subjectless dominion — a timeless text of penetrating timeliness amid our culture of mindless violence, too often punctuated by protest for protest’s sake and destructive rather than constructive rebellion.

Nearly a century later, illustrator and printmaker JooHee Yoon — the talent behind Beastly Verse, one of the best art books of the year — brings the Thurber classic to breathtaking new life in the stunning picture-book The Tiger Who Would Be King (public library).

Yoon, creator of the immeasurably wonderful Beastly Verse, enlists her mastery of early printmaking techniques in amplifying the dramatic vibrancy of the story, which she tells in only two colors layered over the hearty white paper to create a stunning interplay of light and shadow, stillness and brutality.

One morning the tiger woke up in the jungle and told his mate that he was king of beasts.

“Leo, the lion, is king of beasts,” she said.

“We need a change,” said the tiger. “The creatures are crying for change.”

The tigress listened but she could hear no crying, except that of her cubs.

So drunk does the tiger become on his obsession with omnipotence that he holds back no delusion:

“I’ll be king of beasts by the time the moon rises,” said the tiger. “It will be a yellow moon with black stripes, in my honor.”

“Oh, sure,” said the tigress as she went to look after her young, one of whom, a male, very like his father, had got an imaginary thorn in his paw.

Undergirding the story is a subtle subversion of gender stereotypes — the kind perpetuated by Disney in the same era, painting women as irrationally emotional and men as governed by cool reason. Thurber, whose cartoons frequently depicted women in calm control, casts his tigress as the lucid counterpoint to the masculine energy of baseless ego-driven violence.

But despite his mate’s refutations, the tiger makes his way to the lion’s den, where the lioness announces the belligerent visitor to her mate.

“The king is here to see you,” she said.

“What king?” he inquired, sleepily.

“The king of beasts,” she said.

“I am the king of beasts,” roared Leo, and he charged out of the den to defend his crown against the pretender.

A terrible brawl ensues and electrifies the jungle until sundown.

All the animals of the jungle joined in, some taking the side of the tiger and others the side of the lion. Every creature from the aardvark to the zebra took part in the struggle to overthrow the lion or to repulse the tiger, and some did not know which they were fighting for, and some fought for both, and some fought whoever was nearest, and some fought for the sake of fighting.

Thurber delivers his punchline, dark and delightful in its darkness:

When the moon rose, fevered and gibbous, it shone upon a jungle in which nothing stirred except a macaw and a cockatoo, screaming in horror.

All the beasts were dead except the tiger, and his days were numbered and his time was ticking away. He was monarch of all he surveyed, but it didn’t seem to mean anything.

MORAL: You can’t very well be king of beasts if there aren’t any.

See more here.

6. POOL

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll plunged his Alice into a fantastical world through the looking-glass, South Korean fine artist and illustrator JiHyeon Lee offers a magnificent modern counterpart in her picture-book debut, Pool (public library) — a wordless masterpiece of space, scale, and silence converging to create an underwater world of wonder just beneath the reflective surface of ordinary life.

Lee’s delicate yet immensely expressive pencil illustrations, partway between Sophie Blackall and mid-career Maurice Sendak, emanate childhood’s tender trepidations and the gentle playfulness at the heart of the story.

We meet a boy standing poolside, looking reluctantly at the boisterous crowd lurching into the annual invasion of the public pool — a noisy, chaotic scene Lee communicates with great subtlety and quietude.

Perched on an uncrowded corner of the pool, the boy hesitantly contemplates the prospect of plunging.

At last, he takes the leap and dives below the superficial clamor of the crowd, where he encounters his unexpected counterpart — a little girl propelled by the same shy curiosity.

Together, they dive even deeper and the pool suddenly transmogrifies into a whimsical underwater wonderland full of strange and beautiful creatures — a magical mashup of the ocean’s most glorious real-life inhabitants, the mythological marine deities of ancient folklore, and Borges’s imaginary beings.

Suddenly, they come upon a most magnificent sight.

With a mastery of pacing time through negative space, calling to mind Marianne Dubuc’s exquisite The Lion and the Bird, Lee paints a visual gasp as the two children find themselves facing a gentle giant — a peculiar being reminiscent of our planet’s largest real creature (the subject of another spectacular picture-book), only white and furry.

They peer into its giant eye, into its enormous otherness, not with fear but with affectionate awe — a sweet and subtle reminder that, as Neil Gaiman memorably put it, “behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us.”

As the two make their way back to the surface, that watery looking-glass through which they had plunged into a modern-day Wonderland, they exit the pool from the other end, somehow transformed; the clamorous crowd, having completed this annual chore, leaves the same way it had flounced in.

And then, as they take off their goggles, they peer into each other’s naked eyes to find in the otherness an affectionate sameness of spirit peering back.

See more here.

7. LEO: A GHOST STORY

“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,” Rilke wrote in contemplating how mortality expands our aliveness. That, perhaps, is why ghost tales are among the most universal and perennial fixtures of all mythologies and storytelling traditions — the very notion of a ghost welcomes a point of presence with life and death simultaneously. That most such stories cast ghosts as fearsome speaks to our lamentable tendency to approach the unfamiliar and the unknown — death, of course, being the ultimate unknown — with fear rather than with openminded, openhearted curiosity. Rilke knew this, writing in a letter that “fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people.” A generation later, Anaïs Nin observed that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.”

In Leo: A Ghost Story (public library), beloved children’s book author Mac Barnett and illustrator Christian Robinson subvert the many dimensions of this human tendency in a heartening parable of seeing through difference, meeting the unfamiliar with unflinching friendliness, and dignifying the reality of the other.

We meet little Leo, a warmhearted ghost who has been living in a great old house on the edge of the city for many years, spending his days reading and drawing.

But his bibliophilic idyll changes the day a new family buys the house and moves in.

At first excited for the company and eager to be “a good ghost,” Leo tries to welcome them by making mint tea and honey toast.

But the mysterious treats alarm the family and send them running for help, eventually enlisting “a scientist, a clergyman, and a psychic to get rid of the ghost.”

Disheartened by being this unwelcome in his own home, Leo decides to try living as a roaming ghost and heads to the city.

Leo saw the city and the people who lived there.
Nobody saw Leo.

Disoriented by the urban chaos, he tries to ask the policewoman for directions — but she walks right through him.

At last, Leo meets a little named Jane. Miraculously, Jane — who we’re told is wearing a crown — sees Leo and invites him to play Knights of the Round Table, then promptly knights him and introduces her to her imaginary friends at the roundtable.

But we never see the crown — a subtle bow before the mutual dignity of recognition, for Leo, too, sees something in Jane that others don’t.

When Jane’s mother beckons her back home, Leo is delighted to have met someone who could see him, but his heart sinks upon realizing that Jane perceives him as another imaginary friend, once again having his reality yanked away from him.

Still, the two reconvene after dinner for another playdate of slaying imaginary dragons with their make-believe swords. But just as they retire for bedtime, Leo hears rustling — it’s a burglar sneaking through the window.

He, too, walks right through Leo, despite the boy’s protective protestations.

Suddenly, Leo gets an idea — he tosses a bed sheet over himself and flies at the thief, startling him and causing him to drop the silverware, then chasing him into the main closet and locking him in until the police arrives.

“Later Leo would not be able to say where the idea came from,” writes Barnett — another wink at subverting cultural tropes and using them to one’s advantage, for the idea came, of course, from the familiar depiction of the ghost as a sheet-draped invisible presence. One can’t help but appreciate this wonderfully subtle reminder that children absorb the countless ideas permeating our culture. The positive manifestation of this is the creative act itself — we create by borrowing and combining ideas we’ve accumulated by the very act of being alive and attentive to the world. The negative manifestation is how stereotypes proliferate, planting seeds for ideas that seem to come out of nowhere, germinating our unconscious social biases.

The story offers a magnificent counterpoint to precisely this proliferation. In a cultural landscape where only 3% of children’s books feature characters of color and many continue to purvey limiting gender stereotypes, here’s a story where a little black girl is the knight in shining armor, the one who confers power and dignity upon Leo’s reality, and where a woman cop catches the bad guy in the end. It’s also a story that treats the difficult subject of death with levity and openness, adding to the most unusual and wonderful children’s books about making sense of mortality.

See more here.

8. THE MENINO

As the recent honorary aunt of an exceptional small human, I was thrilled to come upon The Menino: A Story Based on Real Events (public library) by Argentine singer, author, and illustrator Marisol Misenta, better known as Isol — a delightful developmental odyssey seen from the parallel perspectives of the strange new creature and his joyfully disoriented parents.

From breastfeeding to the complexities of crying to theory of mind, this tender and truthful tale chronicles what happens once a new baby lodges itself between the parents’ former lives as competent grownups who know what they’re doing and this thrilling yet terrifying next chapter aswirl with learning curves. The poetic, the philosophical, and the practical converge into a love letter to the unfolding of new life, so mysterious and mystifying to the surrounding adults who, after all, were once babies themselves.

The Menino arrives
very hungry
and has to eat often.

He activates a pump
that he has in his mouth
and uses it to sip
and suck.

He prefers the milk
that is prepared by the woman of the house.

One ordinary day when they are playing with him, telling him stories or talking in high squeaky voices, The Menino discovers something surprising… that big people were once Meninos themselves.

Then The Menino feels at home… and decides to live here.

See more here.

9. HOME

“Home,” Maya Angelou wrote in her magnificent meditation on belonging and (not) growing up, “is that youthful region where a child is the only real living inhabitant.” Indeed, it seems that only for children, with their purity of feeling and their ability to “mediate the ideal and the real,” does the Venn diagram of home and house integrate into one fully overlapping circle. In adulthood, the circles drift further and further apart as we begin to project our conflicted dream-home ideals onto our real houses.

In the impossibly wonderful Home (public library), illustrator and children’s book author Carson Ellis presents an imaginative taxonomy of houses and a celebration of the wildly different kinds of people who call them home.

What emerges is a playful and tender reminder that however different our walks of life — what contrast there is between the Slovakian duchess’s mansion and the Kenyan blacksmith’s shack, between the babushka’s kitchen and the artist’s studio! — we are united by our deep desire for a place to call home.

After all, we begin belonging to his world — to borrow Mary Oliver’s wonderful phrase — first by rooting ourselves into it; by staking out a little corner of it to call our very own. It need not have walls or a roof — it can be a tour bus, or even a shoe, as Ellis’s illustrated taxonomy assures — but only from that place of safety can we reach out to connect, to understand one another, and to begin belonging together.

Ellis guides the reader to and through this common thread of belonging by placing little semi-hidden markers of communion and continuity — the same house plant graces multiple homes; a pigeon visits the young girl in Brooklyn and then perches on the Russian babushka’s window; the icon that hangs on the wall of the babushka’s kitchen is seen, several pages later, on the wall of the artist’s studio. (The artist, endearingly enough, is Ellis herself.)

Sprinkled amid the very real homes of very real people from different cultures are the whimsical abodes familiar from beloved tales — right next to the Japanese businessman is the Norse god, proudly standing before his magical palace, and a giant upside-down cup calls to mind Leonard Weisgard’s magnificent mid-century illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

See more here.

10. WHAT PET SHOULD I GET?

Theodor Geisel (March 2, 1904–September 24, 1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, is one of the most beloved children’s book authors of all time. Maurice Sendak called him “a creature content with himself as animal and artist, and one who didn’t give a lick or a spit for anyone’s opinion, one way or another, of his work.” Geisel was also a creature besotted with animals, in his art and his life. One of literary history’s greatest pet-lovers, he had more pets throughout his life than he did accolades, and accolades he had many — including a Pulitzer Prize, three Caldecott Honors, and eight honorary degrees. Animals populated his many children’s books, his secret art, and even his wartime propaganda cartoons.

In the spring of 1957, almost two decades after his little-known “adult” book of nudes, it was an animal book — The Cat in the Hat — that led critics to declare Dr. Seuss an overnight success, despite the fact that he had been writing for twenty years and this was his thirteenth book. That fall, How the Grinch Stole Christmas sealed his status as a celebrity of creative culture and he joined Random House as the editor of a new imprint for young readers.

But the book into which Dr. Seuss poured his most exuberant love of animals, created sometime between 1958 and 1962, was never made public in his lifetime.

In 1991, shortly after his death, Geisel’s widow Audrey and his longtime secretary and friend Claudia Prescott discovered among his papers the manuscript and finished line art for what is now finally published as What Pet Should I Get? (public library).

Although the story, on the surface, is about a classic practical dilemma of childhood, it has — like all Dr. Seuss books, and like all great children’s books, for there is no such thing as writing “for children” — a deeper philosophical undercurrent. At its heart is a meditation on two all too common maladies afflicting modern grownups — the paradox of choice, which Geisel witnessed closely as the Mad Men era ushered in consumerist society and which continues to fascinate psychologists today, and the fear of missing out, so pervasive in contemporary culture that we’ve shorthanded it into the buzzwordy acronym FOMO.

We meet a brother and sister who arrive at the pet store, enraptured by their father’s permission to choose one — and only one — pet to take home. But as soon as they enter, a growing chorus of lovable animals make their irresistible appeals. The common binary choice of cat or dog soon expands into an overwhelming array of increasingly fantastical creatures, beginning with other less common real-life pet options and eventually tipping over into Dr. Seuss’s famous imaginary beings.

Recurring throughout the story and interjecting the otherwise first-person narrative is an omniscient voice urging the kids, “Make up your mind” — the quintessential refrain of the mind paralyzed by the paradox of choice and tortured by FOMO.

The cat?
Or the dog?
The kitten?
The pup?

Oh boy!
It is something
to make a mind up.

Then I looked at Kay.
I said, “What will we do?
I like all the pets that I see.
So do you.

We have to pick ONE pet
and pick it out soon.
You know Mother told us
to be back by noon.”

The ending is both playful and profound: Under the use-it-or-lose-it proposition of the time they were given to choose a pet, the kids do as the refrain urges, make up their minds, and choose — except we never find out which creature they chose.

Undergirding this open-endedness is a poetic reminder that in the face of life’s dilemmas, there is often no right or wrong choice — what matters is only that we do choose, that we make up our minds and march forward, for nothing dulls the little time we have more surely than the paralysis of indecision. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who tells the Cheshire Cat: “I don’t much care where … so long as I get somewhere.

“I will do it right now.
I will do it!” I said.
“I will make up the mind
that is up in my head.”

The dog…? Or the rabbit…?
The fish…? Or the cat…?
I picked one out fast,
and that that was that.

The story’s protagonists are the same kids that had appeared in Dr. Seuss’s 1960 book One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. (Geisel, like Maurice Sendak and other children’s book authors, sometimes recycled his characters.) Like most of the books Dr. Seuss created before 1963, One Fish was colored using basic CMYK — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — without mixing the inks to create other colors, such as green and purple, which would only appear in his later books.

Geisel was ordinarily meticulous about indicating what colors should go where in his line art, but he had left no such markings on this manuscript. To address the practical challenge while honoring Dr. Seuss’s aesthetic, Cathy Goldsmith — the Random House art director tasked with bringing the manuscript to posthumous life — turned to the fish book as a color guide but bridged it with Dr. Seuss’s later work to create a hybrid palette composed primarily of CMYK, enriched by a few additional colors. This would no doubt have pleased Geisel, a notorious perfectionist who belabored every detail and once professed:

I know my stuff looks like it was rattled off in twenty-eight seconds, but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.

A spread from ‘What Pet Should I Get?’ as it was originally found. Geisel estimated that he produced more than a thousand pages of text and images for a typical 64-page book, revising over and over. He always taped the text into position on the original line art, as seen here.

See more here.

11. THE BOOK OF MEMORY GAPS

“The least contaminated memory,” wrote Sarah Manguso in her magnificent meditation on memory and the ongoingness of time, “might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it.” Those contaminations, of course, are the very act of living, and slicing this paradox asunder is the double-edged sword of memory itself — something legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks captured perfectly in observing that we humans are equipped with “memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections — but also great flexibility and creativity.”

But while psychologists have demonstrated that creativity does indeed hinge on memory and modern science has illuminated how memory actually works, its crucial role in our experience of stress, and why sleep is essential for its proper function, we remain mystified by its astonishing and often debilitating glitches. And yet these imperfections, to paraphrase Rilke, are the demons exorcising which would make the angels of our creativity flee in solidarity.

How to embrace, or at least making sense of, memory’s necessary fallibilities is what Brooklyn-based Mexican illustrator Cecilia Ruiz explores with equal parts playfulness and poignancy in The Book of Memory Gaps (public library) — a collection of fourteen short, lyrical illustrated vignettes, each centered around one protagonist experiencing a particular misfiring of memory.

Although the characters are fictional, each of the micro-stories captures the intimate human experience of living with a real memory disorder — from face blindness (which Dr. Sacks himself has) to savant syndrome to cryptomnesia to Alzheimer’s to various forms of amnesia.

Ruiz’s vignettes are decidedly dark — even tragic — but undergirding them is a certain sympathetic wistfulness for those reality-warping and unimaginably trying conditions. At its heart, the book is a dual invitation to appreciate the mundane miracle of memory, the proper functioning of which we’ve come to take for granted, and to practice the art of moral imagination by learning to empathize with the invisible daily struggles of those experiencing life with a memory impairment.

We meet Pyotr, who has uncannily accurate memory and can repeat the song of a bird he heard years ago; Simon, the pastor who confuses the memories of his confessors for his own and anguishes over his borrowed sins; Nadya, who has never been to the ocean but has a vivid sensory memory of swimming in the saltwater; Alexander, who axes his piano and quits being a composer in despair over repeatedly writing music that someone else has already written.

Veronika was bad at faces but good with smells. She learned to make perfumes and gave them to the ones she loved so she might know when they were near.

Every evening, Viktor arrived home on the same shore, thinking that he had been at sea for months. His wife would be there to welcome him, though he had left that same morning. Sadly for him, his wife’s excitement could never equal his own.

Natascha constantly has words on the tip of her tongue. She keeps feeling she is about to remember, but they never come. She spends her days searching for all of her missing words.

The short epilogue — a verse from Jorge Luis Borges’s 1969 poem “Cambridge” — seals the book’s conceptual splendor:

We are our memory,
we are that chimerical museum of shifting shapes,
that pile of broken mirrors.

And since the finest children’s books provide, as Tolkien believed, timeless delight, step into the chimerical museum of stellar selections from 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

BP

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