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Maria Popova at the blog Brain Pickings is an endless source of inspiration. Whether she is posting about art, nature, philosophy, or children’s books, she’s a treasure. 

Today I want to dip into her report on an out-of-print book featuring an artistic rendering of the wonders of the Great Barrier reef. Considering how fast the optimal conditions for the reef are being lost to global warming and the ocean’s higher carbon levels, it might be a good idea to think about how it looked in 1893.

Popova begins, “While the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel was salving his fathomless personal tragedy with the transcendent beauty of jellyfish, having enraptured Darwin with his drawings, his English colleague William Saville-Kent (July 10, 1845–October 11, 1908) was transcending his own darkness on the other side of the globe with the vibrant, irrepressible aliveness of the Great Barrier Reef and its astonishing creatures. 

“By the end of his adolescence, William had survived the unsurvivable. The youngest of ten children, he lost his mother when he was seven.”

Suzanne’s Mom pauses here to let you read what else was “unsurvivable,” including murder most foul.

“William was shaken by the inordinate share of loss, violence, and public shame he had accrued in so young a life. Taking refuge in the impartial world of science, he came to study under the great biologist and comparative anatomist T.H. Huxley, who had coined the term agnosticism and who had so boldly defended Darwin’s evolutionary ideas against the reactionary tide of opposition a decade earlier.

“Upon completing his studies, Saville-Kent received an appointment in the Natural History department of the British Museum as curator of coral. He grew enchanted with these beguiling, poorly understood creatures; he also grew bored with the museum position — he longed to do research, to contribute to the evolving understanding of these living marvels. …

“As Saville-Kent approached forty, his old mentor T.H. Huxley — by then the most prominent British life-scientist after Darwin’s death a year earlier — recommended him as inspector of fisheries in Tasmania. Saville-Kent left England and the dark specter of his youth for the bright open seas of the South Pacific, where he grew newly enchanted with the lush underwater wonderland of strange-shaped corals and echinoderms, frilly anemones and tentacled mollusks, fishes in colors that belong in a Kandinsky painting, creatures he had marveled at only as dead and disjointed museum specimens or segregated aquarium captives, creatures he had never imagined. 

“Determined to bring public awareness and awe to this otherworldly ecosystem — an ecosystem that in the century since his time has grown so gravely endangered by human activity that it might not survive another century — he authored the first popular science book on that irreplaceable underwater world. In 1893, several years before the German oceanographer published the gorgeously illustrated first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Saville-Kent published The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities — a pioneering encyclopedia of one of Earth’s most luscious and delicate ecosystems, illustrated with a number of Saville-Kent’s black-and-white photographs and several stunning color lithographs by two artists, a Mr. Couchman and a Mr. Riddle, based on Saville-Kent’s original watercolors.” More at Brain Pickings, here.

One thing I love about Brain Pickings is the way Maria Popova’s own brain makes such interesting connections. At the end of almost every post she links to other posts on topics that may seem unrelated on the surface but play off each other in an interesting way. Her approach is a bit like suggesting an unusual cheese to go with your wine.

Illustration from William Saville-Kent’s book Fishes from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Maria Popova at Brain Pickings makes it available as a print and as a face mask!)

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Maria Popova at Brain Pickings is a Renaissance woman. She not only reviews books on science, philosophy, and poetry at major publications, but she maintains a deeply thoughtful blog that includes the best suggestions anywhere for children’s books. I have bought many at my local indy bookstore after reading her reviews, and she has never let me — or the grandchildren — down.

Last spring I was talking to a woman who was also a Maria Popova fan and who had bought some of the Brain Pickings suggestions for her own grandchildren, but not all the same ones I had.

So I took mine out of circulation for a while to have a tidy collection in case she should drop in. I had previously learned that to keep track of these unusual books and also to share them with two families of grandchildren, it was best to bring them back and forth to my kids’ houses when I visit. I will be putting them all back in circulation soon.

Above, you can see the ones I pulled together, any of which I would love to tell you more about if you ask. (Hmm, was Take Away the A really one of hers? The more I think about it, the less I think it is her style.)

The White Cat and the Monk, a serene retelling of an ancient story, is still at Suzanne’s house. The Little Gardener and The Sound of Silence are at John’s.

In Popova’s review of The Sound of Silence, you can see why no grandparent could possibly resist this thoughtful kind of analysis. In addition, Popova apparently gets permission to show all the tantalizing illustrations.

Look at the title of this post: “The Sound of Silence: An Illustrated Serenade to the Art of Listening to Your Inner Voice Amid the Noise of Modern Life; A tender reminder that silence is not the absence of sound but the presence of an inward-listening awareness.” Already I’m hooked.

Popova begins: “ ‘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.”

Not your typical children’s book review, am I right?

She continues, “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.

“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.” More.

In the illustration below, the boy asks the koto player what is her favorite sound, and she puzzles him by answering, with a cryptic smile, “The sound of silence.” Check out the other illustrations here.

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If you don’t already follow Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings on twitter or receive her emails, you might want to consider it.  For me, she is a source of science ideas and children’s book reviews and all sorts of deep thoughts on a myriad of topics. And she always suggests complementary readings at the end of her posts.

Here she reports on a short, animated Ted-Ed that romps through the history of books.

“Carl Sagan saw books as ‘proof that human beings are capable of working magic,’ Popova begins. ‘Reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised,’ Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska observed in her memorable meditation on why we read. …

“Books, Susan Sontag wrote in her beautiful letter to Borges, grant us ‘a way of being fully human.’

“Indeed, any thinking, feeling human being knows that it is impossible to be fully alive and awake to the world without reading, and so we’ve come to see books not only as essential to our humanity.

“But this wasn’t always so. …

“How did something so nascent become so elemental to our humanity? That’s what educator Julie Dreyfuss and animator Patrick Smith … explore in this short TED-Ed animation chronicling the history of books:

As the book evolves and we replace bound texts with flat screens and electronic ink, are these objects and files really books? Does the feel of the cover or the smell of the paper add something crucial to the experience, or does the magic live only within the words, no matter what their presentation?

More here.

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Over at the Brain Pickings blog, Maria Popova has a review of a book that features photos of famous meals in fiction.

“Food and literature have a long and arduous relationship … But nowhere does that relationship come alive more vividly and enchantingly than in Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals  … an ingenious project by designer and writer Dinah Fried, who cooks, art-directs, and photographs meals from nearly two centuries of famous fiction. Each photograph is accompanied by the particular passage in which the recipe appeared, as well as a few quick and curious factlets about the respective author, novel, or food.

“The project began as a modest design exercise while Fried was attending the Rhode Island School of Design a couple of years ago, but the concept quickly gripped her with greater allure that transcended her original short-term deadline.

“As she continued to read and cook, a different sort of self-transcendence took place. [Although] a near-vegetarian, she found herself wrestling with pig kidney for Ulysses and cooking bananas eleven ways for Gravity’s Rainbow. …

“All of Fried’s photographs are immensely thoughtful (Ishmael’s austere dinner from Moby-Dick is not only a nautically appropriate serving of clam chowder, but also appears lit by candlelight), and some bear a distinct undertone of cultural meta-satire (representing A Confederacy of Dunces is the ultimate edible Americana, a hot dog on a classic All-American diner tablecloth).”

Check out Popova’s review here, and revel in photographs that include Sylvia Plath’s avocado and crabmeat salad, Oliver Twist’s request for “More,” Proust’s petite madeleine, Alice’s Mad Tea Party, and Heidi’s toasted cheese.

Photo: Dinah Fried
“On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.” — The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

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The semicolons’ mournful racket
is drowned out by surrounding brackets

Maria Popova recently wrote at Brain Pickings about a 1905 poem that playfully imagines warfare among various kinds of punctuation.

She reports that a new edition, In the Land of Punctuation, is “a beautiful and clever type-art adaptation of German poet Christian Morgenstern’s darkly delightful 1905 poem ‘Im Reich der Interpunktionen,’ illustrated by Indian graphic artist Rathna Ramanathan and translated into English by Sirish Rao. …

“Silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes and hand-bound in a limited edition of 3,000 numbered copies, this gorgeous large-format book comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books — a small team of passionate book- and art-lovers who have spent two decades giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in a fair-trade workshop in Chennai.”

The peaceful land of Punctuation
is filled with tension overnight

When the stops and commas of the nation
call the semicolons “parasites”

More.

Art: Rathna Ramanathan

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Maria Popova at Brain Pickings finds the most wonderful books to blog about. In a recent post she extolled the wonders of fairy tale illustrations by Kay Rasmus Nielsen.

I was surprised to learn that’s a man’s name in Denmark. Wikipedia says, “Kay Nielsen was born in Copenhagen into an artistic family; both of his parents were actors – Nielsen’s father, Martinus Nielsen, was the director of Dagmarteater and his mother, Oda Nielsen, was one of the most celebrated actresses of her time, both at the Royal Danish Theater and at the Dagmarteater.

“Kay … received his first English commission from Hodder and Stoughton to illustrate a collection of fairy tales, providing 24 colour plates and more than 15 monotone illustrations for In Powder and Crinoline, Fairy Tales Retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1913. In the same year, Nielsen was also commissioned by The Illustrated London News to produce a set of four illustrations to accompany the tales of Charles Perrault; Nielsen’s illustrations for ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Bluebeard’ were published in the 1913 Christmas Edition.”

This is from Maria Popova: “As a lover of illustrated fairy tales and having just returned from Sweden, I was delighted to discover, thanks to the relentlessly wonderful 50 Watts, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North … illustrated by Danish artist Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957), whose work you might recall from [my list of] the all-time greatest illustrations of Brothers Grimm and the fantastic visual history of Arabian Nights. Originally published in 1914, this magnificent tome of 15 stories was recently reissued by Calla Editions, the same Dover imprint that revived Harry Clarke’s magnificent illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe, and features 25 color illustrations, along with a slew of black-and-white ones, in Nielsen’s singular style of haunting whimsy.”

There are more than 20 amazing Nielson illustrations here, at Brain Pickings.

Art: Kay Rasmus Nielsen
The North Wind went over the sea.

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You remember that breathtaking moment in the movie The Miracle Worker, when a fiercely determined Annie Sullivan finally gets through to a recalcitrant Helen Keller that her hand signals are words and words have meaning? Well, revelations like Helen’s continue to happen to children, as in the recent viral video of a baby getting a first pair of glasses. The dawning wonder and smiles are so touching.

Today, Maria Popova posted a video at Brain Pickings of a deaf teen in Uganda whose silent world opens in a similar flash, and it is powerful. The TV report that captured that moment is obviously edited, but I find it convincing and moving.

According to the YouTube blurb, Patrick Otema, 15, is profoundly deaf. “In the remote area of Uganda where he lives, there are no schools for deaf children, and he has never had a conversation. Raymond Okkelo, a sign language teacher, hopes to change all this and offer Patrick a way out of the fearful silence he has known his whole life.”

Popova recommends you watch the video, then pair it with Helen Keller’s thoughts on optimism.

Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy. Once I fretted and beat myself against the wall that shut me in. Now I rejoice in the consciousness that I can think, act and attain heaven. … Can anyone who escaped such captivity, who has felt the thrill and glory of freedom, be a pessimist?
My early experience was thus a leap from bad to good. If I tried, I could not check the momentum of my first leap out of the dark; to move breast forward as a habit learned suddenly at that first moment of release and rush into the light. With the first word I used intelligently, I learned to live, to think, to hope.

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I have enjoyed Maria Popova’s reviews of children’s books at Brain Pickings and have been moved to buy quite a few.

This is the first picture book for grown-ups I’ve seen at her site, a kind of meditation on living life, with watercolors of an Everyman thinking about things.

Popova writes, “French-born, Baltimore-based artist Jean-Pierre Weill explores in The Well of Being (public library) — an extraordinary ‘children’s book for adults,’ three years in the making, that peers into the depths of the human experience and the meaning of our existence, tracing how the stories we tell ourselves to construct our personae obscure the truth of our personhood, and how we can untell them in order to just be. …

“Weill dances across the Big Bang, the teachings of the 18th-century Italian philosopher and mystic Ramchal, evolution, 9/11, and life’s most poetic and philosophical dimensions. He tells the lyrical story of a man — an androgynous being who ‘represents Everyman and also Everywoman,’ as Weill explains in the endnotes — moving from the origin of the universe to the perplexities of growing up to the mystery of being alive.”

Here’s a passage:

Is the world not whole? Is it not beautiful?

For now, let’s consider well-being a choice, something you can try on and wear. When we put on the hat and coat of well-being we incline towards joy without special occasion.

More at Brain Pickings, here.

Art: Jean-Pierre Weill 

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I can hardly keep up with all the delightful-sounding children’s books that Maria Popova describes at Brain Pickings, but my local bookstore is benefiting in any case — not to mention, my grandchildren.

Here is one book that sounds worth checking into.

“In Tell Me What to Dream About,” writes Popova, third-generation artist Giselle Potter — who has previously illustrated such treasures as Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book and Toni Morrison’s darkly philosophical allegory for freedom — offers a whimsical take on lucid dreaming, that irresistible longing to choose our own nocturnal adventures.

“Potter tells the story of two sisters who, at bedtime, offer each other ideas for possible things to be dreamt that night — a tree-house town, a world where everything is furry, a fluffy world where clouds are worn as sweaters and eaten as treats, teeny-tiny animals feasting on teeny-tiny waffles. What emerges is a colorful celebration of children’s minds.” More here.

When I was a child, the oldest of a few others, I told stories after lights out, mostly about Sammy Seal, who snuck out through a hole at the bottom of the aquarium at night, had adventures, and got back before the authorities noticed his absence. Wish I could remember an adventure.

I’m thinking, What would I like to dream about tonight? I would like a dream in which all the people I know who are going through bad things just now were healed. And then I would wake up and it would be so.

Art: Giselle Potter

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I saw another recommendation at Brain Pickings for an intriguing-sounding book and bought it to have around for my grandchildren. It doesn’t have words, and when I tried to talk through the pictures to my second grandson, he said, “Read it.” He could tell I wasn’t using the read-a-story-book-voice.

But it’s a thoroughly charming book, and I’m sure he’ll catch on.

Maria Popova writes, “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. …

Sidewalk Flowers, which is immeasurably wonderful in its analog totality, comes from Canadian independent children’s-book publisher Groundwood Books.” More thoughtful description and more of the pictures may be found here.

I think Popova’s Brain Pickings blog is amazing, even if her prose is sometimes a little purple. I myself wouldn’t say that the demands of our always-on-the-job culture “rips the soul asunder.” Those demands are mostly pointless and should be ignored.

Art: Sydney Smith

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We had just enough snow yesterday to top off the cross-country trail my husband likes, but he’s pretty sure today was his last day skiing this season.

Before winter is entirely gone, check out a charming children’s book called Once Upon a Northern Night.

In the words of Maria Popova at BrainPickings.org, “Writer Jean E. Pendziwol and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault weave a beautiful lullaby in Once Upon a Northern Night (public library | IndieBound) — a loving homage to winter’s soft-coated whimsy, composed with touches of Thoreau’s deep reverence for nature and Whitman’s gift for exalting ‘the nature around and within us.’ …

” ‘Once upon a northern night
a great gray owl gazed down
with his great yellow eyes
on the milky-white bowl of your yard.
Without a sound
not even the quietest whisper,
his great silent wings lifted and
down,
down,
down,
he drifted,
leaving a feathery sketch
of his passing
in the snow.’ “

More about the book here.

Popova recommends that you complement Once Upon a Northern Night with Tove Jansson’s Finnish “classic Moominland Midwinter, then revisit the best children’s books of the year.”

My local indie bookstore is getting a lot of extra business because of Popova’s reviews of children’s books. In fact, I told the shop manager yesterday he should follow Brain Pickings, but there was a long line at the register, and I don’t think he wrote it down.

Art: Isabelle Arsenault/Groundwood Books
Once Upon a Northern Night

 

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I read Maria Popova’s review of this children’s book on the universe a while ago and have been thinking about it ever since.

She writes, “There’s something at once incredibly empowering and incredibly humbling in knowing that the flame in your fireplace came from the sun.

“That’s precisely the kind of cosmic awe environmental writer Elin Kelsey and Toronto-based Korean artist Soyeon Kim seek to inspire in kids in You Are Stardust (public library) — an exquisite picture-book that instills that profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism …

“Kim’s breathtaking dioramas … mix tactile physical materials with fine drawing techniques and digital compositing to illuminate the relentlessly wondrous realities of our intertwined existence: The water in your sink once quenched the thirst of dinosaurs; with every sneeze, wind blasts out of your nose faster than a cheetah’s sprint; the electricity that powers every thought in your brain is stronger than lightning.

“But rather than dry science trivia, the message is carried on the wings of poetic admiration for these intricate relationships:

“Be still. Listen.
“Like you, the earth breathes.” More here.

Popova adds these thoughts from particle physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss:

Atoms come in different types called elements. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon are three of the most important elements in your body. … How did those elements get into our bodies? The only way they could have got there, to make up all the material on our Earth, is if some of those stars exploded a long time ago, spewing all the elements from their cores into space. … So, most of the atoms that now make up your body were created inside stars! The atoms in your left hand might have come from a different star from those in your right hand. You are really a child of the stars.

Art: Soyeon Kim
From the children’s book You Are Stardust

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Maria Popova at Brain Pickings has wide-ranging interests, and one of her special strengths is finding charming children’s books. In a recent post, she wrote about an alphabet book you can get at the library.

“I was instantly taken with Work: An Occupational ABC (public library) by Toronto-based illustrator and designer Kellen Hatanaka — a compendium of imaginative, uncommon, stereotype-defying answers to the essential what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up question.

“With a sensibility between mid-century children’s books and Blexbolex [a French graphic artist described here], Hatanaka weaves bold graphics and soft shades into a tapestry of tender vignettes about people of all shapes, sizes, and colors. There is the K-9 officer (female) training her trusty dog on an obstacle course; the Butcher (heavy-set) chasing after a mischievous raccoon that got away with the sausage; the Naval Architect (female) oversees the construction of a large ship near the shore as the Oceanographer (female, dark-skinned) explores the marine world below the surface.”

Canadian independent children’s-book publisher Groundwood Books is to be commended for this little treasure. You can see most of the pictures in Popova’s blog post, here. They are completely delightful.

Art: Kellen Hatanaka
Vibraphonist from Work: An Occupational ABC

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Ever hear of a living thing that has been growing for 3,000 years? Check the picture below. Or how about a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree?

At Brain Pickings. Maria Popova writes, “For nearly a decade, Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe to discover and document its oldest organisms — living things over 2,000 years of age.

“Her breathtaking photographs and illuminating essays are now collected in The Oldest Living Things in the World … beautiful and powerful work at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy, spanning seven continents and exploring issues of deep time, permanence and impermanence, and the interconnectedness of life.”

Sussman tells Popova in an interview, “I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist, for whatever that term means, and it’s something that I think, as an artist, was an interesting thing — because for a long time, I don’t think it was particularly acceptable in the fine art world to be doing work about nature. …

“The problem of climate change is so pressing and actually is something of a moral imperative for us all, and I think artists do a tremendous job of engaging the public on different levels … . That’s one of the beauties of being able, as a creative person, to create the parameters of what you want to talk about. The science and the climate science are a very important component of the overall project. …

“The question has been this idea of making portraits of these organisms and thinking of them as individuals. I think one of the most important things to do when dealing with climate science and climate change is to create a personal connection, and to create some relationship. That was my way of trying to forge a relationship to these organisms.” More here.

Llareta, 3,000 years old, Atacam desert, Chile

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Renée’s Christmas letter said she sometimes got children’s book ideas from this blog, which inspires me to increase my effort in that department.

Maria Popova’s extraordinary Brain Pickings website is a great source for children’s book recommendations, and I love that she often makes her finds in libraries.

Recently she described a sweet book called The Jacket, about a little girl who falls in love with a book.

Popova begins, ” ‘A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,’ Rebecca Solnit wrote in her sublime meditation on reading. But how that transplant happens is a matter wholly subjective and deeply mysterious. In the unusual, wonderful, and magically meta picture-book The Jacket (public library | IndieBound), writer Kirsten Hall and illustrator Dasha Tolstikova explore the beauty and terror of falling in love with a book from the perspective of the book itself. …

“ ‘Book was a book that had just about everything,’ the story begins. ‘He was solid and strong. His words were smart and playful. The problem was, Book didn’t feel special.’

“Book does want to be noticed … And then, one day, it happens. A little girl walks into the bookstore and falls in love with Book.”

But Book has to compete with the little girl’s dog for her affection. One day at a picnic, the dog accidentally splatters Book with mud.

“That night, her mother helps clean Book up, but the girl is ‘too sad and gloomy’ to read. … But when the girl opens her eyes in the morning, ‘something had changed.’

“She has a plan. With quiet excitement and optimism, she sits down at her desk with some art supplies as [her dog] and Book wonder what she’s working on.

“And then, the reveal: a colorful handmade jacket for Book, which she wraps around him as she beams a smile.” You learn how to make a jacket for your own book.

I love that after the girl sleeps on her problem, she wakes up with a solution, a feeling that she can do something about this. Strangely perhaps, my associations are to the Prodigal Son (“And when he came to himself, he said …”) and the ancient Greeks (“A dream came and stood at her head and said …”).

More at Brain Pickings, including lots of pictures.

Art: Dasha Tolstikova
Maria Popova says, “The Jacket comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion Books, by far the most intelligent and imaginative picture-book publisher today.

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