Posts Tagged ‘children’s book’

When Suzanne and John were small, we really got into the holiday books by British author-illustrator Raymond Briggs: the grumpy Father Christmas who gets sick on his vacation in the south of France, the silent, genial Snowman.

My husband pointed out this obit on Briggs.

Richard Lea reported at the Guardian, “Raymond Briggs, the writer and illustrator who delighted children and inspired adults with bestselling cartoons and picture books, died on Tuesday morning aged 88, his publisher Penguin Random House has said.

“Ranging from the enchanting magic of The Snowman to a devastating apocalypse in When the Wind Blows, Briggs created a host of much-loved characters including his angst-ridden Fungus the Bogeyman and his curmudgeonly version of Father Christmas. A career spanning six decades brought him numerous awards, with television adaptations making him a fixture of British Christmas viewing. …

“Born in 1934, Briggs went to the local grammar school in Wimbledon. His decision to leave school at 15 to go to Wimbledon Art College may may have puzzled his milkman father, but he was not dreaming of becoming Michelangelo.

” ‘I never thought about being a gold-framed gallery artist and was only pushed into painting when I went to art school,’ he told the Guardian in 2004. ‘I went there wanting to do cartoons.’

“Briggs’s interest in commercial art was met with horror at college – one teacher spluttering, ‘Good God, is that all you want?’ – and after national service Briggs met with more snobbery while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. But when he left at 23, his talent for drawing realistic images from memory meant it was not hard to find work as an illustrator for magazines, advertisers and books.

“As the 1960s dawned, Briggs had begun to despair at the quality of the books he was illustrating. ‘They were so bad that I knew I could do better myself,’ he told the Guardian, ‘so I wrote a story and gave it to an editor hoping he would give me some advice. But instead he said he would publish it, which shows what the standard was like if a complete novice who had never written anything more than a school essay could get his first effort published.’

The Strange House was published in 1961 and five years later, his 800 illustrations for an edition of The Mother Goose Treasury won him the prestigious Kate Greenaway medal. Jim and the Beanstalk, a warmhearted sequel to the traditional tale, came in 1970.

“In 1973, he won a second Kate Greenaway medal and a wider audience with Father Christmas. This 24-page strip cartoon imagines Santa Claus as a grumpy old man, grumbling his way through his busiest day of the year: Christmas Eve. We follow him as he wakes up – ‘Blooming Christmas here again!’ – and sets off on his round, the sparse dialogue a litany of complaints about ‘Blooming aerials,’ ‘Blooming cats,’ ‘Blooming soot,’ ‘Blooming chimneys’ and all the ‘Stairs, stairs, stairs.’ …

“The same spirit infused Briggs’s 1977 Fungus the Bogeyman, which imagined Fungus living in dank, smelly tunnels evoked in a palette of mud brown and acid green. Heading out at night to frighten people on the surface, Fungus ponders the futility of existence: ‘There must be more to life than this.’ The Guardian declared it suitable ‘for children over the age of 10 – or adults – with murky minds and horrid senses of humor,’ while the Times called it ‘the ideal picture book for an age of punk rock and general glorification of ugliness.’ It sold 50,000 copies within a year.

“Briggs turned next to pastels in 1978’s The Snowman, a wordless story about a boy whose snowman comes to life. But this magical story was still grounded in harsh reality; the next morning, the boy wakes to find only the snowman’s hat and scarf listing on a pile of melting snow. ‘I don’t have happy endings,’ Briggs told the Radio Times in 2012. ”I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.’

“Channel 4 didn’t duck the issue with its 1982 animated version, but sugared the pill by adding a visit to Father Christmas and a soundtrack with a piping choirboy. Despite acknowledging the need for a film to be commercially viable, Briggs told the Guardian in 2015 that he hated it at the time and still found it corny. But the animation became a fixture on festive TV schedules, lending Briggs a Christmassy reputation that only grew after television versions of Father Christmas in 1991 and Fungus the Bogeyman in 2004 and 2015.

“Meanwhile, Briggs turned away from fantasy, with picture books tackling nuclear war (When the Wind Blows), the British invasion of the Falklands (The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman) and an account of his parents’ marriage (Ethel and Ernest). But he rejected the idea that his work was divided into books for adults and books for children.

“ ‘There are a few books which are obviously for small children,’ he told the Guardian in 1999, ‘but I don’t usually think about whether a book is for children or adults. After a child has learned to read fluently, at about eight or nine, then the whole idea of categorizing them seems a bit daft.’

“Briggs’s final book Time for Lights Out, a ‘hotchpotch’ of drawings, verse, memories quotations published in November 2019, looks death square in the face. In it, he imagines ‘future ghosts’ looking around his house in Sussex: ‘There must have been / Some barmy old bloke here,’ he writes, ‘Long-haired, artsy-fartsy type, / Did pictures for kiddy books / Or some such tripe. / You should have seen the stuff / He stuck up in that attic! / Snowman this and snowman that, / Tons and tons of tat.’ “

More at the Guardian, here. No firewall.

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Who could resist a children’s book called Preaching to the Chickens? Maria Popova at Brainpickings, my favorite source for children’s book recommendations, wrote about it just before Christmas.

Popova said, “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. …

“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.”

Read more at Brainpickings, here. Popova, as usual, suggests other books that would make a good complement to this one.

Art: E.B. Lewis
A young John Lewis hones his oratory.

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Art: Maurice Sendak
Kenny’s Window, Sendak’s first children’s book

Maria Popova recently posted about the importance of play, commencing her review of Diane Ackerman’s book Deep Play with an anecdote from her own life.

“One July morning during a research trip to the small New England island of Nantucket, home to pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, I had a most unusual experience.

“Midway through my daily swim in the ocean, my peripheral vision was drawn to what at first appeared to be a snorkel. But as I looked directly at the curious protrusion, I realized it was the long glistening neck of a stately bird, gliding over the nearly waveless surface a few away.

“By some irresistible instinct, I began swimming gently toward the bird, assuming it would fly away whenever my proximity became too uncomfortable.

“But it didn’t. Instead, it allowed my approach — for it was deliberate permission that this majestic bird gave me, first assessing me with a calm but cautious eye, then choosing not to lift off or even change course as this large ungraceful mammal drew near. I came so close that I could see my own reflection in the bird’s eye, now regarding me with what I took to be — or, perhaps, projected to be — a silent benevolence. …

“In this small act ablaze with absolute presence, I felt I had been granted access to something enormous and eternal.

“The experience was so intensely invigorating in part because it was wholly new to me, but it is far from uncommon. It belongs to the spectrum of experience which Diane Ackerman, one of the greatest science storytellers of our time, describes in Deep Play … a bewitching inquiry into those moods colored by ‘a combination of clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment, and wonder,’ which render us in a state of ‘waking trance.’ …

The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play … What we call intelligence … may not be life’s pinnacle at all, but simply one mode of knowing, one we happen to master and cherish. Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish. …

“It is hardly happenstance,” adds Popova, “that the word ‘play’ was central to how Einstein thought of the secret to his genius — he used the term ‘combinatory play’ to describe how his mind works. Ackerman considers what it is that makes play so psychologically fruitful and alluring to us …

Above all, play requires freedom. One chooses to play. Play’s rules may be enforced, but play is not like life’s other dramas. It happens outside ordinary life, and it requires freedom.


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When I was growing up in Rockland County, New York, my parents liked to buy art from artist friends and, when possible, offer other kinds of support. They hired the Hungarian-American artist André Dugo, for example, to paint a portrait of my brother Bo and me sitting in an armchair and reading one of the artist’s children’s books. We often read his book Pete the Crow or the books featuring a cardinal and a blue jay, or the one about the calf that ate the wrong kind of grass and puffed up like a balloon.

One day, Mr. Dugo came to our house to watch television with us. (We had one of the first TVs because my father was writing a story on Dumont for Fortune magazine.) We kept asking Mr. Dugo what he would like to see, and he kept saying he just wanted to see whatever we ordinarily watched.

As we worked our way through several programs, Mr. Dugo noted our reactions, sometimes asking questions.

Not many months after, a children’s book came out. It was called Tom’s Magic TV, and its premise was that a boy traveled through the TV screen and into adventures with sharks, circus clowns, puppets, cowboys and spacemen. Bo and I were not mentioned. The mother didn’t look like my mother. This was an early exposure to children’s-literature research — or poetic license.

I’m pretty sure that Gene Autry was the model for the cowboy adventure.


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As Maria Popova likes to point out, J.R.R. Tolkien maintained there was no such thing as writing for children, and Maurice Sendak said much the same thing. I myself have found that the “children’s books” Popova recommends to her Brain Pickings readers work as well for me as for my grandchildren.

Here she describes a book about the beauty of imperfection: “Wabi sabi is a beautiful Japanese concept that has no direct translation in English. Both an aesthetic and a worldview, it connotes a way of living that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay. Wabi Sabi is also the title of a fantastic 2008 picture-book by Mark Reibstein, with original artwork by acclaimed Chinese children’s book illustrator Ed Young, exploring this wonderful sensibility through the story of a cat who gets lost in her hometown of Kyoto …

“A true wabi sabi story lies behind the book: When Young first received the assignment, he created a series of beautifully simple images. As he went to drop them off with his editor, he left them for a moment on the front porch of the house. But when he returned to retrieve them, they were gone. Rather than agonizing over the loss, Young resolved to recreate the images from scratch and make them better — finding growth in loss.” More here.

(Remember the mortification of John Stuart Mills when his maid mistakenly burned the manuscript of Thomas Carlyle‘s first volume of the seminal French Revolution? I like to think that Carlyle’s starting from scratch on volume one after completing volumes two and three made made volume one better, as Ed Young found with his art. It’s still painful to think about how Mills felt.)

Art: Ed Young
Illustration from Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein

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I think this children’s book, reviewed at Brain Pickings, is one I need to buy.

Maria Popova writes, “This Moose Belongs to Me (public library) — a disarming story about a boy who believes he owns his pet moose Marcel, only to discover that so do other people, who call him by different names, while the moose himself doesn’t quite get the concept of being owned and is thus oblivious to the boy’s list of rules for being a good pet. …

“For the backgrounds of his illustrated vignettes, Jeffers reapporpriates classical landscape paintings by a mid-century Slovakian painter named Alexander Dzigurski, rendering the project a sort of posthumous collaboration and a creative mashup.”

Read the intriguingly philosophical Brain Pickings review here.

And here is a children’s book reviewed by Asakiyume that embraces insights about both the environment and other cultures.

She writes, “Discarded plastic bags are more than just an ugly nuisance in the West African nation of the Gambia. There, plastic shopping bags kill livestock that eat them and provide a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

“A woman named Isatou Ceesay found an ingenious solution. She learned how to make plarn [yarn made from plastic bags], and, with her friends, started crocheting small change purses from the discarded plastic bags, which she and her friends sold. The trash problem — and attendant health risks — disappeared, and Isatou and her friends had a new source of income. The project was so successful that Isatou started teaching women in other villages, and in 2012 she won the International Alliance for Women’s World of Difference award.

Miranda Paul, a writer who has lived and taught in the Gambia, wrote about Isatou in One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia (illustrated by the fabulous Elizabeth Zunon).” Lots of reasons for buying that book here, at Asakiyume’s blog.

Art: Oliver Jeffers

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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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Maria Popova, at Brain Pickings, spends a lot of time in the library. Although she blogs about all manner of interesting things, I have especially liked her reports on children’s picture books, including the breathtaking array of illustrated Alice in Wonderland editions out there.

A recent post highlighted a fancifully illustrated biography of the late Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

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

“As a lover both of Neruda’s enduring genius and of intelligent children’s books, … I was instantly smitten with Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (public library |IndieBound) by Monica Brown, with absolutely stunning illustrations and hand-lettering by artist Julie Paschkis.

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

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

More here.

Art: Julie Paschkis 

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Photo: 1Funny

Funny thing about memory. I went on Google to find a children’s book my mother liked to read to the children. I thought it was called Gabriel Churchmouse, but in fact it was Peter Churchmouse. It was the churchkitten who was called Gabriel.

Other people on the Internet  had similarly fuzzy memories. One person thought the phrase “I could listen and listen and listen” referred to words that one character heard another say, but I am reasonably sure the phrase was what Gabriel said to Peter when the churchmouse played the organ (or maybe when Peter sang; a picture comes back to me of Peter raising his eyebrows when he sang).

Amazon describes the book thus: “Cute story about Peter, a churchmouse who was so hungry he ate the hymn books. A cat was brought to get rid of him as he was thought to be a rat. When Peter found out the cat was a kitten and the kitten found out the rat was a mouse they grew into a close friendship!”

Peter was eating hymnals to alert the parson to the existence of a hungry churchmouse. He knew that every parson loves a churchmouse. But Parson Pease-Porridge, who was given to exclaiming, “I’ll be twitched!” and was in  need of decent glasses, thought the large bites must belong to a rat.

Here’s a description from an Amazon customer: “Beautifully illustrated, tenderly told stories about a soft-hearted, near sighted, sleepwalking parson, a Churchmouse (not rat!), church kitten and (puppy) dog all learning to live with, and despite, each other. The stories will teach tolerance to young children, and are amusing and witty, too, for older readers, including adults. I read these stories to my daughter 30 years after my mother read them to me and I suspect my daughter will be reading them to her children as well.”

Well, that would be if she can find a copy. The series, by Margot Austin,  is out of print. Read about Austin (1907-1990) on Wikipedia, here.

An animated 1944 short film about another book in the series, Gabriel Churchkitten, lacks Austin’s adorable illustrations, but has the benefit of reminding me that Gabriel had a thinking cap and that there was a churchpuppy called Trumpet.

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I went to the Concord Library today to hear children’s book author and illustrator Ed Emberley give a charming talk to a crew of little kids sitting on a rug.

Emberley used an easel and colored chalks to demonstrate simple ways to create pictures. It was clear that he was used to talking to young children and loved making them laugh. The kids responded gleefully. Grownups did, too.

Several fans asked him — and his wife and collaborator, Barbara — to sign books they had brought along. One woman told me that her kids, now grown, still knew all the words to the Emberleys’ book Drummer Hoff, winner of the 1968 Caldecott Award for  illustration.

I took home a worksheet with Emberley’s drawing tips so I can do more-interesting doodles in long meetings at work.

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