As the season for giving arrives, Biblioklept reviews three beautiful books that children and adults alike will enjoy.
First up is E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 Christmas classic Nutcracker in translation by Ralph Manheim and beautifully illustrated by the late Maurice Sendak. In 1983, Sendak designed sets and costumes for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s adaptation of Nutcracker and in 1984 he translated some of those designs into a book edition.
According to a 2001 profile with NPR, Sendak was initially unsure about working on what he considered “the most bland and banal of ballets.” However, upon reading Hoffman’s original text, Sendak discovered a work full of “weird, dark qualities that make it something of a masterpiece,” an observation he notes in his introduction to Nutcracker.
The NPR profile notes that Sendak intended to bring ”Hoffmann’s original story back to audiences, especially by having the main character, a girl named Clara, brought back into the story.” Sendak believed
The whole ballet is about her and for the most part you get her in act one, and then she discreetly disappears for the rest of the work. My feeling is this has to be disturbing to children. . . . [She goes] where the wild things are . . . She is overwhelmed with growing up and has no knowledge of what this means. I think the ballet is all about a strong emotional sense of something happening to her, which is bewildering.
These “strange, weird” qualities—the same tones that made Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are a classic of children’s literature—are on display in Nutcracker. Hoffman’s text in Manheim’s translation has a wonderfully episodic, even picaresque quality that restores a sense of adventure—and even peril—to the smooth play we might be familiar with sitting through each December.
Nutcracker’s reading level, length, and tone make it likely appropriate for children over eight or nine, but younger children will enjoy reading the story through Sendak’s marvelous and strange illustrations.
Nutcracker is available in a new hardback edition from Random House.
Next up is Annelore Parot’s Kokeshi Kimonos from Chronicle Books.
Koskeshi Kimonos is a fun and stylish book that uses kokeshi dolls to showcase facets of Japanese culture including attire and family life. The book features folding flaps, pull out sections, and other interactive features that will appeal to younger children. It’s the sort of aesthetically charming book that adults can enjoy as well.
Kokeshi Kimonos will likely appeal to younger readers—five to nine—and seems particularly suited to girls (although this doesn’t mean boys wouldn’t enjoy it, of course). The cute kokeshis are a wonderful alternative to the sterile, plastic world of Barbie and other facile dolls.
Finally, Ernest Raboff’s Albrecht Dürer, part of his Art for Children series. The book is out of print but not impossible to find.
Raboff presents Dürer’s life simply and in clear context, using about a dozen beautiful prints from the German master, as well as many of his etchings. Raboff also hand letters the book, and provides his own sketches and illustrations occasionally to clarify and explain Dürer’s work.
What I love most about Raboff’s book though is the way he integrates elements of art appreciation into his book in subtle, simple ways. Lovely:
We’ll be running a giveaway contest for one of these beautiful editions of Hoffman’s Nutcracker, featuring illustrations by Maurice Sendak sometime next week.
I took my kids to the book store today and let them run like heathen.
They had fun. I usually take them separately (and usually they go to the library), but their mother is at work and we needed to get out of the house.
My daughter picked out a few books for her little brother (and then read them to him, sort of).
She also picked out a book of antique paper dolls (Dolly Dingle) and an Anne of Green Gables pop up cottage book to let the dolls live in.
Here’s what I picked out, maybe more for me than them:
A beautiful illustrated Durer biography that’s written more or less like a comic book, and an illustrated edition of Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”
(From A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson; illustrated by Charles Robinson, 1895. Via the LOC’s rare books collection.)
Book shelves series #4, fourth Sunday of 2012: In which we finally leave the master bedroom and check out the books in my children’s rooms.
In the previous weeks, I illustrated that my kids — a girl and a boy, 4 and 1, respectively (tack on a “half” to each of those numbers if you care to) — my kids leave books all over the house. Their books are everywhere. They are as bad as I am. I indicated at the beginning of this year-long series that the documentation would never be stable or absolute; that books float through my house, come and go like bad house guests or silly ghosts—this is probably more true of the children’s books in this house than any other kind of book.
This week, I photograph the book shelves in my kids’ rooms, starting with my daughter’s. This is her big bookshelf:
I did not photograph the big pile of books that set to the left. A close up of any of these shelves would reveal a mix of classics—stuff that my wife and I read and cherished as kids—and newer stuff as well. Here’s a shelf, sort of at random—it’s unusually well-organized:
There’s a lot of Studio Ghibli books here; most narrativize Hayao Miyazaki’s films (we’re big fans in this house). My daughter loves these. The bible was my bible; the blue-spined book is this:
You might also note a book version of Jim Henson’s creepy classic The Dark Crystal; this was mine as a kid and it disturbed the hell out of me, so I gave it to my daughter, of course:
The Studio Ghibli books combine beautiful stills of the film with narrative prose and comic book speech bubbles. From the standpoint of a fan of the films, they’re really interesting because they explicate some of the ambiguity. Our daughter loves them and asks for them (too much!):
Another shelf from another book shelf—the only shelf with books on it in this piece of furniture, actually. Not interesting, but I said I’d photograph all book shelves as part of this project:
Before my wife and I married, we lived in Tokyo for a while; we bought a bunch of these board books at a 100 yen shop. Here’s one:
Night stand: always a place of shelving instability:
The book shelf in my son’s room—lots of board books, Eric Carle, stuff like that. He likes trains and dogs:
So, I covered both of the kid’s rooms in one post in the hopes of getting to more interesting volumes in the next few weeks. On deck: the den/kitchen space, featuring cookbooks, art books, and travel volumes.
Wabi Sabi tells the story of of a cat from Kyoto named, uh, Wabi Sabi, who goes on a journey of self discovery in order to find out the elusive meaning of her name. Mark Reibstein’s simple but lovely script effectively incorporates haiku poems (including three haiku composed by Wabi Sabi herself, who finds artistic freedom at Ginkaku-ji) that can stand on their own as a simple story. Artist Ed Young brings Reibstein’s story to vivid, shimmering life. Not enough praise will do justice to Young’s rich, dense collage illustrations, which evoke the luxurious complexity one associates with masterpieces of ukiyo-e. Young’s kinetic yet peaceful art resonates with the book’s theme of finding beauty in the incomplete or imperfect, and is probably the best reason to buy this book. Wabi Sabi reads up-and-down as opposed to left-to-right, evoking a traditional scroll, allowing Young to utilize the depth and motion of the full space. The book also features short but detailed (and aesthetically-pleasing) endnotes explain the history of wabi sabi, haiku, and haibun. This short appendix also includes an English translation of the 14 haiku poems by Basho and Shiki that show up in the margins (in kanji, no less) on each of the pages.
Wabi Sabi was too long for my fifteen-month old daughter’s precious attention, and the scroll-style layout made it almost impossible to read with her on my lap (the book is also pretty much impossible for my scanner to handle, unfortunately for you dear reader). Also, I think the illustrations were a little too nuanced and complex for her–very young children tend to like strong, defined lines and bright primary colors. I’m convinced, however, that Wabi Sabi isn’t so much a children’s book as it is an art book for aesthetes with an interest in traditional Japanese culture–and I enjoyed it very much. Recommended.
Wabi Sabi is now available from Little, Brown.
Adapted by playwright/screenwriter Tony Kushner and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, Brundibar retells Hans Krása’s children’s opera about a brother and sister who go on an adventure to get their ailing mother some fresh milk. The penniless pair decides to sing in order to earn milk money, but the cruel organ grinder Brundibar chases them away. However, they triumph with the help of a sparrow, a cat, a dog, and a cadre of helpful children.
The original opera was first performed by the children-inmates of a Nazi concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. The symbolic overtones of the story are pretty straightforward, and Sendak emphasizes the point, marking his Brundibar with a Hitlerish mustache and a ridiculous Napoleon Bonaparte hat. Political symbolism aside, Brundibar is simply a great book, full of little songs, beautiful art, and a unique narrative style in which individual characters get their own speech bubbles and even street signs tell a story. This isn’t my one-year old daughter’s favorite book–yet–but it’s certainly one of my top picks from her little library. Good stuff.