Through trees, geese and unrecognized heroes, we can go from the river to our Milky Way.
Great children’s books are works of existential philosophy in disguise — gifts of timeless consolation for the eternal child living in each of us, on the pages of which some of the most visionary minds of every era are formed. This is something I’ve believed for a long time. But I had not, until a recent reckoning with this here fifteen-year body of work and love, realized what a reliable barometer of my state of being children’s books are — the dual hindsight of autobiographical memory and my archive of writing reveals a strong positive correlation between how many children’s books I enjoyed in any given year and my general level of wellbeing that year.
This year — the year my own (first) such book met the world — I read very few: partly because my native taste for the timeless, the cosmic, the planetary, the beyond-human was largely unfed by the year’s buffet of books with human-centric, of-the-moment themes sacrificing the poetic at the altar of the politicized; partly a reflection of my human state of being.
Here are a handful I wrote about this year and loved with all my heart — a list of loves partial in both senses of the word and invariably incomplete, given the limitations of any one person’s finitude of time and singularity of thought.
THE BOY WHOSE HEAD WAS FILLED IN WITH STARS
In 1908, Henrietta Swan Leavitt — one of the women known as the Harvard Computers, who revolutionized astronomy long before they could vote — was analyzing photographic plates at the Harvard College Observatory to measure and catalogue the brightness of stars when she began noticing a consistent correlation between the luminosity of a class of variable stars and their pulsation period, between their brightness and their blinking pattern.
At the same time, a dutiful boy cusping on manhood was repressing his childhood love of astronomy and beginning his legal studies to fulfill his dying father’s demand for an ordinary, reputable life. Upon his father’s death, Edwin Hubble (November 20, 1889–September 28, 1953) would unleash his passion for the stars into a formal study of astronomy. After the interruption of a world war, he would lean on Leavitt’s data to upend millennia of cosmic parochialism, demonstrating two revolutionary facts about the universe: that it is tremendously bigger than we thought, and that it is getting bigger by the blink. The law underlying its expansion would come to bear his name, as would the ambitious space telescope that would give humanity an unprecedented glimpse of a cosmos “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.”
Hubble’s Law staggers the imagination with the awareness that even our most intimate celestial companion, the Moon, is slowly moving away from us every day, about as fast as your fingernails grow. This means that at some future point, the greatest cosmic spectacle visible from Earth will be no more, for a total solar eclipse is a function of the glorious accident that the Moon is at just the right distance for its shadow to cover the entire face of the Sun when passing before it from our vantage point — a shadow that will grow smaller and smaller as our satellite drifts farther and farther away. The human mind was already shocked by the discovery of astronomy before Hubble. It had been stunned with the realization that the entire story of life unfolds on a single rocky planet, which is just right for the ideal temperature and atmosphere to support life. It was both a moment of terror and gratitude that sent Hubble’s human brain spinning.
Author Isabelle Marinov and artist Deborah Marcero pay tender homage to Hubble’s life and legacy in The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble (public library) — a splendid addition to the finest picture-book biographies of revolutionary minds, and one particularly dear to my own heart in light of my ongoing devotion to building New York City’s first public observatory to cast the cosmic enchantment on future Hubbles and Leavitts, to make life more livable for the rest of us by inviting the telescopic perspective.
Have a peek inside.
BEFORE I GREW UP
One great stroke of loneliness in childhood is thick, pastel-colored and its edges are blurred out to the entire landscape of life.
We learn to be ourselves in this chaos of being alone. Please be ourselves. One measure of maturity might be how well we grow to transmute that elemental loneliness into the “fruitful monotony” Bertrand Russell placed at the heart of our flourishing, the “fertile solitude” Adam Phillips recognized as the pulse-beat of our creative power.
If we are lucky enough, or perhaps lonely enough, we learn to reach out from this primal loneliness to other lonelinesses — Neruda’s hand through the fence, Kafka’s “hand outstretched in the darkness” — in that great gesture of connection we call art.
Rilke, contemplating the lonely patience of creative work that every artist knows in their marrow, captured this in his lamentation that “works of art are of an infinite loneliness” — Rilke, who all his life celebrated solitude as the groundwater of love and creativity, and who so ardently believed that to devote yourself to art, you must not “let your solitude obscure the presence of something within it that wants to emerge.”
Giuliano Cucco (1929–2006) was still a boy, living with his parents amid the majestic solitudes of rural Italy, when the common loneliness of childhood pressed against his uncommon gift and the artistic impulse began to emerge, tender and tectonic.
In the years that followed, his passion for poetry and painting grew, as did his love for art and photographs.
Cucco, then a young Italian artist, moved to Rome with the American young nature writer. John Miller. The blossoming of a wonderful friendship was beautiful. Those were the early 1960, when Rachel Carson — the poet laureate of nature writing — had just awakened the modern ecological conscience and was using her hard-earned stature to issue the radical insistence that children’s sense of wonder is the key to conservation.
Into this cultural atmosphere, Cucco and Miller joined their gifts to create a series of stunning and soulful nature-inspired children’s books.
But when Miller returned to New York, door after door shut in his face — commercial publishers were unwilling to invest in the then-costly reproduction of Cucco’s vibrant art. It took half a century of countercultural courage and Moore’s law for Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion to take a risk on these forgotten vintage treasures and bring them to life.
Eager to reconnect with his old friend and share the exuberant news, Miller endeavored to track down Cucco’s family. Following a prolonged search for Cucco’s family, he found out that his friend and wife had died in an accident when their motorbike crashed through the pedestrian crossing of Rome. Their son had just begun making his way through a trove of his father’s paintings — many unseen by the world, many depicting the landscapes and dreamscapes of childhood that shaped his art.
Because grief is so often our portal to beauty and aliveness, Miller set out to honor his friend by bringing his story to life in an uncommonly original and tender way — traveling back in time on the wings of memory and imagination, to the lush and lonesome childhood in which the artist’s gift was forged, projecting himself into the boy’s heart and mind through the grown man’s surviving paintings, blurring fact and fancy.
Before I Grew Up (public library) was born — part elegy and part exultation, reverencing the vibrancy of life: the life of feeling and of the imagination, the life of landscape and of light, the life of nature and of the impulse for beauty that irradiates what is truest and most beautiful about human nature.
Have a peek inside.
THE TREE IN ME
Walt Whitman, who considered trees the profoundest teachers in how to best be human, remembered the woman he loved and respected above all others as that rare person who was “entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree Is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”
At the outset of what was to become the most challenging year of my life, and the most challenging for the totality of the world in our shared lifetime, I resolved to face it like a tree — a resolution blind to that unfathomable future, as all resolutions and all futures tend to be, but one that made it infinitely more survivable. It wasn’t just me. After all, humans have a long history learning from trees, as well as understanding our nature through them. Hesse saw them as the epitome of self-actualization. Thoreau praised them as cathedrals that consecrate the lives of the people. Dylan Thomas gave them the task of bringing out the humanity in us. Ancient mythology had them at the center of its spirituality, while science relied on them to organize knowledge.
Author and artist Corinna Luyken draws on this intimate connection between the sylvan and the human in The Tree in Me (public library) — a lyrical meditation on the root of creativity, strength, and connection, with a spirit and sensibility kindred to her earlier emotional intelligence primer in the form of a painted poem.
Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s timeless and transformative mindfulness teachings, which she first encountered long ago in the character-kiln of adolescence and which profoundly influenced her worldview as she matured, Luyken considers the book “a seedling off the tree” from the great Zen teacher’s classic tangerine meditation — the fruition of her longtime desire to make something beautiful and tender that invites the young (and not only the young) to look more deeply into the nature of the world, into their own nature and its magnificent interconnectedness to all of nature. After many failed attempts, she finally found a spare poem after years of incubation. From the words, paintings grew. Book blossomed.
Have a peek inside.
WHAT IS A RIVVER?
“There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today,” Olivia Laing wrote in her stunning meditation on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers after she walked the River Ouse from source to sea — the River Ouse, in which Virginia Woolf slipped out of the mystery of life, having once observed that “the past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river.”
Rivers are the heart of civilization. They pulsate with the mystery and might of water. Their serpentine pathways encoded with pi precision, their endless flow encoded by our best poems.
“Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river,” Borges wrote in his timeless refutation of time.
But, what exactly is a River?
That is what Lithuanian illustrator and storyteller Monika Vaicenavičienė contemplates in What Is a River? (public library) — part prose poem and part encyclopedia, exploring the many things a river is and can be, ecologically and existentially.
The story begins on the banks of a river, with a little girl picking flowers — “every flower has a meaning” — and watching her grandmother sew. What unfolds is framed as the grandmother’s answer to the girl’s question of what a river is:
One thread is one river.
Our wold is embroided with stunning patterns.
It connects past and present people and places.
This stitched stories together.
Myth and fact, Geology and history converge into a larger lyrical reflection on the ceaseless flow of existence, linking the Ancient Greek myth of Oceanus — the great river encircling the Earth, from which the word ocean derives — with the ecological reality of Earth’s immense, interconnected, ancient system of water circulating through the atmosphere and pulsating through the biosphere.
Have a peek inside.
SEARCHING AN AURORA
In 1621, already questioning his life in the priesthood — the era’s safest and most reputable career for the educated — the 29-year-old Pierre Gassendi, a mathematical prodigy since childhood, traveled to the Arctic circle as he began diverting his passionate erudition toward Aristotelian philosophy and astronomy. There, under the polar skies, he witnessed an otherworldly spectacle on Earth — our planet’s most intimate and dramatic contact with its home star, a chromatic swirl of the ephemeral and the eternal unloosed as solar winds blow millions of charged particles from the Sun across the orrery of the Solar System and into Earth’s atmosphere, where our magnetic fields carry them toward the poles. As they collide with the particles of different atmospheric gasses, they ionize and discharge energy as photons of different colors — red, blue, green, and violent — painting the nocturne with the waking dream of a pastel-technicolor dawn.
Gassendi, awestruck at the natural poetry of the glowing spectacle and the mythic feeling tone it elicited in him, named the things he observed Aurora Borealis — after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and borealis, the Latin word for “northern.” Eventually, as explorers braved the icy oceanic expanses to visit the polar regions of the Southern hemisphere over the following centuries, they adapted Gassendi’s etymology to name the Antarctic version of the luminous display Aurora australis, after the Latin word for “southern.”
The land of Aurora australis comes Seeking an Aurora (public library) — a work of transcendence and tenderness by New Zealand author-artist duo Elizabeth Pulford and Anne Bannock, whose spare poetic prose and soulful paintings interleave to enlush an inner landscape of wonder, suspended between the creaturely and the cosmic.
Have a peek inside.
DAILY DARLING BABY
“The secret of success,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote to the teenage artist-to-be in his wonderful letter of life-advice, “is to be fully awake to everything about you.” Few things beckon our attention and awaken us to life more compellingly than color. “Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color,” Ellen Meloy wrote in her exquisite meditation on the chemistry, culture, and the conscience of color. Why else would we live than to be aware of the ever-changing light?
Be a darling baby (Public libraryMaira Kalman (a poet with chromatic tenderness), composes an unusual ode to life and to the vibrancy of life.
The baby learns to recognize the color and shape of the light. As they do so, the adult can see how the child sees the world through the eyes of the infant. What emerges is a celebration of attention as affirmation of aliveness, a vibrant testament to Simone Weil’s exquisite observation that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Page after painted page, a generous presence unfolds — presence with the new life of this small helpless observer of the world, presence with the ancient life of sky and sea.
Have a peek inside.
MAKE MEATSBALLS SING
Matthew Burgess had already begun to feel the emotions when he was eleven years old. Other in the suburban Southern California of his childhood — long before he became a poet and a public school art teacher, before he made a bicontinental home in Brooklyn and Berlin with his husband — he was captivated by a tiny bright-spirited rainbow on a postage stamp that appeared on the television show The Love Boat. It was the iconic USPS 1985. In love stamp — a miniature of the largest copyrighted artwork in the world: the colossal rainbow swash painted on a Boston gas storage tank in 1971 by Corita Kent (November 20, 1918–September 18, 1986) — the radical nun, artist, teacher, social justice activist, and long-undersung pop art pioneer, who inspired generations of makers with her 10 rules for learning and life, collaborated frequently and dazzlingly with poets, believed that “the person who makes things is a sign of hope,” and made her art and her life along the vector of this belief.
This sentiment — the most precise and poetic summation of Sister Corita’s credo — is the epigraph that opens Burgess’s loving picture-book biography Make Meatballs Sing: The Life and Art of Corita Kent (public library), created in collaboration with the Corita Art Center and illustrated by artist Kara Kramer with patterned, textured, sensitive vibrancy consonant with Corita’s art spirit and sensibility.
Making is an act of hope. When that hope grows, it becomes less overwhelming to deal with the difficulties of the world. We remember that we — as individuals and groups — can do something about those troubles.
Emerging from these tender pages is an activist who devoted her life to fighting with fierce gentleness and generosity of soul for justice and peace in every form, from civil rights to nuclear disarmament; a rebel who subverted commerce for creativity, turning a corporate slogan (for Del Monte tomato sauce) into a clarion call for the the power of art to constellate the ordinary with wonder (which lent the book its title); a visionary who subverted the outdated dogmas of the very institution she served to effect landmark reform within the Catholic Church and to engage the secular world with the creative life of the soul; a teacher who helped her students overcome the self-consciousness and overthinking that stifle creativity by fusing play and work through her quirkily titled, ingeniously deployed process of PLORKing; an artist who became a patron saint of noticing, of paying closer attention to the world as the only means of loving it more fully — something Corita herself captured in an essays on art and life:
Poets and artists — makers — look long and lovingly at commonplace things, rearrange them and put their rearrangements where others can notice them too.
Have a peek inside.
BLUES FLOOTS AWAY
“The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her unsurpassable Field Guide to Getting Lost.
This might be the greatest challenge of our consciousness — that when life beckons us to broaden our inner landscapes of possibility, it calls on us to choose experiences the transformative power of which we might not be able to recognize and desire with the yet-untransformed self, and so we might not choose to have them. This paradoxical blindness to transformation has been explored by philosophers in an elegant thought experiment called the vampire problem.
But this might also be the most hopeful aspect of our consciousness — that we know ourselves only incompletely; that the life we have is only a subset of our possible life; that we are capable of having experiences which profoundly transform how we live our lives in this house of sinew and soul, transforming in the process the very texture of who we believe ourselves to be.
This paradox of transformation comes alive with uncommon tenderness, through a singular lens — the science and poetics of Earth’s water cycle — in Blue Floats Away (public library) by Travis JonkerShe is an elementary school librarian and author, by day, and by night she’s a writer. Grant SniderAn orthodontist at night and an artist by day, he is.
Have a peek inside.
(AND FROM MY: THE SNAIL WITH THE RICH HEART).
Great children’s books move young hearts, yes, but they also move the great common heart that beats in the chest of humanity by articulating in the language of children, which is the language of simplicity and absolute sincerity, the elemental truths of being: what it means to love, what it means to be mortal, what it means to live with our fragilities and our frissons. As such, children’s books are miniature works of philosophy, works of wonder and wonderment that bypass our ordinary resistances and our cerebral modes of understanding, entering the backdoor of consciousness with their soft, surefooted gait to remind us who and what we are.
This is something I have always believed, and so I have always turned to children’s books — classics like The Little PrinceFor basic soul-maintenance and contemporary masterpieces, I read the book. You can cry, but you should never break — as mighty instruments of existential calibration. It was something I had never imagined I would do.
And I finally did it: True Story: “The Snail with the Right Heart” (Public libraryThis is the result of three years of labor. It was illustrated by Ping Zhu (uniquely gifted and sensitive), who I asked to be the recipient of the honour after she stunned me with her painting. The Velocity Of Being: A Letter to a Young Reader.
While the story is inspired by a beloved young human in my own life, who is living with the same rare and wondrous variation of body as the real-life mollusk protagonist, it is a larger story about science and the poetry of existence, about time and chance, genetics and gender, love and death, evolution and infinity — concepts often too abstract for the human mind to fathom, often more accessible to the young imagination; concepts made fathomable in the concrete, finite life of one tiny, unusual creature dwelling in a pile of compost amid an English garden.
At the heart of the story, excerpted here, is an invitation not to mistake difference for defect and to recognize, across the accordion scales of time and space, diversity as nature’s fulcrum of resilience and wellspring of beauty.
Take a look inside and learn the story.
* * *
For other timelessly wondrous children’s books, savor these favorites from years past.
Giving = Being Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your own life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.
Subscribe to our newsletter
MarginalianReceive a weekly free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.