Abigail speaks with children’s book author Artie Knapp about his latest book featuring a reluctant baby river otter.
Fall always heralds the arrival of great children’s books, and this year’s crop doesn’t disappoint. Behold a few of our favorites of the season:
Fall always heralds the arrival of great children’s books, and this year’s crop doesn’t disappoint. Behold a few of our favorites of the season:
Stanley’s School, by William Bee, (Peachtree; $14.95, 32 pages, ages 2-5) is the latest in a series starring a charming hamster. As the title suggests, Stanley is running things at school and leads his furry charges through a typical day: from arrival to read-aloud, lunch, and dismissal, these pint-size creatures demonstrate the inner workings of pre-k and elementary school. Bee’s large, cheerful illustrations invite young readers to revel in heading to class. The padded covers invite little hands to fully explore while also signaling the transition from board books to picture books.
In another rodent-driven narrative, Martin Jenkins’s The Squirrels’ Busy Year (illustrated by Richard Jones, Candlewick; $16.99, 32 pages, ages 3-6), introduces changing seasons and weather patterns by following a year in the lives of two inquisitive squirrels. Foraging for acorns and dodging owls are a few of the daily adventures these busy critters face, depending on the season. Straightforward and uncomplicated prose is accompanied by front matter offering specifics in case adults get peppered with a few “why” questions after a read-through. An index with follow-up questions meand to encourage further inquiry roud out this smart volume, while Richard Jones’s mixed-media renderings of the natural world are textured and comforting.
National Book Award Finalist Sy Montgomery’s How to Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (illustrated by Rebecca Green, HMH; $20.00, 208 pages, ages 7-up), examines a life spent in the company of animals and how those relationships taught her compassion, love, and forgiveness. From a family pig named Christopher Hogwood to a giant Pacific octopus named Octavia, each vignette imparts life lessons that only a non-human can provide. “Other species, when we are allowed to know and care about them, give us a chance expand our moral universe,” says the author. “We learn to embrace the Other. We have a lot in common with our fellow animals–we share about 90% of our DNA with fellow mammals, and animals from clams to elephants share our same neurotransmitters, responsible for perceptions and emotions.” Montgomery’s poetic text proves her ability to write for readers of all ages. Accompanied by author photos and Rebecca Green’s whimsical, folk-art inspired sketches, How to Be a Good Creature affirms what many of us already know: that human-animal bonds are not just real, they are powerful agents of change, acceptance, renewal. Consider reading this in tandem with your child–there’s plenty here to encourage a robust dialogue on many of life’s big questions.
Cover image: “Compulsory Education,” by Charles Burton Barber. 1890. Public Domain.
If there’s anything new to learn from Characters, a series of personality portraits written by the ancient Greek Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC), it is that gluttons, chatterboxes, drunks, idiots, and others are not unique to any time or place in human history. A new translation offers a fresh look.
If there’s anything new to learn from Characters, a series of personality portraits written by the ancient Greek Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC), it is that gluttons, chatterboxes, drunks, idiots, and others are not unique to any time or place in human history. This robust little volume of character sketches has been widely published and translated since its first appearance twenty-three centuries ago–Jean de la Bruyère’s Les Caractères (1688), Character Writings of the Seventeenth Century (1891) and the Loeb Classical Library’s edition are a few that come to mind–but each translation is an interpretative undertaking, meaning there is always a renewed need for fresh viewpoints.
On October 1, Characters will be once again published in English, this time by Callaway Arts & Entertainment. Translated by Pamela Mensch with vibrant pen-and-ink illustrations by acclaimed caricature artist André Carrillo, this edition includes insightful annotations by Bard College classics professor and Guggenheim recipient James Romm.
Part the enduring appeal of Characters is that bad behavior, however caustic, is, whether we like it or not, universal; who doesn’t know a busybody who “stands up and promises what he can’t deliver,” a slovenly fellow “afflicted with dull-white eczema and black fingernails, go[ing] about saying that these illnesses are hereditary,” and the friend of scoundrels who “fraternizes with men who have been defeated in court and convicted in public trials; he assumes that if he’s friendly with them, he’ll become more worldly and formidable.”
“These are flesh-and-blood people, with very familiar flaws and foibles,” Romm explained. “They remind us that ancient Greeks were actual human beings, not marble busts. The past no longer feels like a foreign country. It’s a true gift to be able to ‘feel’ the reality of the classical world.” As Romm points out in his introduction, some previous translators could not square with the lack of judgement in Theophrastus’s sketches and inserted their own. This edition strips away those addendums, allowing the original descriptions to be read on their own merit.
And yet, English-speakers don’t suffer for lack options: Penguin released a paperback version as recently as 2015, so why a new translation now? “There’s a very practical reason,” Romm said. “The Greek text of Characters is rather messy, with lots of sentences in dispute (or simply unintelligible) due to copyists’ errors in the transmission process. Only a few years ago, a new edition of the Greek text by James Diggle sorted out many of these problems. This new English version by Pamela Mensch takes advantage of that cleaned-up Greek text.”
Contemporary readers may be familiar with Theophrastus’s exhaustive Inquiry into Plantsand Causes of Plants. However, Characters reveals more of the author’s natural verve and wit, which has led some scholars to dispute whether Theophrastus deserves the attribution. “The contrast between Characters and the botanical works is indeed sharp,” Romm said. “Assuming Theophrastus wrote both, he seems to have wanted to take an occasional break from science to compose light satire, and perhaps, like all good teachers, sought a way to bring some levity to his ‘classroom’ — in his case, the Lyceum, founded by Aristotle.”
We may see a bit of ourselves, our friends, and our political leaders in these portraits, but how might have an ancient Athenian reacted? After all, these were sketches based on actual people Theophrastus encountered on a daily basis. Romm believes the Greeks would have taken it in stride– “With a laugh and a nod of recognition, and probably a bit of embarrassment!”
Society needs writers who document human behavior, even if that behavior never seems to change. But those records needn’t always be gloomy. “Thucydides famously wrote that human nature is constant over time, so that the deeds he recorded in the Peloponnesian War would be seen again,” Romm said. “In his case, that’s a tragic message, since he mostly records atrocities. Theophrastus supplies the comic side of the same equation.”
Theophrastus’ Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior, by James Romm, André Carrilho, and Pamela Mensch. Callaway Arts and Entertainment; $24.95, 119 pages.
This story first appeared on the Fine Books Blog on September 28, 2018.
Esther Forbes’s 1944 Newbery Medal-winning story set on the eve of the Revolutionary War turns seventy-five this year. To commemorate the milestone, publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recently released an updated edition with new jacket art and includes an illustrated forward by author-illustrator Nathan Hale (not the American spy executed by the British in 1776).
As riveting as ever, Johnny Tremain should be required reading for everyone, adults included. The book has never been out of print and Walt Disney turned it into a movie in 1957. Let’s not forget that Forbes also won a Pulitzer in 1942 for Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, a vivid biography of the patriot’s life based largely on his correspondence.
Forbes, for her part, was a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander and a trailblazer in her own time: born the fifth of six children to William and Harriette Forbes in Westboro, Massachusetts in 1891, she moved with her family to the county seat of Worcester, where her father practiced law. Forbes and her sisters were among the first girls to attend the private Bancroft School where, dyslexic and nearsighted, the young Forbes was once accused of plagiarism after sharing a story she had written to amuse her siblings. Undeterred, she continued to write, and at her death in 1967 was working on a book about witchcraft. The first woman to become a member of the American Antiquarian Society, Forbes left the Worcester institution the rights to her books as well as material for her unfinished final volume.
Johnny Tremain 75th Anniversary Edition, by Esther Hoskins Forbes, illustrated by Nathan Hale; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $14.99, 320 pages. ages 9-12.
Jennifer Morla is a legend in her own time: for forty years, her shadow has loomed over the world of graphic design. Earning over 300 accolades like the Cooper Hewitt award, the AIGA medal, and the Smithsonian Design Museum National Award, Morla’s work has graced publicity campaigns for some of the world’s best-known brands like Levi’s, Design Within Reach, Swatch, and Nordstrom. The Library of Congress and MOMA have her pieces in their permanent collections, and when she’s not running her eponymous design firm, Morla is teaching design at the California College of the Arts.
Now, Morla is the subject of a forthcoming biography being published by Letterform Archive. Entitled, fittingly, Morla: Design, the Kickstarter-funded project explores Morla’s career, her creative process, design philosophy, and also offers behind-the-scenes stories about various high profile projects. Staying true to Morla’s contemporary and lively aesthetic, the book features neon bookmark ribbons, metallic inks throughout, and a vegan leather case, itself a design triumph. Letterform’s all-or-nothing Kickstarter campaign ends Saturday, September 8, though it has already surpassed its $50,000 goal. Donations in all amounts are still very much welcome, but those willing to pledge $125 and up will receive a copy of the book.
Morla graciously answered a few questions recently about the book, the importance of listening to clients, and whether words remain as important as art in our increasingly image-saturated world.
1. Your book is the second book to be published by Letterform Archive, following on the heels of W.A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design. How did your project come about?
It seemed like the appropriate time for me to discuss my design approach and identify the issues that I consider when formulating my design process. Letterform Archive showed an immediate interest in publishing my monograph and has been a true partner in bringing this book to print.
2. You founded Morla Design in 1984. What drew you to this field?
My aunt was an editor at Condé Nast in the 60s and would occasionally cast my sister and myself in photoshoots when we were young. By the time I was 10 years old, I already had been exposed to the workings of a magazine and an in-house “art department.” Another great influence was visiting MOMA’s design wing as a child and seeing chairs, posters and books displayed in a museum. Those events, coupled with my ability to draw, solidified my decision to become a designer.
3. What is it like to know your work will exist in perpetuity in institutions like the LIbrary of Congress and is considered a touchstone of American design?
It is very, very humbling. I consider myself so very fortunate to have had clients who have collaborated with me in defining communication goals without defining the solution.
4. Was yours an artistic household? Growing up in Manhattan, I imagine you took great advantage of your surroundings. What were (or remain) your New York design influences?
My mother was an art history major and would take us to museums often when we were young. One of my favorites was the Guggenheim, an architectural icon, so very different from any other museum in the city. I was in love with the building, and what nine year old doesn’t love skipping down a six story ramp? Another big influence was The New York Times. Type, illustrations, fashion, a magazine, and those wonderful, full page Ohrbach’s ads! In 1970, the Vietnam War was raging and political images proliferated all around the city: in the media, on construction barricades, in subway ads. Push Pin’s posters, an Evergreen magazine cover by Paul Davis of Che Guevara, the musical “Hair,” all had a profound influence on me understanding the power of design in its many forms.
5. Your first job out of college was at San Francisco’s local PBS station, followed by a move to run the art department for Levi Strauss. What was that leap like? Was it challenging going from a nonprofit to a commercial entity?
The biggest difference was design budget. Although my meager salary was the same for both positions, the Levi’s creative budget allowed me the opportunity to produce big ideas. At the PBS station, the creative budgets were so tight that I hand-cut rubylith [masking film] to save money. I handled every project from beginning to end: photography, lettering, illustration and animation. At Levi’s, I was able to hire great photographers, print thousands of posters, and create high end brochures using every specialty printing technique. Both jobs were extremely informative and gave me the confidence to open my design studio at 28 years old.
6. I’m going to ask you a question you’ve probably been asked hundreds of times: what makes good design? Does good design change with the times, or are their classic elements that never go out of style?
Great design is, quite simple, innovation that reflects the spirit of an era and becomes a classic because of its timeless appeal.
7. How has your design aesthetic evolved, if at all, over the course of your career?
Although I can see some influence of a certain time period in my work, I have always maintained that design should be appropriate to the problem rather than a stylistic conceit. I hope the work shown in the book is a testament to that belief.
8. It seems our society is moving away from verbal communication towards more visual marketing and communication. Has this trend changed how you work? Or do words remain as relevant as ever?
As designers, we often underestimate the impact we have on the world at large, and how our visual vocabulary is influenced by political, social and cultural events. I created Designisms, a listing of my observations and reflections on design and designing. Specific to your question, a designism: Words are as important as images and images can be more powerful than words.
9. How do you approach a project? What’s your process?
I always start with sketching. Many sketches. The final sketches identify the solution, including typeface considerations, color, illustrative style and final form. I often consider whether the solution can be accomplished with just type.
10. Have you ever worked on a project that didn’t turn out as expected, for better or for worse?
Oh yes, I believe in allowing the process to help define the solution. And accidents are an important part of the process. Only the creator can identify when an accident, something you did not expect, adds an informative detail to the solution.
11. Are you a collector? If so, what do you collect. And why?
Not a collector at all, I am a minimalist. But I do love to read and read about 50 books a year. I guess I collect books.
12. What are your favorite books?
I especially like fiction and my list of favorites is vast: Orlando by Virginia Woolf, the way she shocks the reader with the unexpected, to John Updike’s uber-realistic Rabbit series. From contemporary novelists like Jenny Egan to Flaubert’s classic, Madame Bovary. When my girls were in eighth grade, I read what they were reading and I got to fall in love again with Huckleberry Finn and Pride and Prejudice. Current favorite authors beside Egan are George Saunders, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and for a chuckle, David Sedaris.
13. Could you talk a little about the design process for Morla: Design. It is encased in vegan white leather with a vacuum-formed cover. What do you hope the design of your book will convey to readers?
That design is not only about two dimensional space, that form can surprise and generate curiosity. I relish experimenting with materials; the vacuum-formed and debossed covers both are seductive and amplify the pattern cover art. Fluorescent inks act as chapter dividers and bring attention to the section of the book I dedicated to my best loved typefaces and characters. I utilized many of my favorite printing and binding techniques in designing the book: Fluorescent and metallic inks are used to identify my essays, vellum sheets with white ink display my “designisms”, full bleed images throughout showcase projects and the ribbon markers allow the reader to mark favorite images. The book itself is a tactile and visually rich object.
14. In addition to running Morla Design, you teach at California College of the Arts. What are some of the most common questions you receive from students about making a living as a designer?
I believe that a good designer is a great listener, and if you carefully, the client nearly always gives you the solution to the problem.
Images courtesy of Letterform Archive
It’s August. It’s hot. Perhaps you’ve already got kids back in school. Perhaps you’re still at the beach. Whatever you’re doing, it’s still officially summer, which means you’re entitled to enjoy a frothy, kicky, beach-appropriate book whether you’re seaside or stuck at work. Andrew Schaffer’s latest adventure, Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery, checks all those requirements with equal parts bromance, action thriller, and detective mystery.
After having spent a lifetime serving the people, former vice-president Joe Biden is lonely and lost. Puttering around his Wilmington, Delaware home while wife Jill is off teaching, Joe misses his good pal Barack, who’s living his best life ever, which involves kitesurfing, base-jumping, and hanging out with A-list celebrities. Then, one day, Barack shows up with news that Joe’s friend, an Amtrak conductor, was found dead, struck by a speeding Acela. Something smells fishy to Joe, but as a private citizen, there’s little he can do–at least, until he ropes a cigarette-smoking, sawed-off-shotgun-toting POTUS 44 into uncovering the truth. Their sleuthing leads to run-ins with dangerous biker gangs, strange women, and drug runners lurking in the dark underbelly of Wilmington. Hope Never Dies may star two famous Democrats, but the political barbs are sure to entertain folks on both sides of the aisle.
We spoke earlier this summer with Hope author Andrew Schaffer and asked why he felt the time was right for a Biden-driven action-mystery, how he knows he’s struck the right comedic tone, and what’s up next for this crime-fighting duo.
What inspired this book? Why now?
I’d toyed with the idea of a Biden mystery novel for years, but it finally picked up steam when the bromance memes started being shared during Obama and Biden’s final months in office. It started off as a parody of classic noir novels. After a few pages, however, I could already see that it was going to have more heart than my other parodies. The message—that “hope never dies”—isn’t a joke. It’s a message that I think many of us need to hear right now.
Are you planning a Hope sequel or series?
There will, at the very least, be a sequel—Hope Rides Again, on sale next summer from Quirk Books. It will be set in Obama’s adopted hometown of Chicago. Expect more malarkey.
Do you lean in a particular political direction? This book doesn’t make any major political statements other than taking jabs at the current administration, but you’ve also written The Day of the Donald: Trump Trumps America. Are all political figures fair game?
The Day of the Donald was a satire about a reality-TV show host becoming president of the United States. We released it during the Republican primaries in 2016. I voted for the Obama/Biden ticket in 2008 and 2012, so you can probably guess which way my politics lean. When it comes to satire, though, all politicians are fair game. There were jabs at both Trump and Hillary Clinton in the book. The shots at Bill Clinton in The Day of the Donald were just vicious. It did decent numbers, but I hadn’t realized while writing it just how partisan politics had become in this country. I don’t see Hope Never Dies as a satire—it’s a mystery that happens to star two well-known public personas.
When did you realize you had a knack for writing humor?
I wrote and illustrated humorous comics in grade school, which would get passed around in the back of class. They were a little on the bawdy side. I was never the class clown, but I realized early on that I could make people laugh through my writing. It occasionally got me into trouble, which only furthered my belief that words had value.
How do you know when you’ve struck the right (funny) tone? What’s your process?
I’m in a local writing group, so I will sometimes read pieces out loud to see what kind of reaction they get. I’ve also read new material at book tour events. A live audience will let you know very quickly if you’re on the right track. There’s nothing more sobering than silence. Other than that, I rely on my editor and a few other early readers.
Your wife, Tiffany Reisz, is also a writer. Do you bounce ideas off each other?
Tiffany writes erotica, romance, and gothic fiction, but her stuff can be very, very funny. She will occasionally punch up jokes in my books—the “POTUS, SCOTUS, or FLOTUS” game in Hope Never Dies was all her. I wish I could say I punch up her sex scenes, but my contributions are more along the lines of copy editing.
Do you think you’ll ever try your hand at other genres?
In addition to mystery, I’ve written parody, satire, romance, science fiction, and horror. I might be running out of other genres to write in! I plan to stick with mysteries for now. At least until something else catches my eye.
Just as each age has reinvented Shakespeare to suit its own time and culture, so to, it seems, that every era needs its own Kama Sutra, that ancient Hindu treatise on courtship and sexual behavior. To wit: the Folio Society recently published a limited-edition run of 750 hand-numbered copies of the 2,000-year-old instruction manual for joyous living.
This edition of Vatsyayana’s seven-part Sanskrit compendium is a blend of old and new. The text remains Sir Richard Burton’s 1963 landmark English translation but is accompanied by a specially commissioned essay by historian John Keay that explores the importance of sensuality in ancient Hindu society.
But the art is what really sets this edition apart: sumptuous illustrations by award-winning artist Victo Ngai. The work of the Hong-Kong-based RISD graduate has graced the pages of The New York Times and covers for Simon & Schuster and Random House. Here, her precise handiwork expertly captures the nuance and detail of the Kama Sutra. Interestingly, Ngai is the first woman to ever illustrate this pleasure tome, and her art presents a decidedly female focus.
We recently spoke to Ngai after her own recent nuptials and asked about this commission and the various influences that shape her work.
Were you surprised by the Folio commission?
Not really because I first suggested this book to The Folio Society’s art director Sheri Gee a few years ago after finishing our first book Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies together.
Did you consciously illustrate the Kama Sutra to reflect a woman’s perspective?
Frankly it hasn’t been my intention to make a “feminist’s Kama Sutra.” To me, the main objective of this project has always been to create the most lush and sumptuous volume that’s worthy of and true to this 2000-year-old Sanskrit classic. However, examining the pieces now in hindsight, I believe I did subconsciously work from a female-centric perspective by selecting subject matters which interest me and composing images which would tell the stories from the woman’s point of view.
In many ways the process is very similar to illustrating other books- reading the book to get the big picture, rereading the book to pick out stories that catch my eye, distilling the stories into short phrases and simple ideas, translating and refining these ideas into visuals through thumb-nailing, polishing the thumbnails into sketches, creating line drawings which forms the foundation of the final images, then finally finishing the pieces with fitting colors and mood. What is unique to illustrating each book is its content as it would inform the composition, storytelling, color palettes and mark making of the arts.
Were you familiar with the Kama Sutra prior to this project?
Only as familiar as everyone else, that it’s an ancient book about sex from India.
I was surprised by most of the book, actually. Only one chapter is dedicated to sexual union, which is what you hear mostly about. The other six chapters were a new discovery. I think the biggest surprise to me is how the book can be both patriarchic and progressively feministic at the same time. In many ways it reflects the male dominating social order of its time–that men have the (official) monopoly on polygamy and women’s well-being largely rely on their successes with men. Meanwhile the book stresses the importance for men to keep their women happy and devotes long paragraphs going into great detail on what men need to do to win and sustain a lady’s heart. However, in my opinion, the truly feministic idea appears in the chapter about courtesans. One can always argue the suggested kind gestures and tenderness towards women from other chapters are ultimately means for men to gain what they want, be it sex, love, loyalty or devotion. Whereas in this chapter, the book encourages the women to take charge of their sexuality, giving helpful tips on how to get what they want through manipulation of men, which turns the objectified into an active agency in the heterosexual relationship.
The 25 black and white positions illustrations are certainly erotic but not pornographic–how did you strike the right tone? When did you know you got it right?
Thank you, that’s great to hear! The figure-design was definitely one of the most challenging and time consuming process in this project. Besides the balance between eroticism and pornography, there’s also the juggle between being poetic and informative.
The first round of thumbnails was too realistic and felt like porny medical diagrams. The second round was overly expressive and looked cartoonish. The third round was excessively geometrical that took the fluidity out of the forms. I knew the sweet spot laid somewhere in between all of these unsuccessful attempts, but it still took a few more rounds to get there. What I was aiming for the final design was that the faces and bodies were generic and stylized just enough, but not much, that they can be part iconographies, which are graceful and unemotional, and part humans, which are sexy and provocative.
Were you familiar with Indian art and culture prior to this project?
I wouldn’t say I was very familiar with Indian art and culture before working on this book, but I have always had a keen interest in Hindu Mythologies, miniature paintings, and intricate and ornate patterns. One of the major reasons I wanted to work on this project was to have a proper excuse to research and learn more about this fascinating culture, while getting paid!
What do you hope readers will take away from your illustrations?
That Kama Sutra is a rich and multifaceted book, it’s not only a great window into ancient Hindi’s bedrooms and their impressive flexibility, it also paints a vivid picture of people’s daily household lives which includes making parrots talk after breakfast and bidding on cricket-fights; their religious beliefs and rituals; regional stereotypes and prejudices; social-economic construct of the time as well as tips and advises on romantic relationships which many are still surprisingly relevant today.
I understand you got married recently–congratulations! Did your work on the Kama Sutra influence your nuptials?
Thank you so much! I think the book is a great reminder that it takes work to sustain a happy and fruitful marriage, both inside and outside the bedroom.
The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, Illustrated by Victo Ngai, translated from the Sanscrit by Sir Richard Burton and Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot. Available in a limited edition of 750 copies for $595 each through the Folio Society.
All images reproduced with permission from the Folio Society.