Archive for August, 2012

8 Stray Pieces of Knowledge (Imported)

What happens to the odd bits of knowledge you accumulate while traveling? Unless you write them down, much vanishes. So, here are a few things I learned while traveling in Switzerland, France, and Norway during the past ten days.

1. The Basilisk originates in Basel, Switzerland.  You know the basilisk from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and likely also know that Rowling has borrowed the creature from mythology.  The mythical beast has its origins in Basel, as a guardian of the city.  You can find it on a bridge and in other public places there.  One of the city’s radio stations is Radio Basilisk — a discovery which prompted my question to my brother-in-law, Michel… and in turn led to this piece of information.

Basilisk, on Basel's Wettstein Bridge

2. There Are No Trees Above 2000 Meters — in the Swiss Alps. (The tree line varies from place to place, climate to climate.) While hiking down from above the tree line, Michel mentioned this as we approached a few hearty trees. Why are there no trees above that height? I’ve looked it up, and I discover that there are many possible causes, including rainfall, acidity of the soil, and tolerance to draught and cold.

Trees at about 2000 meters. Photo taken (by Phil Nel) while descending towards Refuge Giacomini, Anzeindaz

3. Your First Language Is a Foreign Language.  My sixteen-month-old niece Emily can understand more than she can speak — which, my sister points out, is true of anyone learning a language.  You always understand more than you’re able to express.

4. “Quisling” Is More Than a Synonym for “Traitor.”  Vidkun Quisling was the collaborationist ruler of occupied Norway during the Second World War. A few months after the end of the European war, he was convicted of war crimes and executed. In what might be described as poetic justice, Quisling’s house now houses Oslo’s Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities.

5. Norway Elected Its Monarchy in 1905.  Usually one thinks of countries either curtailing the power of monarchy or, via a revolution, overthrowing the monarchy.  Not Norway.  When they gained their independence, they voted for a new monarchy — having abandoned the old one when they left their alliance with Sweden. Indeed, Prince Carl of Denmark only agreed to become king if the people of Norway held an election. They did, and voted him in. He took the Norwegian name Haakon, becoming King Haakon VII. During the Second World War, after the Germans invaded, he told the Norwegian government that if they were to cooperate with the Nazis, then he would abdicate. They unanimously voted not to cooperate, and King Haakon became a strong symbol for the Norwegian resistance.

6. The Scandinavian Languages Were Once All the Same Language. About 1000 years ago, they began developing in different directions — Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Faroese. One result is that people from different countries in the region can understand one another even if they don’t all speak precisely the “same” language.

7. The Root of Metaphor Means Carry Over. Mavis Reimer pointed this out in her paper — the Latin metaphora means “carrying over.”

8. Stian Hole’s Garmann books offer series of sharp vignettes from the perspective of their grade-school-age protagonist. They are not so much narratives as they are glimpses into his interior life, presented via collages that amplify his emotional experience. There’s something about the juxtapositions that recal the efforts of the twentieth-century avant-garde, especially John Heartfield. One long-term result of the conference — I hope — will be me learning more about Scandinavian children’s literature.

Stian Hole, Garmann's Summer (2006; English translation, 2008)
Stian Hole, Garmann's Street (2008; English translation, 2010)
To give credit where due, the initial sources for each of the above (later amplified by me looking stuff up, etc.) were: Michel Calame (1, 2), Linda Nel (3), Mavis Reimer (4, 7), Nina Christensen (8), and several people likely including Nina and Kristin Ørjasæter (5, 6).
The photos: Basilisk, by HEN-Magonza (via Flickriver); trees by Philip Nel (via my camera’s phone); images of the Garmann books pilfered from here and here.

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Remembering Remy Charlip (1929-2012)

Remy Charlip. Photo by Paul Chinn, SFC / SF

As you may have heard by now, Remy Charlip has passed away at the age of 83. The author of Fortunately (1964), Arm in Arm (1969), Thirteen (1975) and many others, Charlip was also a dancer, choreographer, and the model for Brian Selznick’s rendition of Georges Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

He was also one of many people I interviewed for the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  He knew them both, and illustrated two of Ruth’s books — A Moon or a Button (1959) and A Fine Day For… (1967).  During our interview (23 March 2003), he told me about working with Ruth on the first of these two books.

Philip Nel: Well, let’s see.  Maybe we should just start with when you first remember meeting them — or meeting Ruth.

Remy Charlip: OK.  Well, actually Ruth sent me a fan letter.  She saw my book that I did of Ruth Krauss’s [Margaret Wise Brown’s] called David’s Little Indian.

PN: Mmm-hmm.

RC: Do you know that book?

PN: I don’t know David’s Little Indian, no.

RC: Anyway, it was published after Margaret Wise Brown died, and it’s a story about a little boy who finds a little Indian and together they name the days.  So, she said she loved the book, and I don’t remember the letter very well, but I do remember that either she asked me to get in touch with her or I got in touch with her.  I don’t know.  I knew her books — I think I knew A Hole Is to Dig and I’ll Be You and You Be Me.  And I’ll Be You and You Be Me is a very — one of my favorite books of Ruth’s.  She influenced me in writing.  I think Arm in Arm actually came as a direct inspiration from her work.

I usually tried to read some (or most) of an author’s work before I interviewed him or her. In this case, I did not: I had grown more aware of the mortality of my interviewees. So, as soon as I had his telephone number, I gave him a call.

RC: Well, one thing I learned, for instance, was we did — I decided — she started to, after a while — let’s see, what was the first book that we worked on together?

PN: Well, A Moon or a Button?

RC: A Moon or a Button.  OK, so, we did that, and (Laughs).  And this is very interesting.  She brought me up to see Ursula Nordstrom, and Ursula would have no truck with me at all.  I made full-color paintings for that book, and the first thing Ursula said to me was, “Black-and-white separates the men from the boys.”  It was a total insult, and a total, you know, particu — you know.  Um.  I don’t know.  Maurice used to call her “the” — and you can’t print this —

PN: OK.

(I’ve cut Maurice Sendak’s occasional nickname for Urusula.)

RC: And, so, I think what Ursula really resented was that in Ruth’s generosity, she would always work with people who were younger, who were inexperienced, and who she thought had some talent and would like to help them — and as well as to work with people that she thought [their] work was exciting.  So, let’s see — so, she got very upset.

PN: Ruth did.

RC: Yeah.  At Ursula.  And, she took my paintings, she kind of gathered them up from the desk in her arms and hands, and threw them up in the air, and ran out, crying, to the ladies room.  Ursula ran after her.  And I sat there thinking, “The children’s book business is much more exciting than I thought.”  (Laughs.)

PN: (Laughs.)

Discussing Ruth’s poem, “The Song of the Melancholy Dress,” he told me:

RC: And anyway, I asked her where she got the idea for the melancholy dress, and she said, “Oh, I overheard somebody say something at a party, and the woman said that she bought a melon-colored dress.”  And, so, a lot of her ideas came from misunderstandings, and I love that because I found that very helpful when one is working, you know, that you –.  And that’s really creativity, when you use something as something else.  And so, when I did the Paper Bag Players, which is a children’s theater, the costumes were all made out of common-place household objects and material — like, say, a shower curtain for the water, a box, big box, for the costume of a soldier — you know, that kind of thing.

PN: Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm.

RC: And, or a lampshade as a hat, lace curtains for a dress.  So, the Paper Bag Players was all about how you can — so, that’s another thing that I actually learned from her — in another way, I mean, I also had friends who were, like Lou Harrison, for instance, who one day said, “I’m going shopping up in the Bronx.  Would you like to come with me?”  And I said, “Sure.”  And we went up to an automobile graveyard, and had a little meter with him, and he was hitting brake drums to get the sound that he wanted, a particular note. And he was very — it was very urgent that he do it because they were now not making the break drums in the same way that they were.  They made thuds instead of boungs.

PN: Ahh, I’ve gotcha.

RC: So, it was probably something at the time, where I myself take things that you ordinarily look at one way, but then you can look at it in another way.

PN: And that’s a good description of what Ruth does.

It’s also a good description of what Remy did.

For an example of that (and of his sense of humor), you might take a look at this excerpt from his It Looks Like Snow, which I posted back in March of 2011.

Photo by Paul Chinn, from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s obituary.

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Jose Aruego (1932-2012)

Maurice Sendak, Ellen Levine, Jean Craighead George, Leo Dillon, and now Jose Aruego.  It’s been an all-too-mortal year for children’s books.  Mr. Aruego died on August 9, his 80th birthday.

I never met Mr. Aruego, but he did kindly grant Julia Mickenberg and me permission to use his illustrations for Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo (1971) in Tales for Little Rebels (2008).  For all such permission requests, I included a self-addressed stamped envelope to facilitate the reply.  He returned the envelope, embellished with his own beautiful script rendition of my name.

Jose Aruego, envelope addressed to Philip Nel, 2005

It seemed as if, even though this was a mundane request, he was going to respond with his full attention.  Next to his signature, he added — in beautiful tiny script, on a post-it note — a request for a copy of the book, once published.

Jose Aruego, postscript to Philip Nel, 2005

His biography is a fascinating one.  As we note in Tales for Little Rebels, he grew up in Manilla where, at school, he sat next to and befriended Benigno Aquino — the Philippine leader assassinated (decades later) for opposing Ferdinand Marcos.  Though as a young man Aruego trained to practice law, he lost the sole case he tried, leaving the profession after a mere three months.

Aruego’s heart wasn’t in the law.  It was in art.  Inspired by his childhood love of comic books, he decided to study art in New York City, because he thought of it as the comic-book capital of the world.  In the late 1950s, he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design, studying with Leo Lionni — the artist about to gain fame in the children’s book world for Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959), Swimmy (1963), Frederick (1967), and many others.

Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego, Leo the Late Bloomer (1971)After graduating, Aruego worked for ad agencies, sold cartoons (New YorkerSaturday Evening PostLook), and eventually decided on pursuing free-lance illustration full-time.  He married and later divorced artist Ariane Dewey: they co-illustrated over forty-five books together, both before and after the dissolution of their marriage.  He also illustrated over a dozen by Robert Kraus, including Whose Mouse Are You? (1970) and Leo the Late Bloomer (1971).

A bit of a late bloomer himself, Aruego created many great children’s books during his over fifty years as an artist.  He’s a great example of a person who followed his own path, and, in so doing, found his true talent.  Rest in peace, Mr. Aruego.  Thanks for leaving us all the gift of your sensitive, detailed, warm, amusing art.

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It’s here, in hardcover and paperback.

Greetings, faithful readers. I am pleased to report that Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature — a book that was twelve years in the making — now exists in both hardcover and paperback.  I received my author copies today, which means that it should be available for shipping from warehouses in the next few weeks (the official publication date is September 1st).

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (hardcover). Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (paperback).
The author poses with the hardcover. The author poses with the softcover.

It’s already available on the Kindle, Nook and SONY Reader, but I find the ebook’s absence of book design a little disappointing.  So, I recommend purchasing the paperback. First, it’s cheaper.  Second, only the paperback has the full wraparound cover (designed by Chris Ware).  The Kindle version supplies only the front cover.1 On the hardcover, the artwork wraps around the spine and onto the back cover, but, since there is no dust jacket, the cover ends at the vertical edges of both back and front covers.  The paperback also has no dust jacket, but does have folded flaps that mimic a dust jacket  — they fold in along the vertical edges, tucking in between front cover and first page, and between last page and back cover.  Thus, the paperback allows you to view the full wrap-around cover.

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

The only other ways to see the full cover are on this blog or in the poster versions.  The generous Mr. Ware has designed a version of the cover — sans blurbs, UPC symbol, etc. — that is currently being made into posters.  I plan to sell them at book events. (I’m selling them rather than giving them away because I’ve underwritten the cost of this endeavor, and I’d like to make back my investment.)

Anyway.  My point is that the book is now officially real.  For me, a book is not a book until I hold it in my hands.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve signed the contract, delivered the manuscript, edited the manuscript (many times in this case), obtained rights to reprint the images (88 for this one), checked the page proofs, or seen the image for the jacket.  The book is only real for me at the moment I actually see a physical copy for the first time.  For this book, that moment was late this afternoon.

My biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss is now real.


1.  I haven’t seen the Nook or SONY Reader versions. I assume they look much as the Kindle version does, but cannot verify that assumption.

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Stayin’ Alive

Yield to bicycle (sign)While riding my bike last Tuesday morning, a car hit me.  It was 7:45 am, I was cycling uphill and due west.  A car coming due east — blinded by the sun, the driver later told me — took a left turn and hit my bicycle on its (and my) left side.  Fortunately, neither of us were moving quickly.  She had slowed for her turn, and I can’t go as fast up a hill.  It’s also fortunate that I was standing up on the pedals.  I don’t know precisely what happened at the moment of impact.  I remember thinking: “Oh, #@$!! I can’t believe this car is going to hit me!” Next, I was getting up off the pavement, left knee bloody and right knee bruised.  My bicycle lay to my left, wheels and crankshaft bent, and left pedal broken.  I say it’s fortunate that I was standing up because I deduce that the car must have knocked me off my bike — when standing up, pedaling, less body is intertwined with bike than would be in the sitting-down-pedaling position. Thus, I found myself getting up off the pavement, and not from under bike or car.  More importantly, my bicycle absorbed the impact of the car.  My body’s (minimal) injuries derived from the pavement more than the car.

After realizing that I was only a little scraped and bruised, and (alas) cursing at the driver (whose remorse quickly shamed me into apologizing for my rudeness), my next thought was: “Hey, I should be able to exercise again in a couple of days!  Excellent!”  (And I was able to.)  It took an hour or so for “Hey, I’m really lucky to be alive!” to sink in.

I mention this because, in reading Jesse Goldberg’s “Injuries and my fears of aging,” I realize my primary response to aging has been to exercise more and with greater regularity.  In my 40s, I exercise more than I did in my 30s; in my 30s, I exercised more than I did in my 20s. Why? The older you get, the harder it is to start exercising again.  I know that, if I were to stop, I would quickly lose a lot of ground.  As a cross-country runner in high school, I could take the summer off and, within a week, get back into shape.  I can’t do that now.

To be clear, I was not and have never been a great athlete: I got a varsity letter in cross-country my senior year only because I kept showing up (I never once placed in a varsity race). But, as an adult, if I exercise regularly, I feel healthier, I can do my job better, and I sleep better — well, inasmuch as a neurotic person like myself ever sleeps better (I have a hard time “turning off” at the end of the day.  Too much on my mind). The “life of the mind” — writing, teaching, research, service — isn’t designed for one’s health. We spend far too much time sitting at a computer, in meetings, in archives, at conferences, and on planes.  We spend far too much time sitting. One can even sit while teaching, although I generally do not.

Though keeping in shape allows me to function in the ways that I did when I was younger, it also doesn’t.  As I age, my body becomes more prone to injury.  My “exercise more!” response to aging also requires me to pay greater attention to my body.  For the last year, I’ve been seeing a chiropractor regularly, and — since my mid-30s — have had to go to physical therapy for the occasional injury.  I’ve had to adjust the way I run (calf-muscle troubles), and adjust the way I sit at the computer (neck troubles).  Before bed each night, I am now obliged to go through a sequence of stretches so that my body can continue to function as I would like it to.

Unlike Mr. Goldberg, I do not fear aging. I fear Alzheimer’s. I fear living in a permanent vegetative state. And, yes, I’m not looking forward to death. I’ve always liked Woody Allen’s line: “It’s not that I’m afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  But aging itself?  As long as I have my health (or most of it), aging is fine. To paraphrase the cliché, aging is far better than the alternative.

In addition to leaving me very happily not-dead, the car inflicted no lasting damage. The driver kindly took me to the emergency room, where medical professionals examined me, treated the open wound, made sure I was OK.  Since then, my left knee has scabbed over nicely, and skin is growing back. The bruised muscle above my right knee (lower thigh muscle, really) is nearly 100%, and the post-accident muscle stiffness has receded.  The driver’s insurance paid for the damage to my bicycle, and Pathfinder (great local bike shop) has already repaired the bike. This was, without question, the best possible outcome of a car striking a bicycle.  I’m very fortunate.  (In sum: do not worry.  I am fine.)

In any case, this post is less about the accident and more about my (ultimately futile) attempts to slow the inevitable decline and fall of my body.  It’s about fighting aging via exercise.  I know will eventually lose this fight, but it’s a battle worth waging.

(And, yes, this blog will return to its more typical — i.e., not autobiographical — posts very soon.)


But first,… a few thematically related songs.

Abdominal‘s “Pedal Pusher” (2007) may be the greatest bicycling song ever.  Love this.

For another great exercising song, let’s turn to Darrow Fletcher‘s funky gem from 1977, “Improve.”

Since I took the post’s title from their song, let’s give a listen to the Brothers Gibb (two of whom are no longer staying alive, I’m sorry to say).  Here’s “Stayin’ Alive,” which was also released in 1977.

What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard the heavy-metal cover of “Stayin’ Alive”?  We’ll have to fix that now.  Here’s… Tragedy!

Wyclef Jean also did a great tribute / cover in “We Trying to Stay Alive” (1997) — which in the video, also has a nice homage to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

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