Proust on asparagus: rainbows, Shakespeare’s fairies, and chamber pot perfumes

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A little morning inspiration on that favorite springtime vegetable: asparagus.

“…but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet–still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed–with an iridescence that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting like one of Shakespeare’s fairies) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.”

Photo of asparagus bundles

-Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, vol. 1 of In Search of Lost Time, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (1913; New York: The Modern Library, 2003), 168-169.

Inspiration from Neil Gaiman

I was happy to stumble across Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech delivered at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA this year. I strongly urge anyone starting out in an arts field or any other field to watch and listen, but also anyone already deeply entrenched in their respective field. Refreshing, encouraging, and sure to make you laugh.

Some of my favorite takeaways:

“When you start out on a career in the arts, you have no idea what you’re doing. This is great. People who know what they’re doing know the rules, and they know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them, and you can. If you don’t know what’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that particular thing again.”

“When things get tough, this is what you should do: make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best. Make good art. Make it on the bad days. Make it on the good days, too.”

“So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise and then just behave like they would.”

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

Cover of "In the Night Kitchen" by Maurice SendakSendak, Maurice. In the Night Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1970.

Plot:  When Mickey hears a racket in the night he shouts for quiet then falls down down down into the night kitchen. The night bakers try to bake him into the morning cake and Mickey realizes they need milk, not Mickey! Off he goes to find the missing ingredient…

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: Night, adventure, baking, bakers, sleep, dreams, dreamscapes, imagination, cake, milk, cities

Literary Quality: Among boisterous bakers, a city constructed of pantry items, a starry sky and a whole lot of batter and dough, Mickey’s adventure is an unforgettable story that will have readers laughing and chanting along. The rhythms in this book are set by both the illustrations, which are built into large comic-book-like blocks and panels that create a sense of movement, and text. Indeed, this book is nearly impossible to read quietly to oneself and not boom the rhymes, songs, and chants out loud. The musicality is wonderful. For example, take a look at this spread:

two-page spread from "In the Night Kitchen"

“But right in the middle of the steaming and the making and the smelling and the baking Mickey poked through and said: “I’m not milk and the milk’s not me! I’m Mickey!”

The words and sounds of this story rise as much as Mickey’s dough-built airplane that follows. And while the illustrations are integral to the story, there’s something of the oral storytelling tradition here. The very first line: “Did you ever hear of Mickey,” suggests a story that has been told and retold. The rhymes, rhythms, and repetions are anchors for both storytellers and audiences. The final line, “And that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning,” also plays with the format of a folktale or explanation myth.  A perfect balance of energetic and soothing rhythms, the familiar and the whimsical, In the Night Kitchen is not your average bedtime story. But we would neither expect nor desire anything less from Sendak.

History: The publication of In the Night Kitchen in the early 1970s sparked controversy because Mickey sheds his clothing in his dream-state, and a nude little boy (with whose anatomy most people are familiar) can be seen in the cake batter, in the milk, and cock-a-doodle-dooing atop the milk bottle. Why there was such an uproar about the naked young boy is a bit of a puzzle: for one thing, the male anatomy, including that of children, is often the subject of fine art. Nevertheless, upon publication some librarians and teachers pulled the book from the shelves or added their own little diaper to the illustrations of Mickey!

Audience: Ages 3-8. The imaginatinative story and images will continue to thrill both boys and girls at any time of day (or night!).

Personal reaction: In the Night Kitchen was a personal favorite of mine growing up. I have fond memories of reading the book with parents and to myself. Like most children, I’m sure, it never struck me as odd that Mickey fell out of his clothes or skinny-dipped in the milk. His nudity seemed unremarkable and natural in the context of his dream adventure. I was therefore surprised to learn, as an adult, of the past controversy. The images, words, and sounds of the story have all been imprinted in my mind. The bakers’ song, “Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake! And nothing’s the matter!” is one that I still find myself singing aloud in my own day kitchen. A book to read, re-read, and read again.

When My Baby Dreams by Adele Enersen

Cover Image of When My Baby Dreams by Adele EnersenEnersen, Adele. When My Baby Dreams. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2012.

Plot:  We all know that babies are expert sleepers. But what do they dream about? A new mother gives readers a glimpse into her baby’s imaginative dreams through playful photographs.

Point of View: 1st person (mother)

Theme: Babies, mothers, sleep, dreams, dreamscapes, photography, imagination

Literary Quality: Originating in Enersen’s popular photo blog, this picture book uses the author’s photographs to illustrate the dreams of her baby, Mila. Whether dreaming of playing in a forest, of being a bee or a butterfly, or of traveling around the world, Mila’s dreamscapes are composed of soft materials such as blankets, clothes, and carpet with accents like books, stuffed animals, and balloons. The spare text narrating these whimsical scenes is brief enough to hold the attention of babies and young tots, who will most likely enjoy the variety of familiar and unfamiliar words, concepts, and animals, as well as pointing out the baby in each image. The changing pastel page colors also help maintain the soft and subtle tone of this book. Sweet and visually interesting, When My Baby Dreams shows readers yet another creative way to tell a story. Read more about Enersen’s process of making the photographs and book here.

Audience: Ages 0-8. A picture book whose content appeals to the youngest readers and their parents, but that also might inspire some older siblings to imagine (and draw pictures of!) their newest family members’ dreams during all that sleepy time.

Personal reaction: I found When My Baby Dreams to be full of charm and adorable without being overly sweet. I appreciate the way that the short text, use of color, and a simple, repeating layout keep the emphasis on the photographs, allowing the story in each scene to truly shine through. I also couldn’t help thinking that Mila seems like an especially cooperative baby!

Mommy Loves by Anne Gutman and Georg Hallensleben

Cover image of "Mommy Loves" by Anne Gutman and Georg HallenslebenGutman, Anne. Mommy Loves. Illustrated by Georg Hallensleben. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.

Plot:  This story begins with a timeless theme: “All mommies love their babies.” Each page then describes a mommy animal who loves her baby animal, and helps young children count from 1-10.

Point of View: 1st person (although it could be 3rd person until the final page)

Theme: Babies, mommies, mothers, children, love, affection, animals, baby animals, numbers, counting, board books

Literary Quality: This board book uses a popular theme among children’s books – animals and their babies – to convey a simple and universal message: all mothers love their children. Repetion of the “Mommy…loves…” phrase on each page with different types of animals provides a soothing rhythm for babies. In addition to the more commonly seen animal pairs such as cats and kittens, dogs and puppies, Gutman includes pairings of less familiar animals and their babies such as hedgehogs, mice, and fish. The number of babies in each illustration increases from one to ten, accompanied by the same printed number painted in the corner of each page. These details, along with Hallensleben’s bold and colorful oil paintings of the animals, make this book a wonderful choice for infants and toddlers. Interestingly, the original French title, Les Chiffres (Hachette Jeunesse, 2001), puts more emphasis on the counting and concept aspect of this book than its English translation, which focuses on the motherly love element.

Audience: Ages 0-4. This is a board book babies can grow with, and parents might even learn a couple of new baby animal names!

Personal reaction:  Mommy Loves is the first board book I picked out as an expectant mother, and I look forward to sharing this sweet and gentle story with my baby. I love the combination of Hallensleben’s rich paintings, the simple and comforting text with some unusual animal choices, and the counting concept.