Monthly Archives: January 2019

The Art of Naming Things

werners nomenclature of colors

My fellow Books-Around-the-Table blogger Julie Paschkis recommended a book to me yesterday titled Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours – the subtitle is Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts –  published by Smithsonian Books. The press’s website (visit it if you have a minute after reading this post – wonderful!) describes the book, first published in 1814, as “a taxonomic guide to the colors of the natural world that has been cherished by artists and scientists for more than two centuries,” adding that it is “a charming artifact from the golden age of natural history and global exploration.”

Now, it might sound like Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours would be of little use to a poet who writes picture books. For an illustrator, yes, the connection is clearer. But Julie Paschkis recommended it to me because we both love words, and Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours is about words as much as it is about colors.

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Julie Paschkis’s word-filled “Apple-Babble” ( see Julie’s artwork at  https://juliepaprika.com )

Here is a description from the Smithsonian Books website:

In the late eighteenth century, mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner devised a standardized color scheme that allowed him to describe even the subtlest of chromatic differences with consistent terminology. His scheme was then adapted by an Edinburgh flower painter, Patrick Syme, who used the actual minerals described by Werner to create the color charts in the book, enhancing them with examples from flora and fauna.

In the pre-photographic age, almost all visual details had to be captured via the written word, and scientific observers could not afford ambiguity in their descriptions. Werner’s handbook became an invaluable resource for naturalists and anthropologists, including Charles Darwin, who used it to identify colors in nature during his seminal voyage on the HMS Beagle. Werner’s terminology lent both precision and lyricism to Darwin’s pioneering writings, enabling his readers to envision a world they would never see.

“Envisioning a world they would never see” – with that, the connection to poetry takes a small step forward. Both poems and stories work to share specific moments (or narrative arcs) that resonate with but don’t reproduce their readers’ experiences. Imagination is the key, and precision in our descriptions gets the reader there.

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A sample from the book – Werner named the color, then gave us three categories (animal, vegetable and mineral, where we might find it.

I also keep going back to the press’s description of the book as “a taxonomic guide.” I’ve been interested in taxonomy for a long time – it’s the art of classifying things according to their similarities. Biological taxonomy involves things like domain, kingdom, genus, species, phylum, class, family, and order. It’s hierarchical – that is, it goes from broad to narrow.

Here is a biological taxonomic chart…

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…and here is a botanical taxonomical chart from the father of all taxonomy, Linnaeus, who used Latin to name the plants, a system we still use for precision’s sake in a world of many languages:

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A taxonomy of color – which is not hierarchical – would look more circular,  like this:

color taxonomy

If you’ve ever been to a paint store and gathered paint chips, you know what kind of imagination and effort goes into the naming of specific shades!

Just as interesting to me is that word in the title: “nomenclature.” The art of naming things. It has an almost Biblical ring to it, straight out of the Book of Genesis. Werner’s desire to name things is innate to human beings – after all, we can talk very little about things that go unnamed. A child just learning to speak is given nouns – named objects – to play around with. My own kids spent a lot of time with A-Z books and Richard Scarry’s Busy World and Best Word books (is the power of naming things the reason behind a certain inhabitant of the White House claiming he knows “lots of words…the best words”?) More important than giving us power, knowing the names of things allows us to reach that level of “precision and lyricism” that Smithsonian Press believes Werner inspired in Darwin.

So, Reader, I ordered  Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. The book has two ideas that have everything to do with being a writer:

1) “Taxonomy” – classifying things according to their similarities. That’s what metaphors do, no? Metaphorical thinking helps us understand how one thing resembles another and is involved in our ability to empathize.

2) “Nomenclature” – the precise naming of things because we “can’t afford ambiguity” in our descriptions.

Besides, it’s late January and a book about color will brighten up my day. I can’t wait for it to arrive! Thanks, Julie Paschkis!

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” Sea of Words” by Julie Paschkis

[**As Bonny suggested in the comments below, the perfect companion book for this is Julie Paschkis’s own picture book, VIVID. See pictures from it here. ]

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In Memory of John Burningham

jb studio shotOne of my favorites picture book makers, John Burningham, died last week in his Hampstead, England, home. He was 82. He leaves his wife, fellow book creator Helen Oxenbury; a family of four children and seven grandchildren, and a legacy of over 60 picture books.

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With Helen in earlier days.

Our family met John’s work in pre-bedtime reading sessions when our kids were little. Mr. Gumpy’s Motorcar was an favorite. We still borrow its phrase, “it’s a bit of a squash,” if the car is too full.

When I decided to try my luck in picture books, Burningham’s books became touchstones. There is much to learn from studying the books he published.

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His texts resonate with relatable themes, humor and simplicity. His illustrations, too, are so inviting, often drawn in a scrawl of brown ink that’s brightened by loose watercolor and colored pencil. I particularly love the proportions of his people and his varied points of view. And the animals; especially dogs and rabbits.

Burningham’s first book was published in 1963: Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers. He was well into his career by the time I met him at a Book Expo in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. The occasion was a Candlewick cocktail party where he held court near the bar: a dark haired, dapper guy with a charming British accent. I’d published about six books by then and was thrilled to meet one of my idols. He autographed my conference bag and drew a rabbit on my napkin, which has sadly since hopped away.

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My favorite John Burningham book is Granpa.

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Here are the opening spreads:

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The story continues, through various Granpa/granddaughter activities. The text is inferential, a dialogue that indicates who is speaking by typeface: italic (child) or Roman (Granpa).

As in most friendships, they have a spat.

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Then more shared adventures.

 

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They visit the beach (note the lovely point of view) and go fishing and jump rope. The seasons pass.

The final three spreads:

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Burningham says so much in that little girl’s posture; says so much with the empty chair.

But he does not leave it there. This is a children’s book, after all. So on to page 32 and a promise of the future.

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So it goes. I am a Granma myself now and I love to share John Burningham’s books with our grandchildren. Thanks, John Burningham for your wonderful books. Rest in peace.

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John Burningham and his wife Helen Oxenbury receiving the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from Book Trust.

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Lanterns and Learning

Making paper lanterns is a good antidote to dark winter days. I’ve been making quite a few.

To make a pinprick lantern, draw lightly on the back of medium weight paper. Poke holes along the lines of your design with a pushpin or nail. Put a piece of an old exercise mat under the paper for easy poking.

You can add a lot of pinholes. The smaller the pin, the more closely you can poke.

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Pin drawing by Sarah Jones

Connect the sides with a staple or brass fastener, forming a cylinder. Let there be light! (in this case an electric tea light candle).

lantern by Erica Hanson

I showed these projects to my friend Claudia Cohen who exclaimed “Froebel!” Who is Froebel? Or Frobel?

He was a visionary – a man of “curious passions and focussed eccentricities” – who invented kindergarten.

He believed that all of the natural world contained an inner order. This could be taught to children through activities like pricking paper, weaving, embroidery and playing with building blocks. Claudia had examples in her library of antique sampler books based on Froebel’s teaching.

Froebel believed in nurturing children like plants in a garden – thus the name kindergarten. His ideas spread all over the world. He planted the seeds for many modern artists and architects.

Kindergarten in the USA still has echoes of Froebel. Most preschools and kindergartens have a block corner. Froebel called for blocks to be simple so that children could learn ” to feel and experience, to act and represent, and to think and recognize.”

You can read more about Froebel, the origins of kindergarten, and the connections between kindergarten and the growth of modern art in Inventing Kindergarten by Norman Brosterman.

The seeds that are planted in early education make a difference in children’s lives. According to Froebel, “Harmony, unity and the reconciliation of opposites are the concepts that form the theoretical and practical underpinnings of the kindergarten.”

Here is to light and dark, to young and old, to then and now. Best wishes for a harmonious and enlightening New Year.