Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes by Jeanette Winter. Beach Lane Books 2014. Non-fiction ages 4-8.
Themes: Arts, bio, creativity, dreams, intergenerational, memory
This selection for Perfect Picture Book Friday begins, “If you had lived on Utopia Parkway not so long ago, you might have walked past this house.” Self-taught artist Joseph Cornell lived there in Queens, NY where he assembled highly acclaimed “shadow boxes” from things he collected.
**See the end of this review for activity suggestions and resources.
In his “dream boxes” the artist Joseph Cornell mixed an array of unlikely objects and images behind glass in a form of sculpture known as an “assemblage.” He was influenced by the Surrealists in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, and although completely self-taught, Cornell’s work was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
I consider this a “Positive Aging” picture book although Joseph Cornell didn’t live a particularly long life by today’s standards—he died at age 69, in 1972. Author/illustrator Jeanette Winter shows children an adult with an interest they can relate to, one he pursued with passion into later life.
Cornell was not a grandparent and he lived a quiet life caring for his mother, and for his brother Robert who lived with cerebral palsy, but she shines a light on his rich inner life.
Rather than portray Joseph Cornell as lonely or sad, Jeanette Winter illuminates his amazing creativity. I like that kids will see how he used his memories and dreams to create his “WONDERLANDS covered in glass.” The author tells us “his journals filled over 30,000 pages.”
“Mr. Cornell remembered blowing soap bubbles.”
“He remembered animals in the museum locked behind glass.”
“He remembered learning about stars.”
According to the website of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), his “Soap Bubbles” assemblage (1936) includes:
“…four cylindrical weights, an egg in a wine glass, a cast of a child’s head, a clay pipe and a map of the moon. The clay pipe, with which soap bubbles can be made, has a clear relationship to childhood and hence the child’s head. For Cornell the soap bubble also symbolized the contemplation of the cosmos as suggested by the lunar map.”
His use of toys will intrigue kids and it suggests “the relationship between art and play” says MOMA’s website. Surely it’s a good thing to show children that adults, even older adults can retain that kind of playfulness?
The inspired illustrations are reminiscent of Cornell’s own artistic boxes. He is showcased by the author/illustrator in the glowing windows of his house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York.
The treasures he collected to adorn his dream boxes peek from the glass of buildings in the vast city he roamed.
A description on the website of artist Nancy Doyle:
“His range of subjects was vast – Hollywood stars, birds, astrology, ballet (a swan), opera, Medicis of the Renaissance, travel, artists (Juan Gris), poetry (Emily Dickinson), the cosmos.
The materials he used were also wide-ranging: cut-outs from various publications, marbles, butterfly wings, scraps of wallpaper, souvenirs and memorabilia, sky charts, old advertisements, broken glassware, music boxes, feathers, metal springs, maps, seashells, mirrors, plastic ice cubes.”
As kids most of us filled boxes and drawers with such treasures!
In ending, a gray haired Mr. Cornell is shown interacting with children at a special exhibition of his work just for them. An author’s note gives more details and actual photos—his dream boxes beckoned from just the perfect height for kids, and like most kids, Mr. Cornell loved sweets so brownies and cherry cola were served. Cheers to a delightful picture book bio!
To view vivid images of Cornell’s work—visit this page and click on each image to see a larger image.
My favorite is “Untitled (Pharmacy),” a box filled with small capped glass bottles—each containing an object such as a shell.
I’ve been holding onto lots of little shells and momentos, pictures of exotic birds from my uncle’s scrapbook, and an old medicine cabinet, a treasure from our local Treasure Mart, with the intent of working a little magic of my own….
What about you? Have you ever incorporated your own small treasures or found objects into a creative project? Or do you have good intentions like my own?
Resources for activities—
- Make your own shadow box from a sturdy cardboard box with a lid. Share a memory or a dream like Joseph Cornell, or illustrate a story from your life or that of a family member. Find instructions and two videos including “Shadow Boxes for Kids” at Home Museum dot com.
- Explore creative aging by learning about other self-taught artists like Tressa Prisbrey and Bill Traylor
- See another way small family momentos can share history in The Matchbox Diary.
- Read more picture book bios by Jeanette Winter:
Check out Perfect Picture Book Fridays on the blog of Susanna Leonard Hill for more great picture books!