The Brownstone: Trailblazing Graphic Designer Paula Scher’s Lovely Vintage Children’s Book About Living with Each Other’s Differences
Playful assurance that however vast our differences, there is always a mutually satisfying solution to be found.
By Maria Popova
“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation,” E.B. White wrote in his sublime 1949 ode to Gotham, one of the most beautiful books ever written. As singular a city as it may be, however, New York has always presented a sort of extreme prototype of the challenges and rewards of life in any metropolis — challenges like the constant negotiation between privacy and participation required of those living in any densely populated urban area; challenges best surmounted not with indignation and entitlement, which tend to be our default human responses to having our perceived rights infringed upon, but with humility and a healthy dose of humor.
That’s what trailblazing graphic designer Paula Scher offers in The Brownstone (public library) — the only children’s book she ever wrote, charmingly illustrated by Stan Mack and originally published in 1973, when 25-year-old Scher was busy ascending to design superstar status with her revolutionary album covers for CBS Records.
We meet Mr. Bear as he comes home to the brownstone where he lives one chilly late-autumn evening and readies his family for their “long winter nap.” But hibernation soon proves more challenging than imagined — inside the brownstone, the Bears’ neighbors have very different ideas about chilly evenings well spent.
Miss Cat, who lives across the hall on the first floor, practices her piano so loudly that the Bears can’t get to sleep.
Frustrated, Mr. Bear climbs up to the third floor to complain to the super, Mr. Owl, who suggests that perhaps the Pigs would be willing to switch apartments with the Bears. The Pigs’ neighbors are the Mice, who are “nice and quiet.”
The Pigs, having always wanted to live on the ground floor, are thrilled to comply.
Soon the staircase was busy.
The Bears moved up the stairs.
The Pigs moved down the stairs.
Before long, all was quiet again. The Pigs cooked dinner, the scent wafting across the hall.
But just as the Bears cozy up in their beds and begin drifting off, commotion sets in again.
sounded over their heads.
“What is that noise?” growled Mr. Bear.
“What is that smell?” cried Miss Cat.
Mr. Bear and Miss Cat marched up to Mr. Owl’s door.
The dancing Kangaroos on the third floor are too loud, Mr. Bear explains, and Miss Cat can’t bear the smell of the Pigs’ cooking. To resolve the complaints, Mr. Owl orchestrates another switcheroo and soon the staircase is bustling again, families moving up and down and across to make their differences fit together least discordantly.
But dissatisfactions quickly arise again, exasperations simmer, and off the brownstone goes, aswirl with more moving.
In the end, there is an almost mathematical solution: Mr. Owl sits down, tackles the situation like a puzzle of geometry and logic, and comes up with an arrangement that meets everyone’s needs — a reminder that whenever our emotions are stirred into the mutual reactivity of outrage, the best thing to do is to return to reason and make it a vehicle of goodwill.
The Bears snuggled back into bed, and Mr. Owl settled into his reading chair. Soon, the only sounds on the top floor were soft snores.
On the second floor, the Pigs invited their old neighbors over for dinner.
And on the first floor, Miss Cat and the Kangaroos discovered their mutual love of music and sang and danced the night away.
Complement The Brownstone with Scher on how creativity works and her extraordinary hand-drawn maps, then revisit this fascinating read on why we think with animals.
Illustrations courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press
Published January 14, 2016