The majority of children’s books are vomitous. They involve wishy-washy pale illustrations, cloying moral lessons and excessive use of the word “bunny.” So thank the richly colored heavens for Maira Kalman, a children’s book author who’s always a funny and astringent antidote to too much pastel goo-goo sugariness.
And you don’t have to be a kid to love her. Kalman’s probably just as well-known for her grown-up projects: a New Yorker cover titled “New Yorkistan” (a collaboration with Rick Meyerowitz, it showed the city divided into various fiefdoms, including Botoxia, Fattushis and Kvetchnya), her fashion illustrations for The New York Times Magazine (her illustrated book “Elements of Style” is to be published next fall by Penguin), her fabric designs for Kate Spade and Isaac Mizrahi, her set design for choreographer Mark Morris. She first became known for her work with her husband, the late Tibor Kalman, who founded M&Co, a seminal New York graphic design studio. (M&Co’s clocks and wristwatches are still sold at the Museum of Modern Art’s stores.)
But in our house, Kalman’s crowning achievement is “What Pete Ate From A to Z.” Josie can listen to this story over and over again without getting bored, and, far more importantly, so can I. The plot’s pretty basic: A fuzzy mutt devours an accordion, a ball, a camera, the head of “my dear doll Dinky” (“dreadful dog”!) and so on through the alphabet. Simple. But the book teems with funny characters, sophisticated yet endearing gouache paintings that spill and trail off the page, goofy wordplay, funny clubs and competitions and dog shows. There are gloriously decorated apartments (with little in-jokes for design-loving parents — in Uncle Benny’s B-themed apartment, for instance, there is a Bertoia chair) and a really cute but not Disneyesque dog. The book’s language alternates between baroque, pointy sentences and staccato one-liners. At the letter Y, Pete eats all the characters’ yo-yos (“Yikes!”). His exasperated owner, a girl named Poppy Wise, informs us sadly:
Now there will be NO yo-yo contest.
“Pete” is not an explicitly “Jewish” book. But its rhythms and slightly Chagall-y, colorfully surreal vibe have a Jewish sensibility. I’d always figured Kalman was Jewish, which she is, but was surprised to learn she was born in Israel. “We came to New York City in 1954, when I was 4,” she told me. “We came here ‘temporarily’ because my father was a diamond dealer in Tel Aviv, and he was sent here for work, but it ended up being forever.”
Kalman feels that being Israeli definitely informs her writing. “I’ve always felt like an outsider,” she said. “Our identity gave me an askew, observational stance and made me able to make fun of things.”
Kalman’s characters are usually observers too. In “Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman,” two children hop a plane to Tokyo to avoid a piano lesson with the dreaded Mrs. Kackleman. They end up exploring Japan through foods, trains, flowers. In “Ooh-la-la (Max in Love)”; “Swami on Rye: Max in India” and “Max in Hollywood, Baby,” Max the dog (apparently no relation to Pete) travels through Paris, India and Los Angeles. Even when Kalman’s characters are at home in New York, they’re watchers, gazing at and learning about the workings of their city. In “Next Stop Grand Central” (a must for any train-obsessed child), Kalman details the huge amount of labor and raw materials needed to keep the hub humming. In “Fireboat,” Kalman tells the story of the John J. Harvey, a 1931 fireboat in New York Harbor that was called back from retirement to fight fires on September 11, 2001.
Living in New York definitely colors her work, Kalman says. “It’s the sense of humor here,” she said. “It’s very eccentric, but it’s not black humor, and it’s not sarcasm.” It’s also not precious or mean, which is probably why Josie and I both like her work. Another of Kalman’s influences is her family history, which involved her parents’ escape from Eastern Europe in the 1930s.
“There are many stories I’ve heard about what my family went through and the Holocaust,” she said. (She just signed a deal with Penguin to do an illustrated memoir — aimed at adults — called “Look.”) “An hour doesn’t go by that I don’t think about the Nazis. That sounds sort of Mel Brooks-ish, but it’s true,” she said. “World War II is always present. It doesn’t really come through in my children’s books — well, it does, in the idea that you never know. In ‘Fireboat,’ you don’t know what’s going to happen in a minute or an hour or a year. You have to be able to go on, whatever happens, good bad or crazy. And humor is a great way to keep you going.”
Kalman’s own children, Lulu and Alex, are now 21 and 18. When they were small, she read to them constantly. “All the Madeline books, all of Roald Dahl, all of William Steig, all of Dr. Suess,” she said. “I loved the Eloise books, ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ ‘Wind in the Willows’ and many more. I was inspired by authors who had beautiful or funny or experimental text. These authors never condescended. They were writing for themselves or the children in themselves.”
Like Kalman, some of those authors have been accused of writing faux-children’s books that are really for adults. But Kalman’s best work, like Dr. Seuss’s and Dahl’s, manages to amuse parents without wearying or confusing children. “It doesn’t matter if kids miss some of the details,” Kalman said, “as long as the intent is not to exclude them from the essence of the book or the comedy in the story. Plus, there is plenty they will get, as I allow myself the pleasure of being idiotic.”
Josie doesn’t get that there’s a Bertoia chair in the B section of “What Pete Ate,” and she doesn’t know there’s something inherently funny in the lines, “The Twinkle Twins have a dog named Twinky. Twinky may look insane, but she does not eat their things.” But she laughs at the drawing of a dog shaped like an accordion and at the baby with a bowl of noodles dripping down his face. She gigglingly whispers with me the thrilling secret line, “It is his kazoo.” She loves to count the 25 jellybeans in Pete’s belly, even though she can only count to 20. She lives to chant those oy-oys. When you’re a parent, and you have to read your child’s beloved books approximately a trillion times, you pray your kid fixates on something like Pete. Sure, the cuddle time on the couch with you and her and a book would be something to treasure even if you had to read some vapid TV-cartoon-character-filled tie-in monstrosity. But when you both love the words and pictures you’re sharing, it’s gravy.
I asked Kalman whether the real Pete is still with us. Indeed. “The dear meal ticket, as I lovingly call him, is very much the center of everything,” she said. “The last thing he ate was a rubber clock.”
Write to Marjorie at email@example.com.