A hour or so later, Kalman was delighting a crowd of folks gathered for her talk, which was focused on the three children's non-fiction books she has written. The audience included kids, teens and adults, and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time listening to the witty Kalman talk about her life and work. When the program was over, everyone waited patiently in a long line to have books signed by Kalman, who took her time talking with each fan. At the end, Kalman was ready to take a cab back to Union Station but I demurred; I was having too much fun talking with her. So we hopped into my van and continued the conversation until it was time for her train.
You'll get a flavor of Kalman and our event from the article I wrote for our city newsletter; I'm re-posting it below.
|Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan|
It’s hard -- no, make that impossible -- to pigeonole Maira Kalman’s work. She writes and illustrates books for adults like And the Pursuit of Happiness and The Principles of Uncertainty. She creates covers for The New Yorker magazine, writes and illustrates blogs for The New York Times, and publishes acclaimed biographies for children of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. And don’t forget about the illustrations Kalman did for Food Rules, the healthy eating bible written by Michael Pollan, as well as the illustrations she created for The Elements of Style, the classic “how to write well” manual written by William Strunk and E.B. White. With Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Kalman has co-authored the award-winning young adult novel, Why We Broke Up, and a children's picture book, 13 Words. The two also just released a new art/poetry collaboration for teens and adults, Girls Standing on Lawns.
Kalman’s work has been described as a unique type of journalism, a kind of “narrative drawing” in which she illustrates and writes about the world around her. “I do see myself as a journalist,” Kalman told the crowd of adults and kids who came to hear her recently in the Takoma Park Community Center. “I am an artist at large, going around the world and reporting on what I see. Sometimes, it’s very pointed, like the books on Lincoln or Jefferson. But sometimes, it’s whimsical, like The Principles of Uncertainty. But still, I’m always trying to make a human connection between the experience of being alive and trying to make sense of … the world.”
Kalman said she particularly enjoys writing for kids “because there are no limits.” Yet writing and illustrating a children’s book, especially a non-fiction book, can be quite challenging, Kalman added, because “you need to edit to 32 pages what you really want to say, and there should be a sense of humor and some sense of optimism.” In Fireboat, for example, Kalman tells the story of the John J. Harvey, a boat that was long past its heyday when some New Yorkers bought and restored it in the late 1990’s. When 9/11 happened, the Harvey was, with two other fire boats, instrumental in fighting the fires at the site of the World Trade Center buildings because the water mains there were buried under the rubble. Kalman said Fireboat is “a story of being resilient in a tremendous way.” She added that stories like Fireboat are “a way to talk to kids about tragic events…. It says, ‘This is what happened and this is how we dealt with it.’”
In Looking at Lincoln, Kalman said she tried to give young readers “a sense of his extraordinary presence…. If you study him, there’s no way not to fall in love with Abraham Lincoln.” In fact, Kalman joked, she herself is famous for saying that she’s in love with Lincoln “to the point that I always say that I would have been a better wife than Mary (Todd Lincoln).” During her presentation, Kalman talked about illustrating items that Lincoln owned help bring him alive for young readers, noting that his now-trademark stovepipe hat “is part of the iconic persona” Lincoln created for himself. In fact, Kalman believes that objects like Lincoln’s hat or Jefferson’s jacket, which he lined with socks to make it warmer, offer a key way to connect to an otherwise remote historical figure.
Writing about Jefferson was much harder than writing about Lincoln, Kalman noted. Jefferson “is a different guy. I don’t love him, but I admire and respect him tremendously,” Kalman said, adding that Jefferson “doesn’t come across as having a sense of humor like Lincoln.” But Kalman was clearly taken by what she called “the genius of his brain and the breadth of his interests,” which she underlines in the subtitle of her book: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything. That’s what makes Jefferson’s refusal to give up his slaves so difficult to swallow, and “so heartbreaking,” she added.