Monday, June 16, 2014

Maira Kalman's Quirky Magic

Not long ago, my library - partnering with the folks at Politics & Prose, the premier independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. -- hosted a program featuring world-renowned author/artist Maira Kalman. I've long loved Kalman's work, especially her children's books. Kalman is one of those multi-talented people, someone who has done everything from creating covers for The New Yorker magazine to designing a one-of-a-kind umbrella. (Check out all of her work at her website).

 Hosting Kalman was an interesting and entertaining experience. Most of the out-of-town authors we've hosted arrive with an "escort," someone who is driving them around town, getting them meals, and generally making sure that their time in DC goes smoothly. So I was surprised to see Kalman just show up, by herself,  in our library a couple of hours before her talk. She had taken the train from New York and then grabbed a cab to our library; upon arriving, she asked if we'd like her to sign books, and also where she could get a sandwich before her program. I've since learned that this is trademark Kalman, as she is someone who likes to see the world on her own terms. In any case, it was delightful to have her sitting in our staff room, chatting about this and that, and signing our much-loved library copies of her books.

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.”

Surprisingly, Kalman, 64, doesn’t have a college degree or even any formal art training. But her unique vision of the world has won her millions of fans around the world, who delight in the way her books combine research, thoughtfulness, humor and quirkiness. All of those qualities were on display at the Takoma Park talk, which was focused on Kalman’s non-fiction books for kids: Fireboat; Looking at Lincoln; and Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything.
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.
Trying to sum up such a significant and complex person like Jefferson can be daunting, Kalman said, adding that illustrations can be particularly helpful in conveying facts without adding more text. Asked whether the words or the images come first to her, Kalman said that they mostly come together. Kalman, who emigrated to the United States from Israel when she was a child, said that she fell in love with the English language, and “so words live for me in their own kind of visual floaty thing. “Then, I’m always seeing a lot of things that I know I want to paint. Somehow everything (words and pictures) gets smooshed together in this amazing way.”


  1. What a wonderful piece. I'm a longtime fan of Maira's--I remember coming across Hey Willy, See The Pyramids! and Stay Up Late, long after I was a child but well before I started writing for them, and just loving that they existed. Thank you for this!

  2. What a lovely post about Maira! Love her work.