I Get Out My Best Coffee Mugs for Maira Kalman
and Mrs. B. (Along with Treats for Pete)

h1 March 22nd, 2012 by jules

Yes, I pulled out my very favorite mugs this morning (the blue ones) and my cow-shaped dish for pouring cream for one of my favorite author/illustrators—as in, her books made me want to study children’s literature, no kidding—Maira Kalman, pictured right with Pete. Joining me in the chat this morning is the one and only Jama Kim Rattigan, whom I adore and whose blog, Jama’s Alphabet Soup, brings cheer to this world. In my world, Jama is “Mrs. B.” (She’s Mrs. Blueteaberrry—that’s with three “r”s, to be precise—and I’m “Mrs. Bottlecap.” Long story.)

Jama and I have wanted to have a cyber-chat with Ms. Kalman for a long time now and actually tried years ago — but to no avail. So, stubborn as we are and being that we are huge fans of her work, we tried again. And here we are today. Jama tells me that Maira’s books made her want to write, and as I already noted, I fell in love with her books so hard and fast (starting with the first Max book) that it led me to other picture books by other folks and more of her books, of course, and her previous books and so on and so on, and before I knew it, I was getting a Master’s in Library Science just so I could take those children’s lit courses and learn more about picture books.

So, yes. Jama and I both have Maira Kalman to thank for bringing those particular joys to our lives. We thank her for taking the time to visit today and for answering the questions we composed together. (Mrs. B. came up with all the good questions.) Jama has the same interview responses (but, most likely, different images) up at her site today. (You really want to go read Jama’s introduction to the interview—I’m waving my hypno-spiral in your face—given that she perfectly nails the charms of Maira’s books.)


Kalman, who was born in Tel Aviv, raised in the Bronx, and now lives in Manhattan, has brought the world these dynamic picture books, most published by Penguin and a majority both penned and illustrated by her. Most recently, she has collaborated with Lemony Snicket on 13 Words (HarperCollins) and Snicket’s alter ego (or, er, vice versa) on Why We Broke Up (Little, Brown). She also recently released Looking at Lincoln (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin), which I wrote about here at Kirkus last month and which she briefly discusses below. She has also worked on these adult titles, some of which she also addresses below.

Kalman also contributes to The New Yorker Magazine. (See a gallery here.) In fact, pictured below is Kalman’s cover for next week’s issue, “Spring Has Sprung.” Fun fact: Susan Rich, Maira’s editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, tells me that the cover was painted from a picture of Little, Brown’s own Sara Zick, the publicist on tour with Daniel Handler and Maira for Why We Broke Up. “It’s Sara Zick with dark hair,” Susan said. “Maira would have used a photo for the face, but I think the outfit is likely her own invention.”

You can read here for more information on this cover and to see a slideshow of more of Kalman’s art.

Thanks again to Maira and Pete for visiting.

* * * * * * *

Jules & Jama: You’ve described yourself as a “five layer jelly cake, a festive moment when you’re not following the rules.” What do you consider to be the five most significant milestones of your career thus far?

Maira: There were many wonderful moments. The first children’s book that I illustrated and wrote, Hey Willy, See the Pyramids. It is about my family and short unconnected moments. Digressions. Which I love.

And since I love short, unconnected moments, The Elements of Style and The Principles of Uncertainty are also very important works for me.


Jules & Jama: How challenging was it, if at all, to adapt your well-loved and well-received New York Times blog post on Lincoln into the 32-page picture book form?

Maira: Lincoln presents no problems. Every story with Lincoln tells itself really well. He is Lincoln, after all.


“One day, while walking through the park on my way to breakfast I saw a very tall man. He reminded me of someone, but I could not think who.”
(Click to enlarge)



(Click each to enlarge and see entire spread from which they come)



(Click each to enlarge and see entire spread from which they come)

Spreads from Maira’s Looking at Lincoln, published by Penguin in January

Jules & Jama: What Pete Ate From A-Z and Smartypants (Pete in School) are hysterical. Did the real Pete regularly devour things he should not?

Maira: The dear dog Pete ate MANY things that he should not. Yes, he ate my camera. But I loved him and could not get mad.


Jules & Jama: You’ve cited Ludwig Bemelmans and Charlotte Salomon as sources of creative inspiration. What do you love most about their work, and how have they influenced you as an illustrator? Also, are there specific experiences that formed the essential basis, the fundamental building blocks, of your artistic vision? Books, movies, artists (in addition to Bemelmans and Salomon), events, images, anything else?

Maira: Bemelmans and Salomon share a sophistication and love of beauty and place. And they also have a child-like exuberance. AND they write and paint. That appeals to me.

Of course, there are many influence on my work. From literary (Nabokov) to films (The Marx Brothers) to music (St Matthew’s Passion). And then there is architecture and fashion and and and …. I have a basic curiosity about things and people. And I tend to listen and look. That goes a long way. Then I have many things to write and draw.

And I daydream and dream. That also helps.

Jules & Jama: We love your humorous, surprising, whimsical, elegant, free associative style. You personalize objects and imbue them with cosmic significance, approach historical subjects with child-like wonder and curiosity, captivating us with your love of humanity. How do you sustain and nurture your creative life without becoming jaded, cynical or feeling overexposed? How do you overcome self-doubt?

Maira: All of these questions are complicated.

There is a lot of hope involved. And hoping for the best. And just plain doing your work. I can’t emphasize that enough. Just sitting there and doing it — persevering. Being patient. And seeing the long view.

I am lucky in that my mother and aunts—the women in my family—were funny and irreverent. They told wonderful stories and baked cakes and generally had an optimistic view of the world, while knowing that tragic things happened all the time. And they loved to read. Reading was highly prized. And it gets passed on. I am immensely lucky, and it would really be awful if I were jaded or cynical.

Jules & Jama: On that note, what do you, as an artist, find most challenging and satisfying in the creative processes you employ?

Maira: The best part is the surprise. I take many walks and wander. And in that wandering so much is revealed. And I find so much clarity and inspiration. Like a journalist reporting on what I have seen.

And then in the studio, to not think too much. To let the work happen and to find the unexpected. To allow mistakes to be part of it. To not get it right, but just to get it.

Jules & Jama: Food figures prominently in your work, everything from cherry pies, strawberry shortcakes, onion rings, pink ice pops, veal roasts to Cheez Doodles. Could you please explain the significance of Cheez Doodles in your family history?

Maira: I came to the U.S. when I was little, in the 1950s. It was a very can-do time, in a can-do country. And the playfulness of products and the names really struck me.

I delight in candy names and in the fun of those products. Not that I eat Cheez Doodles that often. But I know that they have a place in our world.

Jules & Jama: We love Max. Will there be any more Max books?

Maira: Maybe. Maybe.




Jules & Jama: Any projects you’re working on now that you can tell us about?

Maira: A book about Thomas Jefferson. A book about my favorite things that will be a catalog of a show I am curating for the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Articles for various magazines. Teaching. Walking. Traveling. Many wonderful things.

Jules & Jama: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Maira: I would like to dance in a show. Or be an extra in an opera.

* * * * * * *

Photo of Ms. Kalman reproduced with permission of Penguin.

LOOKING AT LINCOLN. Copyright 2012 by Maira Kalman. Images reproduced by permission of the publisher, Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin, New York. (These images are re-posted here from this earlier 7-Imp post.)

* * * * * * *

[Ed. Note: This video was added after this Maira interview posted, but it's too good not to include here...]

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21 comments to “I Get Out My Best Coffee Mugs for Maira Kalman
and Mrs. B. (Along with Treats for Pete)”

  1. I love, love, LOVED reading Maira Kalman’s blogging – I fell in love with those bright primary colors and the simple words dancing on a sea of color… such good stuff.

    And I still will always revere her because it takes something special for an artist to be able to paint something that makes you remember an event you didn’t see… still, that chair, and Lincoln’s hat just really get me.

    I love that you and Jama-J did this together.


  2. I love Maira Kalman! Her images and words make me so happy. Thank you, thank you!


  3. Happy Maira Day, mrs. b!!!
    Thrilled to the MAX to do this with you. Thanks again for being persistent and utilizing your gumption to make this happen. You are the best!

    (Should we try interviewing Dylan next :D ?)


  4. Thank you so much for this interview. My daughter (16) is a huge Maira Kalman fan and has been inspired by her art. She just did a very cool portrait this week using Maira’s style as a starting point. We love the chance to hear from these amazing artists on your blog!


  5. She’s brilliant! “And then in the studio, to not think too much. To let the work happen and to find the unexpected. To allow mistakes to be part of it. To not get it right, but just to get it.” Wonderful insightful questions. Thank you Jules and Jama.


  6. Bravo for persistence! And bravo to J&J for sharing this with all of us. Thank you!


  7. LOVE this interview, and especially the Jama/Jules collaboration! I adore Maira’s art, ever since I bought a print in Venice of her “Maira Kalman il Caffe Florian, 1720-1995″. It depicts a gentleman sitting with his book in the famous cafe, and I have it framed and proudly hanging in my library/guest room. Maira is a treasure! Thank you both for this.


  8. Love everything about this. The words, the pictures, your persistence and your co-blogging! I also can’t wait to read “What Pete Ate from A-Z” because I’m pretty sure I could write “What Daisy Ate” pretty easily…


  9. Fabulous, wonderful, wonderful, thank you!!


  10. Thanks to you all for this – I am a huge fan, ever since HEY WILLY. My girls are all grown up now, but we still recite bits of that book now and then… “dig that boy with the box on his head…”


  11. what an excellent blog; happy to have discovered it today!


  12. [...] & Illustrator: Maira Kalman Check out the interview (Seven Impossible Things Before [...]


  13. [...] haven’t become a complete slave to oils just yet. My friend and former graduate program adviser, Maira Kalman (yes, the divinely talented sometimes walk among us) has done such wonders with gouache, and I [...]


  14. [...] Maira Kalman (in a joint interview with Jama Rattigan on March 22, 2012) on nurturing her creative life: “There is a lot of hope involved. And hoping for the best. [...]


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  16. I fell in love with Maira Kalman when first I saw the picture of “Mrs. Birley” – thank you so so much for this interview (and the fantastic video!). She’s a joy – “love and work” – yes!


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