Good news: Maira Kalman’s children’s books about Max the Dog are back in print.
But why did they ever go out of print? What is wrong with people? Her picture books are glorious. One of the very first pieces I ever wrote about children’s literature basically dissed every picture-book creator who was not Maira Kalman, which caused a number of kind children’s librarians to write to me and point out that I knew nothing about children’s literature. Which was true. But even then, I knew that Kalman was great. And even knowing now how little I knew back in 2003, the fact hasn’t changed.
What Pete Ate From A to Z was the first picture book Josie and Maxine adored that I also fell in love with. It worked on zillions of levels. I could happily read it aloud zillions of times. When Pete eats all the things in fussy Uncle Benny’s B-themed apartment, my kids howled with laughter, and I got to congratulate myself for recognizing a Bertoia chair. When they giggled madly at Pete eating all the yo-yos, causing the cancellation of the yo-yo contest, they did not necessarily get that the refrain of “oy-oy, oy-oy, oy-oy” was both a play on words and Jewishly extremely amusing.
Pete is still hugely popular among the wee people of today. But the books about his canine predecessor Max are ripe for rediscovery! Thankfully, The New York Review of Books Children’s Collection is reissuing these lost titles. Hey Willy, See the Pyramids, originally published in 1988, and Max Makes a Million, from 1990, were republished last September; 1992’s Max in Hollywood, Baby and 1994’s Ooh-la-la (Max in Love) came back this month, and 1995’s Swami on Rye will arrive in September. NYRB Editor Edwin Frank said, “Our children’s collection publishes outstanding children’s books from all over the world, new and old, but with a special emphasis on the classics of children’s literature, and Maira Kalman’s books—so verbally and visually inventive, so ingenious and energetic, so continually and jubilantly surprising—are certainly that.”
The books are more like immersions in delicious language and shimmering color than they are like story-stories. In Hey Willy, a little boy named Alex (the name of Kalman’s actual son) can’t sleep, so his sister Lulu (the name of Kalman’s actual daughter) tells him fantastical stories in which their next-door neighbor, Maisel Shmelkin (the name of nobody in particular, but it’s an awesome name), comes over but he has forgotten to wear his pants; and cousins Ida and Ina and Ada and Dada and Dudu schmooze; and Ida’s dog, Max, keeps trying to sneak out of Ida’s apartment with his suitcase because he wants to live in Paris and be a poet. But Max keeps getting caught, so he has to go sullenly write beat poems in a local café. Hey Willy’s follow-up, Max Makes a Million, is a tribute to the glorious chaos of Max’s life with Ida and her husband, shoe-store-owning Morris Stravinsky, in NYC.
A jumping jazzy city.
Triple-decker sandwich kind of city.
Wow. New York. Bow Wow Wow.
I just realized, writing this essay, that those words—curving in short arcs at the right-hand corner of a page—are written on the tiers of a stylized Guggenheim Museum. Not knowing that, or not noticing, didn’t affect my back-in-the-day enjoyment of the book in any way. But it’s fun.
Max clearly loves New York, but when he sells a book of poetry for seven figures (funny!), he knows it’s time to leave for the City of Light. Max in Love is about Max’s swoony adventures in Paris; Max in Hollywood is about what happens when he goes West to sell out, and in Swami on Rye, Max—anxious about impending fatherhood—seeks enlightenment in India. You’d think these tales would be for grownups only, but because they’re so bouncy and fun, with a hint of anxiety (the best children’s books are spiked with anxiousness or anger), and there’s so much to look at, kids like them, too.
I asked Kalman about her own dog history. “My sister had a dog named Max, but he was a Westie,” she told me, in her rapid-fire way. “Really, I made myself into a dog. At the time, I was terrified of dogs. But then my husband, Tibor, was very ill, and one of the things we talked about when the kids were little was getting a dog, and it was … well, let’s just do it. A dog is a mood-elevator. They said it would help the mood of the house. What I didn’t know was that Pete would become my dearest companion. We have his ashes on the mantel in a nice flowered tin. When he died, I didn’t get another dog. I travel so much, it’s really not possible. It was Pete or nothing.”
Why was she afraid of dogs before Pete? “I think it’s a legacy,” she told The New Yorker upon the publication of 2015’s Beloved Dog, a tribute to Pete. It’s an art book for adults that I’d also give to children who have lost a beloved pet. The legacy is that of being born of Russian-Jewish extraction, as she found out when she visited small town around Belarus. “The stories they tell in those villages is that the Jews didn’t really have dogs, and the people who had dogs trained them to be quite vicious to the Jewish people in the community. I’m sure there were exceptions, of course, but somehow that got translated into children in my family being told, ‘A dog will attack you.’ So I would see a dog, and I’d pass out with fear.”
Kalman herself was born in Tel Aviv and grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. “My father was a diamond dealer and came here to represent the Israeli diamond bourse,” she told me. “He opened his own office on 47th Street and it was Crazy Jew Central, with all those characters. We didn’t keep kosher, so we used to eat at Chock Full o’ Nuts—that was a mecca of grand cuisine for us! They didn’t use plates; they served you your sandwich and your doughnut on waxed paper. It was very elemental. And we weren’t far from The Birdcage at Lord & Taylor. We loved going to the department stores, having lunch and shopping the sales.” The way she talks gives you a bit of the vibe of Max Makes a Million.
I expressed my outrage that the Max books were out of print: “Why?” I demanded. “I don’t know!” she exclaimed. “I guess it depends on the other books that come into the world and the incomprehensible forces of publishing … which are now working for the forces of good! Because the books are coming back!”
Lulu and Alex are now 36 and 32. Lulu lives in Vermont and has a ton of animals, but Alex lives in New York City in a no-dogs-allowed building. “Something must be done,” Kalman said. Alex may not have provided her with a local grand-dog, but Lulu has graciously given her a grandbaby, Olive, who is 2. “I love being a grandmother,” Kalman said. “I love everything about being a grandmother. It’s one of the splendid unimagined joys of life.” Olive, naturally, adores books. “We read so many books,” Kalman said. “I’ve written one for her—it’s not published, it’s just for her—and I write a letter to her every few weeks full of drawings, and we have a literary connection. She loves Goodnight Moon and Madeline and does a mashup of them: ‘In a great green room, Madeline just said, Pooh-pooh.’ It’s a really great idea, a mashup of children’s books. I should steal it.”
I asked which Max book was her favorite. “Hey Willy is where Max was born,” she answered. “It’s the first book I wrote and illustrated.” (In 1985, she did the art for a book of the Talking Heads song “Stay Up Late,” which Publishers Weekly called “mean-spirited.”) “The story is based on my family; I adore it,” she continued. “But after that, I think Max Makes a Million because I love New York so much—the culture here and the beautiful eccentricity of it. And after that, Ooh-la la (Max in Love) because the memories of doing research with my daughter in Paris are so vivid and delightful.” (Lulu called the Pompidou Centre the Pompadour Center, which it is in the book.)
And what makes her work so darn Jewish, despite it not being explicitly Jewish? “I think the humor and pathos combined is very Jewish,” she told me, “and in a children’s book, that really pops out. It’s a blend of funny and serious without being sentimental. It’s snappy but with tenderness, and irreverence and questions—very Talmudic. And clearly there are a lot of Jewish-sounding names in the books, and I throw in a couple of Yiddishisms. Wondering and wandering is how I look at life. Embracing the absurdity and hoping for the best. In the books, you hear a Chagall violinist in the background.”
(When I asked her a similar question in 2003, she answered, “I’ve always felt like an outsider,” and talked about her “askew, observational stance,” and the weight of history. “An hour doesn’t go by that I don’t think about the Nazis,” she said then. “Which sounds sort of Mel Brooks-ish, but it’s true. It doesn’t really come through in my children’s books—well, it does, in the idea that you never know … 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 is always busy. “There’s a book coming out it the spring–April is spring, right?—called Cake, a collaboration with a cookbook author, Barbara Scott-Goodman. There are 16 cakes, with my stories and paintings and her recipes. We took 16 very basic cakes you should know, from a lemon pound cake to a good chocolate cake, and in between are mini-paintings of scenes of people with cake. And I illustrated Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s children’s book about women’s suffrage, called Bold and Brave—that’s coming out in November. And my son and I just finished a book that’s a catalog of the show about my mother’s closet at the Met, and that comes out in the fall also. And I’m starting to work on a new ballet with John Heginbotham, who did The Principles of Uncertainty with me. There’s all kinds of wonderful stuff going on.”
I asked if we might ever get any more Max. “There’s one more Max book I never finished,” she told me. “Max in Rome. It’s an opera. But it’s a mess, and I haven’t had time to go back and fix it. It’s a funny opera. Maybe my kids will finish it. Maybe Olive will finish it.”
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.