Monthly Archives: January 2013

The List: Ann Patchett

Ann_PatchettAnn Patchett and I met years ago when she had just published her second novel, Taft, and was writing freelance stories for Vogue, where I was  an assistant on what felt like full-time cappucino duty. I remember her as one of the kindest people I had ever met, and though we later fell out of touch, I always held on to the fact that I knew her once. When I read Ann’s captivating Atlantic story about how she came to open Parnassus Books, her independent bookstore in her hometown of Nashville it gave me the courage (and the excuse) to get back in touch.

So, what books did Ann love as a kid? “I didn’t learn to read until the third grade!” she told me. “I found reading terrifying.”  She wrote in mirror letters and when she looked at a piece of paper, she says, “I was never sure if I should start on the right or the left.” She recalls being in perfect awe of the books her big sister used to read. “She had Babar and The Little Prince. The type of those books was printed in cursive, which I couldn’t read. And she was reading them in French, which I couldn’t understand. So just looking at them I felt like my head was going to explode.”

Like a child who still crawls at 18 months, but then skips walking and goes straight to running, Ann leapfrogged the children’s books stage almost entirely.  By the time she became a real reader, she jokes, “I was ready for Saul Bellow.” Still, she had a few faves to share.

Ann Patchett’s Favorite Children’s Books

1)   The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright

The-Lonely-Doll“This was by far my favorite picture book. I loved that it looked like no other book I had ever seen and it was a story I could really relate to. I think of it as the great ‘child of divorce’ book — my parents split up when I was four — because it’s about a little girl who gets left behind. In the story, the little doll and the little bear do some mean, naughty things. They are punished, but then they are forgiven and everything is made whole again. I went to Catholic school for years, so this, of course, made perfect sense.”

2) Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

charlottes-web-cover“When I did finally start reading, I was a real Charlotte’s Web girl. I would read it over and over and over again. I got a toy pig for my 9th birthday and I stopped eating animals with hooves. I’m still a vegetarian to this day. Strangely enough, I did not read E.B. White’s other books. To be honest I didn’t even know that E.B. White had written other books.”

3) The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

little-house-on-the-prairie“Except for Farmer Boy, which I skipped because I was uninterested in absolutely anything having to do with boys back then, I loved all these books. And much later when my grandmother was dying — she passed away almost 8 years ago — I read the whole series again to her.  Because she had dementia it was so hard to find the right books, but these were perfect. Reading them aloud was a very moving experience.”

Ann Patchett’s next novel will be out from HarperCollins in November. Parnassus Books continues to flourish. And — in case you missed it — last year Ann published a lovely mini memoir/writer’s guide (a Kindle Single, in fact!) called The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.

Doughnut Heaven

When I was a kid this is what I remember telling myself: “When I grow up and learn to drive, I will be able to go Dunkin’ Donuts any time I want.” The thought was very consoling to me every time our car zipped by the store, leaving me powerless and powdered sugar-deprived in the back seat.

Doughnuts have also inspired some very good kids’ books.

1) Who Needs Donuts? By Mark Alan Stamaty

Who Needs Donuts?

Maybe you remember “Washingtoon,” Mark Alan Stamaty’s terrific political comic strip from The Village Voice. Or maybe you don’t. Regardless, this 1973 book (reissued by Knopf in 2003) is a cult classic for good reason. The story follows a boy named Sam who journeys into the swarming, weirdo-filled streets of what is clearly a pre-Giuliani Manhattan (all that’s missing are the peep shows) in search of a sugar fix. Along the way he lands a job with a paisley-wearing donut impressario, meets a toothless Sad Old Woman, faces catastrophe (escaped bull in a coffee factory), and learns about love.

WhoNeedsPageEvery obsessively drawn page is crammed with thousands of dark and hilarious details (look for the hotel inside a phone booth). You can pore over each page for hours and still discover new microscopic zingers. I know this sounds like a book only adults could appreciate, but my kids are nuts for it. And once you read Who Needs Donuts, you’ll want to read this excellent interview with Stamaty explaining the backstory.

 2) Arnie The Doughnut by Laurie Keller

Arnie The Doughnut

With its whimsical cartoon-style illustrations and quip-exchanging fried-dough characters, Laurie Keller’s 2003 entry into the genre would seem to be pure fluff. But there’s a dark side here.  First, Arnie, a sweetly naive, life-loving chocolate glazed, realizes that his destiny — and that of all doughnuts  — is to be eaten. Then, after his eyes are opened to the cruelty of the world, Arnie is gobsmacked to learn that he’s the only doughnut who didn’t know this was coming.  There’s something compellingly grotesque when the other pastries (including the beret-wearing cruller) tell him that they don’t mind being devoured. As you’d expect, there’s a happy ending. But Arnie’s look into the abyss (that is, a gaping human mouth) gives this confection some umami.

3) Homer Price by Robert McCloskey

Homer PriceAs comfortable as kids are with technology these days, they still grasp the panic of an I Love Lucy-style “Help-me-turn-off-this-craaaazy-machine!” situation. Robert McCloskey (Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal) concocted one of the most memorable such moments in his 1943 collection of stories about small-town Ohio boy Homer Price. In the third tale, young Homer gets into trouble with his uncle’s newfangled automatic doughnut maker. To complicate matters, a millionairess wanders into the diner, and, suddenly overcome by her inner Ina Garten, whips up the batter herself, losing her diamond bracelet in the process.

TheDoughnutsBy the end, our quick-thinking hero manages to recover the bauble (and sell a roomful of warm doughnuts). Unlike the other two titles, this is a book totally free of freaks or authorial winks. If Who Needs Donuts? is the retro Dunkin’ Donuts jelly donut and Arnie the Doughnut is the hip bacon-studded variety, Homer Price is the classic cake doughnut.

The List: Maira Kalman

soar_kalman_03The book that singlehandedly reignited my interest in kids’ books long after I had lost all my baby teeth was Maira Kalman’s Max Makes a Million, about a New York City dog who dreams of moving to Paris to become a poet.  I wasn’t exactly the book’s target audience when my mom bought it for me (I was in college) but no matter. I loved everything about it, from the illustrations reminiscent of Marc Chagall to the urbane vision of a Manhattan populated by artists who paint invisible paintings and architects who design upside down houses. I’ve since had the pleasure of getting to know the wonderful Maira and she recently sat down with me to kick off a new feature where I’ll be asking authors and illustrators to name the kids’ books that have meant the most to them.

So herewith …

Maira Kalman’s Favorite Children’s Books

1) Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne

“I loved reading it to my kids when they were little. It’s beautifully written, philosophical, and funny.”

2) Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

“Probably the greatest children’s book ever written, and also a complicated book about mathematics, language and logic. Did the kids like it when I read it to them? I don’t know. It was more like, “You go to sleep, I’ll read Alice in Wonderland.

3) William Steig’s books

“So lyrical and almost Proustian. The Amazing Bone is probably the one I read the most often. The only Steig books I really wasn’t a big fan of were Rotten Island and Shrek.”

4)  Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

“It was such an amazing experience for me to read about this heroic, intrepid girl who wasn’t afraid of anything.”

5) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

“Growing up in the Bronx, I was astonished that people lived in this kind of splendor. Ever since then I have adored British castles and gardens.”

6) The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

“I didn’t read it growing up. But as with all my favorite children’s books it’s very funny, with a certain sophistication.”

7) The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Marc Simont

“A fantastic book from the 1960s that follows musicians through the process of getting ready for a performance. It has such a sense of both groundedness and giddiness.”

8) Eloise by Kay Thompson

“So terrifically funny, and, you know, there’s no punctuation in the book. It runs on like the madcap chatter in a British comedy! Also, I love the use of language.  Sometimes the vocabulary is a reach, of course, but I think children can appreciate the music in words.”

9) Ludwig Bemelmans’ books

“Ludwig Bemelmans has been a personal inspiration for almost everything in my life. His books, especially the Madeline books, not only inspired my style, but my attitude towards life. Reading about him helped me realize, “Ah! You can write and you can paint, you can do work for adults and for children. You can travel, you can be a bon vivant — which I’m not — and, even in the midst of tragedy, you can have this great joy in life.”

Max Stavinsky

Max Makes a Million by Maira Kalman

P.S. The American history-loving Maira says she is currently finishing up a book about Thomas Jefferson, which will be published later this year. And she’s working on two more books, both tied to an exhibit she’s guest curating for the Cooper-Hewitt (“Maira Kalman Selects”) when it reopens in 2014. One will be an alphabet book for children about design, and the other will be a book for adults on design.