Category Archives: Classics

Jenny Slate is my Children’s Books Guru

There are so many reasons to love Jenny Slate. The 35-year-old comedian-actress is funny, sexy, fiercely feminist, and just goofy enough that you feel like she could be someone you know. I loved her in Obvious Child (the 2014 indie film that flaunted both her ingenue radiance and raunchy potty mouth) and to this day I cannot order a sandwich without thinking about Catherine, her bizarre 12-part web series that is either totally unwatchable or the best thing you’ve ever seen on YouTube. (I guess you could call it normcore. Please try it!) Of course, Slate is also co-creator of the genius Marcel the Shell web series (and children’s books).

But what really sealed my fandom is that Jenny Slate is a vintage children’s book nerd. How did I learn this? Instagram.

Here’s her shout-out to the Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs. Which I only vaguely remembered and immediately ordered from the library because most of them are out of print:

Here’s a post with her childhood copy of Elmer and the Dragon:

Here, with Tomi Ungerer

A page from Sarah, Plain and Tall:

I have no idea what book this little mouse is from, so if anybody knows, please tell me in the comments:

Ok, I am clearly obsessed. I also did some Googling.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, she says she loves the 1980 book Emma by Wendy Kesselman so much she has it on display in her house where she can see it when she wakes up. (I still have to get my hands on a copy):

“It’s about an old woman who doesn’t love how she’s alone, and then learns to make herself not alone through art, and draws people into her life through art. It’s the fucking best thing.”

She told Jezebel she loves Ox-Cart Man and Miss Rumphius, both also illustrated by Barbara Cooney (I’ve written about Ox-Cart Man here).


And also a book called I’m Telling You Now, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (of Bread and Jam for Frances fame):

She describes it as “this beautiful watercolor book about this boy who did all these things that he wasn’t supposed to do … but he was only curious.”

She kind of sums it all up in this interview with Vogue:

“I always wanted to be a children’s author and I have a really big library of children’s books. All the ones from when I was little, they are just so beautiful. I read kids’ books and they calm me down … I love all the Lyle the Crocodile books. I like Robert McCloskey’s books—One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings. I like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, all the Barbara Cooney books, like Miss Rumphius and The Ox-Cart Man are really good. And I like Chris Van Allsburg, those books like Just a Dream and The Polar Express. I like the classics. They’re classics for a reason.”

In short, friends, she’s one of us.

Call it Roald McDonald’s: Roald Dahl’s Estate Goes for the $$$

In case you missed it, there was a big NYT story earlier this summer about how Roald Dahl’s literary estate is “aggressively seeking out ways to globalize, digitize and monetize his wackily wondrous works.” The piece focused on the (mostly disappointing) recent film, stage, and television adaptations of his works, like Spielberg’s BFG floparoo. But what really piqued my curiosity was the mention of the deals the estate has made with companies like McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s in the UK is selling Roald Dahl-themed Happy Meals. I found this image from the creative agency who helped put them together:

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Okay … I admit I would actually kind of love to get my hands on one of those Witches boxes (not for the McNuggets or whatever, just for the packaging). But really, if there was a kids’ author who revered good home cooking, it was Roald Dahl. This is the man who made us crave cold meat pies spiked with hard-boiled eggs buried inside like treasures and fresh fish caught in the fjords and fried that day still wriggling in the pan. Not to sound like a tsk tsking ninny but pimping out the books with McDonald’s?

Roald Dahl’s grandson Luke Kelly, who heads up the estate, also made a deal with the children’s clothing company Boden. Now, I do like the stuff at Boden (great PJs!) but there’s something that makes me feel sad about this collection. It’s so Cheeky! and Quirky!

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-4-30-27-pmscreen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-43-15-amHere’s a quote from Kelly who comes off sounding almost cartoonishly money grubbing: “We are really transferring from being a literary estate to being more of a story company.” That’s the kind of thing that you tell your investors, not the press.

Oh, and back to the McDonald’s thing…

One of my favorite books in the world is Memories with Food at Gipsy House, the cookbook/culinary memoir Roald Dahl wrote with wife Felicity Dahl. It’s out of print but totally worth seeking out. You could not ask for more comforting bedtime reading.fullsizerender-1

New York Fashion Week meets Moomin

I spent many happy and fulfilling years working at fashion magazines but eventually, enough was enough. Just look at these utterly terrifying pictures from last night’s Harper’s Bazaar fete for Carine Roitfeld and you’ll see what I mean.

I do still like to keep up with the collections, however, and I was eager to see what my old HB colleague Thakoon had up his sleeve after taking a year off to regigger his business. I guess it’s safe to say that I’ve been away from the fashion world for quite some time, because Thakoon’s very first look, a grungy-chic layered ensemble …

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immediately made me think of Mymble from Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. Not just the tightly pulled topknot, but also the voluminous silhouette and black tights.

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Mymble has great style, as do all the Moomin characters.  They’re a crazy, colorful bunch, each with their own distinctive look, like the best fashion world personalities.

mymble3I started thinking about fashion people who have Moomin-world doubles.

With her blunt red bob, Fillyjonk is the late, great Sonia Rykiel:

sonia-fillySonia Rykiel

Dreamy, dapper and portly, Moominpapa is Alber Elbaz:

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screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-12-40-47-pmThe chapeau-loving vagabond, Snufkin, is John Galliano:

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gallianoWhile Mymble’s Mother is blogger and streetstyle star Susie Bubble:

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Time for one last summer read? My Top 10 Kid Classics

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To my precious handful of Mrs. Little readers:

It’s been a long time, I know. I took an extended hiatus from blogging (reasons: work, kids, laziness, sloth) but I’m determined to get back on track. I’ve got some ideas cooking and I’ll be posting more regularly this fall.

In the meantime, I wanted to link to this round-up of classic kids’ books, which I put together a couple years ago for Jenny Rosenstrach’s blog, Dinner, A Love Story. It’s got my suggestions for ten classic summer reads. If your kids are up for one last good book before school starts, check it out here.

9780804176309By the way, the amazing Jenny has just written a new book: How to Celebrate Everything. I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet but if it’s anything like her others, it’s going to be one of my go-tos. I don’t know how I would feed my family without her.

Most Endearing Windbag: The Old Cob in Trumpet of the Swan

Trumpet_of_the_Swan_CoverWhile Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little get all the glory, E.B. White’s third children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan (1970), is relatively overlooked. And this is a crying shame! I loved it when I was eight, and now, reading it again, I realize there’s even more to admire.

As you may recall, the story is about Louis, a trumpeter swan who, born mute, compensates by learning to read, write and play an actual trumpet. Because he is a swan of honor, Louis feels obligated to pay for his instrument, which his father stole for him. So he takes on a string of jobs, including a camp counselor gig in Maine and a nightclub stint in Philly. Although the plot is admittedly daffy, White’s prose is at its most eloquent and luminous and the book is just very … soulful. John Updike, who reviewed the book for the Times(!), said it was “the most spacious and serene of the three [E.B. White novels] … the one most imbued with the author’s sense of the precious instinctual heritage represented by wild nature.”

Trumpet_stealBut what was my favorite discovery upon re-reading the book? The hilarious character of Louis’s father, a blustery cob who never uses one word when he could use ten. Here’s what he tells little Louis after he steals him the trumpet:

“I have been on a journey to the haunts of men. I visited a great city teeming with life and commerce. Whilst there, I picked up a gift for you, which I bestow upon you with my love and my blessing… Learn to play it Louis, and life will be smoother and richer and gayer for you!”

Trumpet_AmbulanceEven when he talks to himself, he’s dramatic and bombastic. This is from his over-the-top soliloquy toward the end of the book:

“Man, in his folly, has given me a mortal wound. The red blood flows in a steady trickle from my veins. My strength fails. But even in death’s final hour, I shall deliver the money for the trumpet. Good-bye, life! Good-bye, beautiful world! … I, who am about to die, salute you. I must die gracefully as only a swan can.”

Every time the bird opens his beak, it’s priceless. And when you remember that White co-wrote The Elements of Style — the writer’s handbook that commanded “Omit needless words” — it’s even better.

This is Freaking Me Out: Phantom Tollbooth Fans, Is it Just Me?

2014-06-10-SlenderMangraffiti-thumbLike most people I know, the first time I ever heard of the internet meme Slender Man was a few weeks ago when the news story broke about the two 12-year-old girls in Wisconsin who stabbed their friend to please the fictional character. The demonic Slender Man is said to be tall, thin, faceless and dressed in a black suit. Artists have rendered him in many different ways.

nyto-slenderman-tmagArticle2014-06-16-slendermanpeekaboo-thumbBut today when I was looking through The Phantom Tollbooth, I was jolted by this. Remember him?

Terrible_TriviumThe Terrible Trivium!

“He was beautifully dressed in a dark suit with a well-pressed shirt and tie. His shoes were polished, his nails were clean, his hat was well brushed, and a white handkerchief adorned his breast pocket. But his expression was somewhat blank. In fact, it was completely blank, for he had neither eyes, nose, nor mouth.”

Athough Tollbooth is not a scary book by any stretch of the imagination, this guy haunted me for years. And I wonder if Jules Feiffer’s drawing was the image my mind subconsciously triggered when I first heard about Slender Man. Is it just me?

[If this post is leaving a grim taste in your mouth, I apologize. Here’s a more pleasant Phantom Tollbooth-related realization to linger on.]

Thanksgiving Special! 5 Yummiest Food Moments from Children’s Books

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All-of-a-Kind Family did for Jewish-American cuisine what the Little House books did for pioneer cooking.

I grew up in a household where we didn’t give food much thought. We didn’t make pilgrimages to particular restaurants or rhapsodize about long-deceased relatives’ signature dishes. I don’t have aromatic memories of cozy cooking lessons with my mother, peppered with life advice. For my parents, practical-minded immigrants from Korea, the purpose of food was wholly unromantic: you ate so you wouldn’t be hungry.

The idea that food was more than something to fill your stomach came to me through books. There would be a moment in a novel where the characters ate some exotic (or exotic to me, at least), delicious-sounding morsel and I’d become entranced. I’m not just talking about the roasted pig’s tail and the green pumpkin pie from the Little House books. Or the cold meat pie from Danny the Champion of the World. Those books were just the start.

1) The mulligan stew from The Boxcar Children

boxcar_stewWhen we first meet the plucky orphans, all they have to eat are a couple of loaves of bread. But as their fortunes improve, they go from eating just bread, to bread and milk, to bread, milk, “fine yellow cheese” and wild blueberries. Each humble new addition to their pantry is an occasion for celebration. And when scrappy 12-year-old chef Jessie manages to cook a stew from some scrounged up carrots, onions and turnips and a piece of dried meat, it signifies that the boxcar has become a true home.

Jessie cut the tops off the vegetables and washed them in the brook. “I’ll put them in after the meat has cooked awhile,” she said. Soon the water began to boil, and the stew began to smell good. Watch sat down and looked at it. He sniffed hungrily at it and barked and barked. The children sat around the fireplace, eating bread and milk. Now and then Jessie stirred the stew with a big spoon. “It will make a good meal,” said Henry.

2) The goat’s milk cheese in Heidi 

Heidi_cheeseThese days a lot of people will tell you that that dairy (like wheat) is the devil. But Heidi seems awfully healthy. The only food her iracible, goat-herding grandfather seems to feed her is bread with toasted cheese, but it’s magical stuff.

As the pot began to sing, he put a large piece of cheese on a toasting fork and moved it to and fro in front of the fire until it became golden yellow all over. She ate her bread and cheese, which tasted delicious, and every now and then she took a drink. She looked as happy and contented as anyone could be.

And the bubbly, fresh milk! Heidi declares it “the best milk I’ve ever drunk” and guzzles it by the mugful. (It’s always a mug, never a glass.)

Clara had never tasted goat’s milk, and she sniffed at it uncertainly, but when she saw how quickly Heidi was emptying her mug, she began to drink too, and thought the milk tasted as sweet and spicy as if it had sugar and cinnamon in it. “Tomorrow we shall drink two mugfuls,” said Uncle Alp.

Toward the end of the book, the clean mountain air and all-dairy diet even cures Heidi’s sickly city friend, Clara.

3) The roasted chickpeas in All-of-a-Kind Family

All-of-a-Kind-Family-marketTo this day anything I know about gefilte fish, hamentashen or teiglach I learned not from my Jewish in-laws but from author Sydney Taylor. It’s hard to choose just one food moment from this series, as all five of the All-of-a-Kind Family books are filled with mouthwatering descriptions of meals. But the first book has a vivid chapter where Mama takes the girls food shopping at the Rivington Street market. The road is choked with pushcart peddlers and “the delicious odor of sour pickles mingled with the smell of sauerkraut and pickled tomatoes and watermelon rind.” Each girl gets to spend a penny on a treat; Sarah chooses the roasted chickpeas:

Everyone watched as he fished out the peas. First he took a small square of white paper from a little compartment on one side of the oven. He twirled the paper about his fingers to form the shape of a cone and then skillfully twisted the pointed end so that the container would not fall apart. He lifted the wagon cover on one side revealing a large white enamel pot. The steam from the pot blew its hot breath in the little girls’ faces so they stepped back a bit while the peas were ladled out with a big soup spoon. The wagon cover was dropped back into place and the paper cup handed over to Sarah. The peas were spicy with pepper and salt, and how good they were!

When I first read this, I didn’t have the faintest idea what a chickpea even was. But I was mesmerized.

4) The toasted bread with butter and sugar in The Great Brain

breat-brain-bread-butter-sugarMy brother and I were obsessed with The Great Brain series, which was set in a small town in Utah in the 1890s. All that mysterious tension between the Gentiles vs the Mormons and the boys constantly telling each other “I’ll whip you good!” (these kids were always beating each other to a pulp) was utterly fascinating. I was also struck by how simple yet delicious all the food always sounded. Mamma was always cooking and baking, and the three boys were constantly “gorging themselves” on fried chicken, roast beef sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, and pie. But this description of the toasted bread, butter and sugar was the ultimate:

Mamma made fresh bread that day. If there was anything my two brothers liked the most, it was to take the heel of a fresh-baked loaf of bread, smother it with butter and sugar, and then put it in the oven until the sugar turned brown. It was better than candy. I entered the bedroom with a heel of bread covered with butter and toasted sugar.

“I thought I’d have a little snack before going out to play,” I said as I waved the heel of bread back and forth so they could smell it. Then I took a bite out of it. “Boy is this delicious. Don’t you wish you could have a bite?”

My brother and I would often try to replicate this treat using a heel of store-bought “French Bread” from the supermarket, but it never came out the way we imagined it should.

5) The beaver family’s fish dinner in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

beavers-lion-witch-wardrobeThat enchanted Turkish Delight (“each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious”) is what sets the plot in action. But it’s the earthy, peasant-y feast of fresh trout and boiled potatoes served by the Beavers that is the book’s crowning food moment. Mr. Beaver cuts a hole in the ice, whisks out some still-wriggling trout, and then brings it inside to Mrs. Beaver:

Just as the frying-pan was nicely hissing, Peter and Mr. Beaver came in with the fish which Mr. Beaver had already opened with his knife and cleaned out in the open air. You can think how good the new-caught fish smelled while they were frying and how the hungry children longed for them to be done and how very much hungrier still they had become before Mr. Beaver said, “Now we’re nearly ready.” Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range while Lucy was helping Mrs. Beaver to dish up the trout … There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr. Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought — and I agree with them — that there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago.”

Mind you, the meal concludes with a “gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot” and it’s all served up in a cozy beaver’s den where there are “hams and strings of onions hanging from the roof,” and strung along the walls are “gum boots and oilskins and hatchets, and pairs of shears and spades and trowels and things for carrying mortar in and fishing-rods and fishing-nets.” In short, it feels like the prototype for every Brooklyn restaurant serving farm-to-table food.

Dearest readers: What are some of your favorite references to food from children’s books? (Harriet the Spy’s tomato sandwiches and egg creams? Rat and Mole’s picnic in Wind in the Willows?) Click on “leave a reply” and share in the comments!

 

Quite Possibly the Coolest Author Photo to Have Ever Appeared in a Kids’ Book

Found it in a vintage copy of Crictor (1958). Love how Ungerer‘s slouching and squinting, hands in his pockets like he’s just about to pull out a pack of cigs. That jacket looks like something Helmut Lang would copy 30 years later.
Tomi UngererYou never see kids’ author/illustrator portraits like this anymore.

Because Not Everyone Loves Clifford

clifford-1The Clifford the Big Red Dog books may be considered classics, but they’ve never done much for me. The plotlines tend toward the preachy, the illustrations are crude (what is with Emily Elizabeth’s zombie eyes?), and that cheery little Birdwell Island strikes me as the kind of place where way too many people know your business. A few days ago when I was watching an old Louis C.K. special I was thrilled to see the (big red) comedian let loose a two-and-a-half-minute rant against Clifford.

Worth watching if you haven’t seen it:

An infinitely better book about a little girl with a pet dog the size of a house is The Lonesome Puppy (2008), the only children’s book by the great Japanese artist Yoshimoto Nara. In his story, the premise is that the gigantic canine is neglected and overlooked because nobody even realizes he’s a dog; he finally finds a friend in a feisty, moon-eyed little girl (one of Nara’s signature cute-fierce characters). The tale has a poetic spareness and the artwork is, of course, ravishing.

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Lonesome-Puppy-4Coincidentally, Pace Gallery recently had a fantastic exhibition of Nara’s new paintings and cast bronze sculptures. It closed June 29 but you can see all the images here.