maira kalman’s thomas jefferson: life, liberty and the pursuit of everything (and oh yes, apple pudding)

Happy President’s Day!

Can’t think of a better way to celebrate the holiday than by singing the praises of Maira Kalman’s brand new picture book biography about Thomas Jefferson.

I pretty much adore everything Maira does, and I’ve been fascinated by our red-haired, violin-playing, wine-guzzling, pea-loving, Renaissance Man foodie President ever since I first visited Monticello years ago.

In Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything (Paulsen/Penguin, 2014), Ms. Kalman has accomplished the seemingly impossible, capturing the genius, complexity, contributions, contradictions, and affecting humanness of our third President in just 40 glorious pages.

Her disarming conversational narrative, peppered with just the kind of offbeat detail kids love, is fueled by a contaigious enthusiasm for her subject. She begins:

Thomas Jefferson had red hair and some freckles (about 20 I think), he grew to be very tall and oh yes, he was the third President of the United States . . .

What was he interested in?


I mean it.


She mentions Jefferson’s love of books, music, flora and fauna, and that he could speak seven languages. She spotlights the ingenious design of his beloved Monticello,”a Museum of his Mind” with its famed vegetable garden, citing Jefferson’s advocacy of a mostly vegetarian diet. Though he lived a good life, “full of work and love,” it was tinged with sadness: his wife Martha died young and four of their six children didn’t live to adulthood.

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

She details Jefferson’s role as a Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence, brilliantly humanizing other illustrious figures like Franklin, Adams and Washington via singular details: Ben’s crazy great hat, John’s fiery temper, George’s false teeth. Then it’s all about Jefferson’s presidency (Louisiana Purchase, Lewis & Clark Expedition), before sensitively introducing the topic of slavery.

The man who said of slavery
was the owner of about 150 slaves.


She tells it straight and true, and does not shy away from mentioning that Jefferson likely had children with Sally Hemings, and what a sad thing it was when people felt the need to hide their background by passing for white. Her despair over these painful issues and puzzlement over Jefferson’s hypocrisy are deftly conveyed in a way that respects young readers and will likely win their trust.

I love how Maira’s hand-lettering alternates with the standard font to highlight asides, personal thoughts and select facts. These words just brim with personality, keeping things from sounding too textbook-y, ultimately strengthening the intimate bond between author and reader.

Illuminated and expanded by vibrant and whimsical gouache paintings rendered in striking jewel-tones, Kalman’s account of Jefferson as President, scholar, statesman, architect, scientist, botanist, connoisseur, author, inventor, and plantation owner is recommended for readers of all ages who appreciate spirited storytelling and creative nonfiction infused with wit, wisdom, and the excitement of discovery.

Who better to tell about the man who was interested in “everything” than a writer and artist who herself is endlessly curious and so brilliant at curating the idiosyncratic ‘everythings’ she encounters in her own life?

If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be OPTIMISTIC and COMPLEX and Tragic and Wrong and Courageous, You Need to go to Monticello.

Walk around the house and the gardens.
The linden trees might be in bloom, filling the air with their delicious perfume.
Maybe you will lie down under a tree
and fall asleep thinking about
LIFE, Liberty and the Pursuit of EVERYTHING.

Five Big Soup Spoons for this one!

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♥ Call Me Ms. Pudding ♥

Monticello kitchen

No surprise that my favorite illustrations are of Jefferson’s vegetable garden, the Monticello kitchen with the cooks busy at the big work table, and the “Fancy Dining Room,” which is actually the octagonally shaped Tea Room, with its long windows and busts of friends like Lafayette, Franklin and Washington. Jefferson called the Tea Room his “most honorable suite,” and it’s always been my favorite room at Monticello.

In the FANCY Dining Room they had the BEST of EVERYTHING.  Even Vanilla ice cream! And so many kinds of pudding — apple, bread, huckleberry, lemon, macaroni, orange, plum, quince, and tapioca pudding, all produced by the endless labor of slaves. Jefferson may have been a kind master, but it was still a horror.

Tea Room photo by Jim Merithew

When Maira says, “so many kinds of pudding,” she’s really not kidding. Curious and hungry, I counted at least 50 pudding recipes in Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book, which contains favorite Monticello recipes as well as those he collected in France, all updated for modern cooks by Marie Kimball.

I decided to try the Sliced Apple Pudding by Mrs. Mary Randolph, who was Jefferson’s son-in-law’s sister, famous for writing the first American regional cookbook, The Virginia Housewife (1824).

It’s basically a simple, everyday pudding requiring only a few ingredients, but like many historic recipes, it was a tad open-ended and required my best guesstimates. I do imagine handpicked apples or peaches from Jefferson’s orchards would put this one over the top.🙂

(Marie Kimball’s adaptation)

Beat 5 eggs very light. Add 1 pint of milk. Pare 3 apples, or 5 peaches, very thin and lay in a baking dish. Add enough flour to the milk and eggs to make a medium thick batter. Add a pinch of salt and 3 tablespoonfuls of melted butter. Pour over the fruit and bake until set. Serve with sugar, melted butter and nutmeg.


As soon as I read this, I wondered: What size baking dish? What size eggs? How much flour is “enough”? What about oven temperature and baking time?

I trusted my instincts and winged it. I decided to add some sugar to the batter rather than sprinkle it on after the pudding was baked. This bit of added sweetness was more in tune with the modern palate and didn’t alter my appreciation for how the original recipe must have tasted. Of course the amount of flour is negotiable — what do you consider a “medium thick batter”? Adjust accordingly depending on the size eggs you use and it should turn out fine.

(Jama’s adaptation)

  • 5 extra large eggs
  • 1 pint of 2% milk
  • 3 golden delicious apples
  • 1-3/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray an 8″ x 11″ or 9″ x 9″ baking dish with non-stick cooking spray.

2. Lightly beat the eggs and stir in the milk.

3. Pare and core the apples, slice thinly and lay in the baking dish.

4. Blend the flour into the milk and egg mixture using a hand mixer to break up any lumps. Mix in the sugar, then add the salt and melted butter.

5. Pour mixture over the apples and bake until set, about 40-45 minutes.

* This is a delicious way to channel our third President, especially when the pudding is served warm and eaten fireside with a cup of Hyson tea. I can picture Mr. Jefferson enjoying this homey treat in the Tea Room with his darling daughter Patsy and some of his grandchildren. Add a dollop of whipped cream if you’re feeling especially decadent.🙂

*   *   *

THOMAS JEFFERSON: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything
written and illustrated by Maira Kalman
published by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin YRG, January 2014
Picture Book Biography for ages 5+, 40 pp.
*Includes Author Notes
**Starred Reviews** from School Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus

♥ Check out this fabulous review at Librarian’s Quest :)!

♥ Visit for lots more.


“Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy, and I wish we may be able to pursue it.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

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wkendcookingiconThis post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on a bib, bring your appetites and join the fun!



*Interior spreads from Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything copyright © 2014 Maira Kalman, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA).

Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

51 thoughts on “maira kalman’s thomas jefferson: life, liberty and the pursuit of everything (and oh yes, apple pudding)

  1. This looks wonderful, Jama! A “MONUMENTAL MAN” with “MONUMENTAL FLAWS” is a good way of putting it. So glad Kalman shows Jefferson’s great gifts AND the horrors of the slave system that underpinned his way of life. I’m reading an adult biography right now that doesn’t do this half so well.

    (And YUM on that apple pudding of yours!)


  2. How like Kalman to get it right, it a visually stunning way. Such a complex man – I’ve studied him for years now, and he remains a puzzle. Love the apple pudding, though. Yummy!


    1. He’ll keep us puzzled and bewildered forever🙂. I started reading Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée but put it aside. Feel like getting back to it now.


  3. I love her opening lines! It’s not easy to make this kind of book engaging, but she clearly succeeds. I thought the apple pudding (sugarless recipe) might be good warm with some maple syrup on top- mmm…


    1. You get the sense that a good friend just discovered some amazing things and can’t wait to tell you. She’s able to make every fact and odd detail she shares fascinating.


  4. I have Maira Kalman’s book about Lincoln and shared it with a group last week, so this one is going to be the next to love, Jama! I recently read Thomas Jefferson’s Library, also a recent book about this fascinating president. He helped our country in many ways, didn’t he, yet in all his rhetoric, I guess he couldn’t make the leap of living without the slaves? Interesting to consider. The book, & Kalman, sounds like the contradictions are treated well. Thanks for the pudding love, too!


    1. I haven’t seen Thomas Jefferson’s Library — must look for it!

      Yes, saying is one thing, doing is quite another. I know you and your students will enjoy this new book, and this very contradiction will likely prompt some interesting discussion.


  5. Oh, I need to check out Kalman’s books. I hadn’t seen this or her others, but what a wonderful way to share nonfiction with kids.


    1. Yes, you definitely must! Looking at Lincoln is also excellent. Most of her other PBs are fiction — and she’s also published books based on her NYT illustrated essays, an illustrated version of The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. She’s also worked with Daniel Handler — another collaboration coming out in May 2014.

      Jules of 7-Imp and I interviewed her not too long ago:


  6. Love Kalman and love puddings, so this was a treat for me this morning! On my first visit to Monticello, I thought, “Only Jefferson could live here, no one else” whereas I felt I could take my purse and move into Monroe’s Ashlawn-Highland not too far away. Your pudding looks wonderful! Macaronia pudding? That sounds great to me–must look it up!


    1. Haven’t been to Ashlawn-Highland yet. Now you’ve got me really curious because it would be fun to picture you living there too🙂.

      The macaroni pudding is also simple, and sounds like a bread pudding with pasta instead of bread. You cook the macaroni in milk, then add eggs, sugar, flavoring and bake.


    1. As far as I’m concerned, any apple dish is a year round dish. It’s one fruit that’s always available in our supermarkets, so why not?🙂


  7. I am in love with Maria Kalman’s work. I still haven’t seen a copy of this one but it’s on my list. And now I’ve got a craving for apple pudding.


  8. I have a love/hate relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Yes, he is fascinating, but he was hypocritical —and not just in the matter of slavery.


  9. Wow that apple pudding looks delicious!! And I bet that everyone in my household would get a kick out of it as well. I love the illustrations that you shared here and I was just mentioning to a friend that I wanted to learn more about Jefferson. Maybe this is a great way for my daughter and I do to so together. Lovely!


  10. The pudding is very similar to what my mom called apple cake. Haven’t had it in a long time. Maybe I’ll make some soon!


  11. A wonderfully written and illustrated post! I fulfilled a long held dream last year to visit Monticello and it was fascinating. I loved the vegetable gardens, especially, and would recommend a trip to anyone who loves history, architecture, food, gardening or simply a spectacular mountaintop view.


    1. I’ve never “outgrown” my love of picture books. There are some really outstanding PB biographies being published these days. Maira is a personal favorite — I love how her work appeals to all ages — the “adult” in the child and the “child” in the adult.


  12. Those illustrations are lovely – the book is a work of art!

    I had to laugh at that recipe! Not very precise, is it?! I imagine that it would look quite different depending on who made it and how they were feeling that day. *grin*


    1. We are used to our modern day recipe formats and find these types of vague instructions puzzling. I imagine many recipes were never written down to begin with, just passed down orally and learned by heart. I would find it very challenging to bake anything without exact temperatures provided, etc. What’s a “moderate” oven? Guess it would depend on how many pieces of wood I threw into the stove that day.🙂


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