♥ spreading a little maira love ♥

Remember back in February when I reviewed Maira Kalman’s latest picture book, Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything?

Just around then, Maira was scheduled to appear at Monticello and at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., and I was all set to travel three hours to Charlottesville just to see her. I’ve adored her work since the early 90’s, and it’s safe to say she’s one of my top three favorite picture book creators ever. Whether she’s chronicling the life of a President or contemplating cake, she speaks to our common humanity like no one else.

But. Her events were cancelled due to inclement weather (bad polar vortex, bad). And then when I had to rush off to Hawai’i at the end of March, I assumed if she was rescheduled I would probably miss her. Oh well.

But then.

Friday afternoon, I just happened to stumble upon something in the paper (which I do not read on a regular basis). You know how sometimes you’re scanning stuff with your eyes glazed over, ho-hum, la-di-da, and allofasudden something reaches out and grabs your eyeballs?

“Maira.” Wha??! Rescheduled. Takoma Park Community Center Auditorium, Saturday, May 10, 1 p.m. OMG!

Is it just me, or does her enigmatic smile remind you of the Mona Lisa?

Here was the chance I’d waited decades for — to meet the one and only Maira Kalman!  Maira, of the brilliant New York Times illustrated essays. Maira, who illustrated Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Maira, who created the Max the Poet stories and Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman. She of Chicken Soup, Boots, Swami on Rye, The Principles of Uncertainty, And the Pursuit of Happiness, and Hey Willy, See the Pyramids!! She of the fetching layer cakes, cheez doodles, Snicker bars and cherry pie. The person who wrote my favorite alphabet book of all time, What Pete Ate from A-Z (the accordion, the camera, the egg sandwich, the FEZ)!! And Lemony Snicket’s lovably irreverent partner in crime!

*pause while I breathe deeply into a paper bag*

A few minutes after I had purchased some books right outside the auditorium entrance, Maira walked over to sign pre-orders before her talk. What I almost did: die. What I actually did: played it cool. We do not want to scare guest authors with any groupie stalkerish behavior, after all. So I went in and calmly took my seat (can you believe the unprecedented admirable restraint?).

Zooks! For the next 45 minutes I was in la la land.

Her talk was fab fab faboo in every way. It was also charming, random, sophisticated, disarming, hilarious, candid, thought-provoking, and smart. She focused on three nonfiction titles: Fireboat, Looking at Lincoln, and her new Thomas Jefferson book. Such wit! I basked in the refreshingly offbeat, ponderous meanderings of her brilliant mind.

Can’t decide what I loved best: when she professed her total, undying love for Abraham Lincoln, proudly proclaiming that she would have made a better wife than Mary Todd? That she wanted to take a nap on both George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s beds but they wouldn’t let her? That she plans to take a boat cruise this summer a la Lewis & Clark, with an homage to Napoleon (eating as many napoleons as possible along the way)?

Jefferson’s bed, as painted in her picture book.
Oh, it’s just the right size!

Maybe it was when she said that with her it’s either total delight or despair, there’s never any in between. Could have been when she asked the audience for the correct pronunciation of the word “dour.” (She, like me, thought it was “dower,” but someone insisted it was “doer.” I’ve since learned both are acceptable.) BTW, she used “dour” to describe Jefferson, whom she is decidedly not enamored with.

How can you not love someone who called it a good day when she got rid of the giant sausage maker in her living room, or finally gave up her sponges of the world collection? Recently, she was thrilled to win a pair of Toscanini’s trousers at auction, revealing that the title of her memoir will be, “I Won Toscanini’s Trousers” (you heard it here first, folks!).

In that small space of time, for all the years of admiration, for all the ways she changed my thinking and sensibility, for all the possibilities she introduced into my creative psyche, I floated above my seat, grateful and never so thrilled to be anyplace at any time.

I was third in the booksigning line, my heart pounding. What does one say to an idol? How do I avoid being a blathering idiot? I never thought this moment would ever come, yet there she was, right in front of me, and she was real (I should have brought her some cheez doodles).

Not only was she real, she was normal. And I needn’t have worried, because she put me at ease. It’s true that the most brilliant are also the most humble. They don’t waste time being full of themselves.

We chatted briefly about the surprising fact that the children’s and YA markets are the fastest growing in print publishing today. Why is that, with ebooks cutting into everything else? She drew boots in my Jefferson book, Abe’s stovepipe hat in my Lincoln book, a dog face in What Pete Ate, legs, feet and grass in Girls Standing on Lawns (her newest title with Daniel Handler). Will there be any new Max books, I asked? Likely some re-releases in conjunction with her upcoming exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum (next year?).

Now I’m looking forward to her new Fall books: Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag: 31 Objects From Cooper Hewitt: Smithsonian Design Museum (Skira Rizzoli, September, 2014), and My Favorite Things (Harper Design, October 2014).

Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag is an alphabet book (!). My Favorite Things features over 50 paintings of select objects from the Cooper-Hewitt Museum and her private collection, with her inimitable reflections and ruminations. When the Cooper-Hewitt reopens in mid November (after several years of renovation), there will be a separate room featuring Maira’s special objects, including the stop watch Lincoln was carrying when he was shot, and naturally, Toscanini’s pants. 🙂

How do you say, now I’ve seen Maira, my life is complete? She writes to the child in the adult, and the adult in the child. Answering an audience member’s question, she said Lemony Snicket was a genius. True, but look who’s talking . . . ♥

*   *   *

More Maira

Do you have any author/illustrator idols?


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


56 thoughts on “♥ spreading a little maira love ♥

  1. Oh you are so lucky! And yes, I would love to win a signed copy of this book. I love everything she does – she’s so amazing. And best for me is that the text is as good as the pictures!


    1. Me too. I do think it was fate — because the first time I heard of her appearances back in February, it was also “by chance.”


  2. I wanted to be Maira Kalman when I grow up. Then I realized I shall not be growing up. I shall have to be me. Quite the disappointment really.
    Congratulations! Sounds like a night to remember! xo


  3. what a woman! would love to meet her (and you too, Jama) you have BOTH become my idols! long ago, I wrote several childrens’ books, but packed them away–maybe I’ll resurrect them…


  4. Someone special was smiling on you, Jama, when you ‘scanned’ that newspaper! Wonderful for you that you got to be there, & have such a time. It’s hard to believe that she does little sketches for each book too. Love seeing those boots! Will tweet and share on FB! Thank you for sharing so very much from your fab evening!


    1. Yes, someone was looking out for me. I have a special bookshelf for all my Maira books. She told me that the bird’s feet on the 13 WORDS cover are backwards — birds’ feet are not really like that. Thanks for tweeting and sharing on FB. 🙂


  5. Falling in love with your infectious delight and admiration for all things Maira! And I imagine you would have enjoyed my speech at my local indiie bookstore when I picked up my copy of Maira’s Elements, the way I carried it out and placed it in my bike basket for the ride home!


  6. Thanks for sharing your story about your Maira encounter. It reminded me of the time I met Eric Carle at a signing. I am so glad that I found your blog. You made my day!


    1. Lucky you meeting Eric Carle! Haven’t met him, but did enjoy visiting the Museum.

      Glad you enjoyed this post and found Alphabet Soup!


  7. Oh, Jama, I am so thrilled for you! And the very best part is that she was real and charming and put you at ease! Your description of how you felt is similar to how I felt meeting Kay Ryan last year – such an icon/inspiration!


    1. You are so right in that it’s the best feeling meeting someone you’ve admired for a long time and they turn out to be really nice and down to earth (not always the case, as you probably know). How cool that you got to meet Kay Ryan!


  8. Thanks for sharing your excitement and tidbits from MeetingMaira! Love your description: “She writes to the child in the adult, and the adult in the child.” I guess that’s the definition of a brilliant children’s author. (And lucky Cornelius to pose in TJ’s bed!)


    1. Cornelius is definitely very pleased with himself. Can’t even close the book because he insists on napping there every day.

      She achieves that rare balance between child-like exuberance and adult sophistication. I’ll never outgrow her!


  9. I giggled with delight for you all the way through this post!
    Then I got a little misty when I saw her sweet boot doodle. So happy that you were floating!
    Will you venture to the Carle to see her exhibit?


    1. Thanks for sharing my delight, Cathy. Going to the Carle to see her exhibit is definitely worth considering. Need to find out more about when it is, etc.


  10. So, where have I been all these years? I’ve never heard of Maira until today! But having read your bubbly remarks, and seeing examples of her work, I can absolutely understand why you are so enamored. I will try and get caught up before her new works come out!


    1. I know you’ll love her work, Syl. You will especially appreciate her political and American history illustrated essays for the NY Times. Brilliant talent aside, I find her irresistible because she’s so endearing.


  11. I couldn’t tell – were you excited to meet Ms. Kalman? 😉 Isn’t it awesome when someone you really admire turns out to be really nice?!? 🙂
    Mr. Cornelius looks very comfy on Jefferson’s bed.
    I really really really would like a chance to win the book! 🙂


    1. HAH! You crack me up, Erik.

      Yes! It’s the BEST thing when someone you admire turns out to be nice in person. Makes you like them even more.

      Good luck with the giveaway. I hope Mr. Cornelius wakes up in time to help pick the winner.


  12. I love everything about this post. Jama, your joy bubbleth over! I’ll be looking for Ms. Kalman’s books. So glad you got to meet her and that you shared the story with us.


  13. Oh, Jama!! I am a mixture of green with envy and utterly ecstatic at your meeting Maira and your so-cool personally sketched-in books. And this post — you have outdone yourself! Thank you for capturing your experience and those qualities that make us all adore Maira just perfectly :).


    1. Glad to know you’re a big Maira fan too. I’m still pinching myself that I got to see her in person. Can’t WAIT for her new books.


  14. You are such a delightful storyteller, Jama! I’m glad you didn’t expire before getting to enjoy her presentation. 🙂 xoxoxo


  15. How wonderful that you were able to meet one of your writing idols. I love that she was at Politics and Prose, my favorite DC bookstore. That place just rocks with wonderful energy and then to add an amazing author like Maira Kalman! Pure bliss. Thank you for hosting the giveaway. I would love to own this title.


    1. Actually, Maira was at the Takoma Park CC, but P&P sold the books. 🙂 She was originally scheduled to appear at P&P back in February. Maybe she’ll come back when her new books are released this Fall.


  16. Oh of COURSE I have to be one day late to enter the drawing. *bangs head* This is what comes from leaving tabs open for days because you don’t have time to read them. 😛

    I might have to count it against Maira for illustrating “Strunk & White,” which I hated with holy (unholy?) passion, but she otherwise sounds like an absolutely fantastic lady. Congrats on finally meeting your idol!

    As for an author idol of my own … I choose you! (Well, and Roald Dahl. And Dr. Seuss. And Shel Silverstein. And Ellen Conford. And Judy Blume. And JKRowling. And probably some others I can’t think of right now. Except that those first three are dead, so I couldn’t meet them anyway.) But, really, it has been sheer delight getting to know you through your books and your blog, and if I ever got a chance to meet you in person, trust me, I’d be all a-quiver. 😀


    1. Thanks for being such a devoted fan, Debbie. Really appreciate your support all these years.

      BUT. Can’t understand why you don’t like Maira’s Strunk and White!


      1. Oh, it’s not meant as a criticism to Maira’s work, only that I HATED “Strunk & White,” probably because of the way my high school English teacher used it. So, my comment was only expressing my disappointment that Maira would associate herself with such a boring and pedantic book, when she could have illustrated (and otherwise has) so many other more interesting things. 😉 (Keep in mind that I generally LIKE grammar – but the S&W as I remember it was just deadly dull and only induced hatred of the subject and of writing in general.)


      2. All the more reason to embrace Maira’s work with S&W — she makes a set of grammar rules very palatable indeed! 🙂 Sorry to hear your high school English teacher turned you off to this iconic gem. It’s a concise, invaluable reference tool that seems to hold timeless appeal — and now with Maira’s fetching paintings, not dull at all. How many books say “hello” to you as soon as you open it?


      3. Apparently I need to hunt down a copy with her drawings in them? The one I had certainly didn’t have illustrations I would have called remotely entertaining.

        (Oh, and – the Scholastic Book Fair opened at our elementary school today. I was browsing through it and noticed they had Maira’s “Looking at Lincoln”! Was fun to peruse. 😀 )


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