Maira Kalman’s Ah-hA to Zig-Zag, a cool puzzle, and the cutest eyebrows on earth

#52 in an ongoing series of posts celebrating the alphabet.


“Isn’t that the only way to curate a life? To live among things that make you gasp with Delight?” ~ Maira Kalman




TheRe You Are.

Are you ready
to REAd the


perhAps you should
put on youR
(but don’t think too much)


Pretty much everything Maira Kalman does makes me gasp with delight.

I don’t know how she does it, or why it happens, but with each new book that delight intensifies. I am convinced she must eat magical cakes or a proliferation of napoleons prepared by exceedingly handsome mustachioed pastry chefs, or as in the case of this particular picture book, artfully burnt toast and ginger tea (steeped in whimsy).

In Ah-hA to Zig-Zag, her new alphabet book written especially for kids and the forever young at heart, the letter A stands for CAP, F for a hat From France that is “fluffy and frothy and fantastic and funny,” and Q for “quite the toaster.”

Though the book cleverly spotlights “31 Funny Excellent Beautiful Surprising Helpful Amazing Objects” from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in NYC (to celebrate its re-opening in December 2014), only three objects actually begin with their corresponding letters — Pocket, Umbrella, and Zig-Zag (Chair). 

But that’s just what makes this book so totally Maira. Instead of the conventional, “A is for Apple” format, this alphabet à la Maira is an idiosyncratic commentary, an affectionate conversation with YOU where she free associates with her chosen objects in funny, unexpected, and surprisingly profound ways. We get a good dose of those 26 beautiful letters alright, along with a fascinating design history primer spanning centuries.

Whether she’s considering an Egyptian wool slit tapestry medallion featuring a woman’s sour expression, an eminently practical Westclox Big Ben alarm clock, a quirky black polyurethane foam stool that resembles the crown of a derby hat, or an ornate French dessert fork, she conveys pure delight infused with a childlike wonder that at some time, somewhere, someone sat down and thought to design each of these objects for others to use and admire. Pretty amazing.

Maira’s ability to never lose this sense of wonder even for seemingly “ordinary” or mundane things (friction matches, nails) keeps her work fresh and accessible. She sees everything for the first time and can hardly wait to tell you about it. She’s really looking. And she makes us SEE. And think. And wish we had an English porcelain poodle that is “the cutest dog on EARTH. (ExcepT for Your DOG) with The Cutest EYEBROWS on EARTH. Now that’s how to serve up the letter E.

Who else but Maira would remind you more than once to eat toast and be kind?

Who else would devote the letter N to a bathroom break (and paint her own toilet just for you)? 🙂

From her first attention-grabbing Ah-hA! to the final Zig-Zag, with her signature hand lettered text and exuberant paintings, she makes us happy to go along for the rollicking ride, reinforcing the idea that “Life is not a straight line. Life is a Zig Zag.” When almost all is said and done, there is anOops! WE LEFT OUT O. Oh well. We all maKe mistaKes. Yesterday I WORE two different socks. No big deal.” You gotta love her. 

She ends the book with a photographic index and portraits of and words about Nellie and Sally Hewitt, two “little bit wild” sisters with sharp eyes who loved to collect things. She then asks, “If you were starting a museum, what would you put in your collection?”, encouraging everyone to write to Ms. Plum of the Cooper Hewitt.

As an alphabet lover and collector of things various and sundry (teddy bears, china, wristwatches, cookbooks, MK books, landline telephones, arresting glances), this book gets me where I live. I love the nod to innovative design, both practical and decorative, and I love the idea of encouraging kids to collect things (I started with paper dolls, Golden Books, Tomoe Ame sponge animals).

Most of all, I love a playful author, artist, and designer who states on the title page that “she chose objects from the collection and made this Book for You. Completely for You.” All her books feel that way — personal, seemingly off-the-cuff, quirky, freeing. That, and her dedicating this book to her children, “Lulu Bodoni Kalman and Alexander Onomatopoeia Kalman,” who have the coolest middle names ever. Only Maira! 🙂

*   *   *



Did you know there’s a cool 300-piece jigsaw puzzle to go with this book?

I started working on the rhinoceros corner, but a crowd of gleeful kitchen helpers soon took over.

They’d never done a puzzle before and were thrilled to pieces. 🙂

They loved the mismatched stockings, the pouffy white hat, and the antique toaster best of all.

They wanted to sit on the Zig-Zag chair.

Naturally they stopped for a cup of ginger tea.

It all came together quickly and there were many gasps of delight.

They’re still jealous of the porcelain poodle’s eyebrows, though.

*   *   *


AH-HA TO ZIG ZAG: 3l Objects from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
written and illustrated by Maira Kalman
published by Cooper Hewitt/Rizzoli, 2014
Illustrated Alphabet Book for all ages, 48 pp.

♥ More Alphabetica here.

alphabet iconCertified authentic alphabetica. Made especially for you with love and the cutest eyebrows on EARTH.


Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan Cornelius Onomatopoeia Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


18 thoughts on “Maira Kalman’s Ah-hA to Zig-Zag, a cool puzzle, and the cutest eyebrows on earth

  1. She really is clever and innovative! I am lucky to have a Strunk and White, Elements of Style edition with Kalman’s illustrations and little notes. It makes the book a LOT more interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you know I share your admiration for all things Maira. She’s a national treasure . . . not unlike Cornelius (I love his new name, by the way). Thanks for the peek, Jama–I hadn’t seen this one yet!


  3. That Maira! She’s at it again, what with the cuteness. I LOVE that there’s a puzzle, that’s just the icing on the tea cake.


  4. Every time I read one of your posts, by the time I reach the end I feel that I must have the featured book for my very own. Jama, you have a delicious way of describing books — a flair! This one is going on my shelf ASAP.

    Liked by 1 person

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