Author Archives: Mrs. Little

About Mrs. Little

I've worked in magazines for nearly 20 years, editing and writing stories about fashion, art, design, beauty, food, celebrities and society for Vogue, W, Harper's Bazaar, InStyle and Allure. But at the end of the day what do I really want to read? Stuart Little, Harriet the Spy, Danny the Champion of the World, The 21 Balloons, and The Pushcart War. Oh, and I want to live at the House on East 88th Street.

Frederick Douglass 101

Leo came home the other day with a new school project. The assignment was to pick a biography of a famous African-American figure, take notes, and put together a report.

This is the book he picked out:  

“How did you choose this book?” I asked him.

“It looks like it has a lot of action!” he said. “The guy has a gun!”

I had to agree.

But I also had to overrule.

If Leo was going to learn about one person for Black History Month this year, it was going to be Frederick Douglass. No disrespect to Reeves (the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi who is said to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger) but come on! Douglass was back in the news thanks to Trump’s strange remark implying that the abolitionist was still walking among us. Also, the book Leo had chosen was a picture book. Nice try, Leo.

Our library had several biographies appropriate for a 4th grader. But as soon as I spotted Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom by Margaret Davidson (1968), it was no contest.

And not just because the cover illustration of young Douglass has a smoldering quality, like an African-American Mr. Darcy on the BBC. The author, Margaret Davidson, wrote some of my favorite non-fiction books of my elementary school days. I still have a few of the slim paperbacks (all Scholastic titles) that I read and re-read — including Nine True Dolphin Stories, Five True Dog Stories, Five True Horse Stories (ok, the titles weren’t that creative … but such terrific stories!), and her biographies of Louis Braille, Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.

Davidson had a brilliant way of telling a true story simply, but with intense human (or —as the case may be —dolphin or dog) drama. The book gets in all the important milestones of Douglass’s life, but it never feels tedious, jargony or or in any way like “a book for school.” Davidson knew how to play up the little moments that her readers would latch onto. Leo loved the part about how little Frederick persuaded some poor white kids to teach him how to read by trading “a piece of bread spread thick with butter.” And he loved knowing how much money Frederick had to slowly save up to buy his very first book (fifty cents).

Leo read the book happily, put together his poster (see below), and I daresay he now knows a lot more about Douglass than our own prez.

Amazingly, most of my favorite Margaret Davidson books still seem to be in print. You can find them on the Scholastic website and they’re all priced at, like, $3.99 — so there’s no excuse!

Still My Favorite Baby Gift: A Teeny Tiny Baby

When friends have babies, I love to give books. I buy the same ones again and again:  Amos & BorisI am a Bunny, The Best NestWhen I Have a Little Girl , When You Were Small, Thank You, Bear, and Max Makes a Million, to name a few. The key is the book can’t be so super well-known that I have to worry that my friend already has a copy. (I was annoyed by the time I got my third copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar — bratty, I know.)  But lately, I’ve been stymied. One of my longtime favorite titles to give is out of print: A Teeny Tiny Baby by Amy Schwartz.

When it came out in 1994, I was in my 20s and years away from contemplating motherhood. My boss and his wife had just had their first baby and someone must have given them the book as a gift. When I saw it, I was charmed from the get-go. I remember looking at the illustrations of the scruffily bearded dads with babies strapped to their chests and realizing the author-illustrator had perfectly nailed that new kind of Upper West Sidey-Brooklyn parent I’d kinda sorta noticed on my way to drink cosmos or catch the new Janeane Garofalo movie.

The story is told from the perspective of an infant in Brooklyn in his first few weeks of life. He reports his experiences at the center of the household —everybody cooing and fussing over him — in the most matter-of-fact way.

The illustrations, meanwhile, give us the other side of the story. There’s his parents’ undignified struggle with the stroller down the steps to the cleaners and the big night out at a restaurant where the family is seated (with stroller) at at an outdoor table … in an alleyway … next to a trash can. It’s all very subtle and subversive about the beleaguered/besotted emotional state of new parents, which is why it makes such a good gift for new moms. Not to mention that the illustrations are totally charming, from the cosy interiors (Thonet rocker!) to the characters’ outfits (Marimekko?).

After the Teeny Tiny Baby hardcovers disappeared from Amazon, I noticed you could still find board book versions of the book. So I bought a few and gave those as gifts. But these days I can only find secondhand copies of this incredible book for sale. Heartbreaking!

I might have to buy some used copies as gifts. I know this might gross out some new moms so maybe I’ll also include a bottle of Purell.

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

Last Sunday: My NYT Book Review Debut

Writing about kids books has been a hobby of mine for a few years now but with this review for the NYT Book Review I feel weirdly legit. Too bad my own children refuse to take my advice (read it here) and read Kate Milford’s epic middle grade, Miyazaki-esque, seafaring adventure fantasy novel.nytreview

 

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.

Freakiest Author Photo Ever: Sue Denim aka…

I had never heard of the Dumb Bunnies books by Sue Denim, but yesterday I saw these at the library and they looked promising. They were published in the mid 90s and the illustrations are by the great Dav Pilkey, of Captain Underpants fame. dumbbunnies The four-book series is centered around a family of, yep, dumb bunnies who cheerfully go through life underestimating danger, misinterpreting signage and wearing their underwear over their pants. With their punny wordplay, the books remind me a lot of the Amelia Bedelia books (except using references that kids today can actually understand) as well as James Marshall’s marvelous The Stupids.

But what really got me was the back flap. Check it out:

sue denim

Who was this mysterious Sue Denim? What was up with her tranny-looking photo? Where could I find this “best-selling science book” for kids called Fun with Matches? Also, wasn’t Dav Pilkey a white guy?

After about two seconds on Wikipedia I unearthed the not-so-secret truth that Sue Denim was a pen name Dav Pilkey used for all his Dumb Bunnies books. (He introduced them three years before the first Captain Underpants.) According to the Scholastic website, the series is still available, but is now attributed solely to Pilkey. This certainly makes sense, considering how bankable Pilkey’s name has become. But you also gotta wonder if Scholastic would anyone publish such freaky faux author photos today. I’m guessing that’s Pilkey in both photos and I swear it looks like he’s wearing blackface makeup along with those creepy buck teeth.

My Summer of The Donald: Ox-Cart Man and More

Like everyone else, I’ve spent an appalling amount of time this year reading much too much about Donald Trump. But there’s another Donald I became obsessed with this summer: Donald Hall.

It all started with a magazine story I was writing about Jan and David Hoffman, a pair of furniture makers in rural Pennsylvania who live a life of staggering self-sufficiency. They make their own tools, save their seeds and grow much of their own food. Jan told me they believed in the saying “no string too short to save.” Intrigued by her phrase, I Googled it and found this book:

string too short to be savedString Too Short to be Saved is poet Donald Hall’s 1961 memoir of the summers he spent as a youth on his grandparents’ New Hampshire farm in the years leading up to World War II. From the description, it promised to be a sweet, nostalgic beach read that was right up my alley — a string of lyrical anecdotes about tending cows and watching the seasons change. (Basically, a grown-up version of Farmer Boy.) And that alone would have left me plenty satisfied. But the book turned out to be so much more. Hall’s stories about haying, blueberry picking, lost cows and his grandfather’s eccentric farm hand are funny and thrilling enough for kids. I read S & L the chapter called “The Left-Footed Thief,” about the time Donald’s grandfather and his brother hunted down a sheep thief who was wearing two left-footed boots, and they were fascinated.

At the same time, the memoir is also suffused with sadness. From the mysteriously abandoned farm shacks Donald passes on his daily walks with his grandfather to the haunting portraits of long-dead relatives in his grandmother’s hallway there is a pervasive sense of loss in String Too Short. The emotional resonance reminded me of a Donald Hall essay from a couple years ago in The New Yorker in which the former poet laureate showed that at 83, his intellect was still as well-honed and deadly as an axe. Old age, he explained in his growly, godly prose, turned people “invisible.” At one point he described how, at a family dinner, one of his grandchild’s friends placed her chair to sit with her back directly facing Hall, as if his presence was no more than another piece of furniture. I remember his recounting of that moment like a stab in the chest.

String too Short is not by any means intended for kids, but if your 7th or 8th grader doesn’t mind a leisurely read and loved the Little House books and Roald Dahl’s Boy, try it on them.

I was so taken with Hall’s tales of frugal farm life I also got this out of the library:

Ox-Cart Man - Donald Hall

Ox-Cart Man is Hall’s 1979 Caldecott-winning children’s book about a 19th century farmer bringing the goods from his family’s farm to market. It’s one of those slow, bucolic, nothing-really-happens picture books that can be either deadly dull, or, when done right, utterly mesmerizing.

The rhythm of the prose echoes the reassuring rhythm of the farmer’s routines. The farmer packs his ox-cart with brooms, apples and maple syrup; he sells everything (including the ox and the cart) at Portsmouth Market; he buys a needle, a knife, and some peppermint candy for his family; he journeys back home; he and his family start the cycle again. Revisiting the book in light of Hall’s memoir, it’s even more satisfying.

Ox-Cart Interior

Ox-Cart Man, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Bonus: With any luck your children will subconsciously absorb the message that in the good old days, kids did their share of labor and were happy if they got a single piece of wintergreen peppermint candy as a treat.

Hall has told interviewers that the surprise success of this book allowed him to put in a new bathroom in the New Hampshire farmhouse he’s lived in since 1975 (it’s the same house where his grandparents lived). A bronze plaque over the bathroom’s doorway reads “Caldecott Room.”

Wes Anderson Probably Read This Book: The 3 Policemen

3Policemen-coverYesterday when I was browsing at the library  I came across this 1938 chapter book by William Pène du Bois. The author’s Twenty-One Balloons is one of my all-time favorites but I had never read (or even heard of) The Three Policemen. So of course I had to take a look.

The book’s action takes place on a wealthy, top-secret tropical island where the inhabitants all live leisurely, worry-free lives (clearly one of du Bois’s favorite themes) until someone robs them of their fishing nets. The story is charming but the real knockouts are the illustrations, which are refined, sophisticated and whimsical, with gorgeous use of color. The setting, the clothing, the mustaches—everything is as mannered as in an Ernst Lubitsch film. Or a Wes Anderson movie.Scan 11Scan 10And when you turn to the back endpapers of the book, you see THIS! (Click on image below to zoom.)

serpent-boatDoesn’t it remind you of this shot from The Life Aquatic?life-aquaticYes, yes—critics have pointed out that Anderson’s iconic cutaway dollhouse shot has its progenitors in Godard’s 1972 Tout va bien and even Jerry Lewis’s 1961 film The Ladies Man. But come on. The Du Bois illustration is also of a ship! (Specifically, a ship in the shape of a sea serpent.) To take things further, I would argue that Eric Chase Anderson‘s style of illustration (Eric is Wes’s brother and close collaborator) owes a great debt to William Pène du Bois in everything from his color palette to his obsession with diagrams.

And we all know how much Wes loves Roald Dahl, so for him to also be a fan of William Pène du Bois isn’t such a stretch. Is it just me?