Category Archives: Authors’ Favorite Kids Books

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.

The List: Ann Patchett

Ann_PatchettAnn Patchett and I met years ago when she had just published her second novel, Taft, and was writing freelance stories for Vogue, where I was  an assistant on what felt like full-time cappucino duty. I remember her as one of the kindest people I had ever met, and though we later fell out of touch, I always held on to the fact that I knew her once. When I read Ann’s captivating Atlantic story about how she came to open Parnassus Books, her independent bookstore in her hometown of Nashville it gave me the courage (and the excuse) to get back in touch.

So, what books did Ann love as a kid? “I didn’t learn to read until the third grade!” she told me. “I found reading terrifying.”  She wrote in mirror letters and when she looked at a piece of paper, she says, “I was never sure if I should start on the right or the left.” She recalls being in perfect awe of the books her big sister used to read. “She had Babar and The Little Prince. The type of those books was printed in cursive, which I couldn’t read. And she was reading them in French, which I couldn’t understand. So just looking at them I felt like my head was going to explode.”

Like a child who still crawls at 18 months, but then skips walking and goes straight to running, Ann leapfrogged the children’s books stage almost entirely.  By the time she became a real reader, she jokes, “I was ready for Saul Bellow.” Still, she had a few faves to share.

Ann Patchett’s Favorite Children’s Books

1)   The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright

The-Lonely-Doll“This was by far my favorite picture book. I loved that it looked like no other book I had ever seen and it was a story I could really relate to. I think of it as the great ‘child of divorce’ book — my parents split up when I was four — because it’s about a little girl who gets left behind. In the story, the little doll and the little bear do some mean, naughty things. They are punished, but then they are forgiven and everything is made whole again. I went to Catholic school for years, so this, of course, made perfect sense.”

2) Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

charlottes-web-cover“When I did finally start reading, I was a real Charlotte’s Web girl. I would read it over and over and over again. I got a toy pig for my 9th birthday and I stopped eating animals with hooves. I’m still a vegetarian to this day. Strangely enough, I did not read E.B. White’s other books. To be honest I didn’t even know that E.B. White had written other books.”

3) The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

little-house-on-the-prairie“Except for Farmer Boy, which I skipped because I was uninterested in absolutely anything having to do with boys back then, I loved all these books. And much later when my grandmother was dying — she passed away almost 8 years ago — I read the whole series again to her.  Because she had dementia it was so hard to find the right books, but these were perfect. Reading them aloud was a very moving experience.”

Ann Patchett’s next novel will be out from HarperCollins in November. Parnassus Books continues to flourish. And — in case you missed it — last year Ann published a lovely mini memoir/writer’s guide (a Kindle Single, in fact!) called The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.

The List: Maira Kalman

soar_kalman_03The book that singlehandedly reignited my interest in kids’ books long after I had lost all my baby teeth was Maira Kalman’s Max Makes a Million, about a New York City dog who dreams of moving to Paris to become a poet.  I wasn’t exactly the book’s target audience when my mom bought it for me (I was in college) but no matter. I loved everything about it, from the illustrations reminiscent of Marc Chagall to the urbane vision of a Manhattan populated by artists who paint invisible paintings and architects who design upside down houses. I’ve since had the pleasure of getting to know the wonderful Maira and she recently sat down with me to kick off a new feature where I’ll be asking authors and illustrators to name the kids’ books that have meant the most to them.

So herewith …

Maira Kalman’s Favorite Children’s Books

1) Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne

“I loved reading it to my kids when they were little. It’s beautifully written, philosophical, and funny.”

2) Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

“Probably the greatest children’s book ever written, and also a complicated book about mathematics, language and logic. Did the kids like it when I read it to them? I don’t know. It was more like, “You go to sleep, I’ll read Alice in Wonderland.

3) William Steig’s books

“So lyrical and almost Proustian. The Amazing Bone is probably the one I read the most often. The only Steig books I really wasn’t a big fan of were Rotten Island and Shrek.”

4)  Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

“It was such an amazing experience for me to read about this heroic, intrepid girl who wasn’t afraid of anything.”

5) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

“Growing up in the Bronx, I was astonished that people lived in this kind of splendor. Ever since then I have adored British castles and gardens.”

6) The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

“I didn’t read it growing up. But as with all my favorite children’s books it’s very funny, with a certain sophistication.”

7) The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Marc Simont

“A fantastic book from the 1960s that follows musicians through the process of getting ready for a performance. It has such a sense of both groundedness and giddiness.”

8) Eloise by Kay Thompson

“So terrifically funny, and, you know, there’s no punctuation in the book. It runs on like the madcap chatter in a British comedy! Also, I love the use of language.  Sometimes the vocabulary is a reach, of course, but I think children can appreciate the music in words.”

9) Ludwig Bemelmans’ books

“Ludwig Bemelmans has been a personal inspiration for almost everything in my life. His books, especially the Madeline books, not only inspired my style, but my attitude towards life. Reading about him helped me realize, “Ah! You can write and you can paint, you can do work for adults and for children. You can travel, you can be a bon vivant — which I’m not — and, even in the midst of tragedy, you can have this great joy in life.”

Max Stavinsky

Max Makes a Million by Maira Kalman

P.S. The American history-loving Maira says she is currently finishing up a book about Thomas Jefferson, which will be published later this year. And she’s working on two more books, both tied to an exhibit she’s guest curating for the Cooper-Hewitt (“Maira Kalman Selects”) when it reopens in 2014. One will be an alphabet book for children about design, and the other will be a book for adults on design.