Category Archives: Classics

Lightbulb moment: Donald Trump is the Humbug from The Phantom Tollbooth

This is exactly how James Comey felt when Donald Trump tried to hug him in front of all the other law enforcement officials in the Blue Room.

You know, that moment when Comey tried to hide in the drapes? And Donald pulled him close with all his might so they could be photographed in an embrace? 

The Humbug is a liar, a name dropper, and a tacky dresser. “A very dislikable fellow,” as the Spelling Bee puts it.

Cakes I Have Known

Maybe because I grew up in a household where we ate fruit for dessert, I didn’t have a lot of experience with cake. Classic all-American, Betty Crocker-style layer cakes —as high and round as a hatbox, thickly iced on the top and sides — to me, these desserts existed in the realm of the slightly unreal. I saw them on TV,  under glass domes at diners, and most of all, in picture books. For the most part, these weren’t books about cakes. These exuberant confections — often pink, with a wiggly decorated border — were usually there as plot punctuation, existing somewhere in the background, maybe rounding out the scene of a party. But the page with the cake picture inevitably became my favorite part of the entire book.

I was recently reminded of this when I heard that Maira Kalman’s newest book was called, quite simply, Cake. It’s a combination of memoir, art book and cookbook that’s very Maira. After all, she’s been lovingly illustrating cakes — many in her children’s books — for years now.

Here are some of my favorite cakes in children’s books:

BIG MAX by Kin Platt, illustrated by Robert Lopshire (1965)

In the I Can Read book by Kin Platt, the King of Pooka Pooka’s pet elephant goes missing and it’s up to detective Big Max to find him. I was enthralled as much by Max’s sleuthing skills as by the birthday cake served at the end. This cake is about as big as a Goodyear tire and to my adult eyes now, looks about as tasty as one. But I know I dreamed about this confection and treasured the near-final scene showing Big Max licking frosting off his finger.

 

Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman (1961) 

Then there’s the dog party scene in P.D. Eastman’s classic. I loved reading this book to my kids and we would always linger over the insane canine free-for-all at the end. At this tree-top party there are presents, a trampoline, a canon (!), a trapeeze and, of course, the main attraction: the layer cake (again, frosted pink). This one is the size of a wading pool and you could only describe the pieces being served as wedges (not slices).  The dogs are literally leaping towards this cake from all directions.

 

Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak (1962)

As a kid I loved the idea that you could bring a snowman inside your house, no problem. And it all made perfect sense, as long as you didn’t let the hot soup melt the snowman. I thought about what I’d do if I were in the house: I would first eat the soup, and then (duh) the cake.

 

Lyle and the Birthday Party by Bernard Waber (1966)

In this installation of the Lyle series, our favorite adopted crocodile starts to feel “mean, green jealous,” when he realizes he’s missing out on the inalienable right to a birthday party.  In his fantasies, Mrs. Primm is lovingly decorating a homemade birthday cake for him. You have to love the way Lyle is clutching his hands and looking upon the thing in joyful disbelief. I feel like this is what it would be like to have Ina Garten making your cake.

 

A Birthday for Frances by Russell Hoban (1968)

Frances is seething with jealousy over her little sister Gloria’s birthday. Lillian Hoban gives us another giant pink-frosted cake (why were so many of these cakes pink?!) so big it takes two badgers to hoist it. Frances refuses to sing “Happy Birthday” with everybody else and sings her own version:  Happy Chompo to me/ Is how it ought to be/ Happy Chompo to Frances/ Happy Chompo to me. (Chompo is the candy bar she was planning to give Gloria as a gift).

 

Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco (1997)

Jumping ahead a few decades, there is this strawberry-topped chocolate cake that a grandmother and granddaughter bake during a thunderstorm in Patricia Polacco’s book. The combination of chocolate with “three overripe tomatoes” is so strange I need to imagine that it’s actually good, like green tomato pie a la Ma Ingalls. Polacco includes a recipe as well.

 

Thirteen Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman (2010)

And now we come full circle. Illustrated by Maira Kalman, this not very plot-driven but totally delightful play on a word book creates a narrative about friendship based on thirteen key words: Bird, Despondent, Dog, Busy, Convertible, Goat, Hat, Haberdashery, Scarlet, Baby, Panache, Mezzo-Soprano, and, of course, Cake. This spread alone is worth the price of admission.

I know I’m missing some important cakes in books. What am I forgetting??? Please tell me in the comments!

The Best, Least-Read Beatrix Potter Book: The Tale of the Pie and The Patty Pan

Don’t expect your kids to be as taken with The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan as they might be with Peter Rabbit or Squirrel Nutkin. But this Beatrix Potter story — #17 in her Peter Rabbit series — is my new personal favorite Potter.

The story is about Ribby, a cat, who invites her friend Duchess, a dog, for tea. Duchess is “dreadfully afraid” that Ribby plans to serve mouse pie (which she absolutely cannot eat) and so comes up with a cockamamie plan. She will sneak into Ribby’s kitchen with a replacement pie, swap the two without Ribby knowing, and then enjoy the party, all without causing offense. Of course, Duchess’s plan goes all screwy. She unknowingly eats the mouse pie, thinking it’s her veal-and-ham pie. And when she sees there’s no patty pan left inside the pie dish (I had to look up what a patty pan is —  a tin pan inside a pie that helps hold up the crust), she goes into a nervous fit, thinking she’s swallowed it. The doctor is called, the whole neighborhood hears about it, etc, etc.

At heart, this is a story about two bored gentlewomen who fill their empty days by planning and attending tea parties over which they make unnecessary fuss.  Their social engagements are as artificial and prescribed as a formal dance. The morning of the event, the two friends, rushing to get ready, pass each other on the street but don’t even greet each other.

“They only bowed to each other; they did not speak, because they were going to have a party.”

Ribby madly dusts, polishes and puts out her “best china tea-set.”  Duchess (after breaking into Ribby’s house and swapping pies) brushes her fur and “passed the time until the clock struck four,” because she has clearly nothing else to do.  Then, she arrives a bit too early and she must “wait a little while in the lane” so she may arrive fashionably late at a quarter past four. 

The friends exchange rehearsed pleasantries:

“Is Mrs. Ribson at home?” inquired Duchess.

“Come in! and how do you do, my dear Duchess?” cried Ribby. “I hope I see you well?”

“Quite well, I thank you, and how do you do, my dear Ribby?”

and put on a show of gracious congeniality while secretly judging each other. 

“How fast Duchess ie eating!” thought Ribby to herself. 

The comedy is as sharp as in any Barbara Pym novel. These friends would rather lie to each other than risk a social misstep. And the whole afternoon devolves into chaos and hysteria because neither of them say what they really think. 

It’s delightful!!!!!

And the illustrations —with the profusion of garden flowers, exquisite interiors and Ribby’s lilac silk gown and embroidered apron —  are some of the most beautiful of all of Beatrix Potter’s works. 

The Wrinkle in Time film: We Came, We Saw, We Cringed. Here’s a Better Option

Read the graphic novel instead!!!

You could tell from the trailer that Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time was going to be painful. The colors were way too bright. The special effects —for a $100 million movie — were weirdly cheap looking. Storm Reid was much too pretty, with none of Meg’s awkwardness. And I felt frankly embarrassed for Mindy Kaling every time I had to see her totter across the field in that goofy dress.

Still, I dragged the family to see it because I had hope and because I was influenced by the grudgingly positive review from A.O. Scott  (“Fans of the book … can breathe a sigh of relief, and some may also find that their breath has been taken away.” Really?)

Of course it was much worse than we had feared. Where the tone should have been mysterious and tense, it was cute and sitcom-y. The camera lingered way too long on the kids’ open-mouthed expressions of awe. Reese Witherspoon’s transformation into a giant cabbage was mortifying. There were too many closeups of Oprah where you could practically see the dots of glue used to stick the rhinestones on her face. The actor playing Charles Wallace had zero charisma. The pacing was off (like, how did Meg free her dad so quickly?)  I could go on and on.

So … here is some advice. If you’re a fan of Madeline L’Engle’s novel and want another taste of it, look for the fantastic graphic novel adaptation by Hope Larson, which came out in 2012. Unlike DuVernay’s film, Larson’s take is very close to Madeline L’Engle’s novel in both spirit and  plot. Here’s a look at the opening spread:

I love that she starts with the opening words of the novel: “It was a dark and stormy night.” And the way Larson plays with layers, scale, and moody tones of black, white, and blue support the story beautifully.

Purists will be happy to know that she includes all the memorable scenes that DuVernay didn’t, like the snack of liverwurst sandwiches and hot cocoa, meeting Aunt Beast, and the episode with the little kid whose ball didn’t bounce in time with the others. Larson’s drawings also offer a welcome clarity when it comes to the conceptual discussions of space and time. My kids loved it — I suspect perhaps even more than the actual novel, but let’s not dwell on that. P.S. Larson has a new graphic novel coming out this May titled All Summer Long, about a thirteen-year-old girl facing a summer vacation of guitar playing, boredom, strained friendships and new friendships. Here’s the cover, which I already love:

Another Reason to Love Daniel Day-Lewis: The Phantom Thread and The Tailor of Gloucester

I absolutely loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread. So controlled, so funny, so sumptuous, so mysterious. Paul Thomas Anderson was talking about it the other day on Fresh Air and when Terry Gross mentioned it had the feeling of a “fairy-tale” (think: magical gowns, good and bad “witches”) he said that he was inspired in part by the gothic Christmas horror stories of M.R. James and also … The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter.

Evidently, Daniel Day-Lewis used to read the book to his children every Christmas Eve. And then Anderson started doing the same with his own kids.

Frontispiece: The Tailor Mouse c.1902 Helen Beatrix Potter 1866-1943

If you don’t recall, this is the story about a poor tailor who has been hired to make an elaborate  coat for the mayor’s wedding. He falls extremely ill before it’s finished and isn’t able to finish the garment. But then, the little mice who live in his house come to the rescue: They finish sewing the suit, all while fending off the tailor’s cat, Simpkin, who is trying to eat them. And when the coat is finished, everybody marvels at the incredible craftsmanship of the buttonholes. (Such tiny stitches, “they looked as if they had been made by little mice!”)

When PTA mentioned the book, what immediately came to mind was the palette of the book’s illustrations. Just like in the movie, there are a lot of gorgeous pinks:

And also jewel-colored blues and greens. (Remember the wallpaper in the movie’s breakfast room? Unfortunately, I can’t find a photo of it.)

Aside from the visual aspects, there is a very PTA element of obsession in Potter’s story. Just like couturier Reynolds Woodcock, the tailor of Gloucester is an obsessed artist and perfectionist. In his fevered delirium the tailor keeps repeating: “No more twist! No more twist!” (As a kid reading the book, this stuck with me because I had never heard of twist — turns out it’s a special kind of silk thread for button holes.)

And of course there are those scenes of the feverish Daniel Day-Lewis lying in bed, just like Potter shows the tailor sick in his own bed:

Here’s the transcript from Fresh Air:

ANDERSON: “I don’t know if it’s a fairy tale, but there’s a great book by Beatrix Potter called “The Tale Of Gloucester.” Do you know that one?

TERRY GROSS: “I don’t.”

ANDERSON: “That is about a tailor who is meant to build a suit for the mayor in town. And the night before, he gets sick, and he can’t finish the suit. He’s so sick he can’t finish the suit. So all the mice come out to help finish the suit while fending off the cat that’s trying to kill them. And it’s a beautiful story. And Daniel always liked to read it to his kids Christmas Eve, and I’ve sort of started to do the same thing for a while and – yeah, there you go.”

Mean Girls of 1974: Thoughts running through my head while reading Judy Blume’s Blubber for the first time

 

I’m not sure why I never read Blubber when I was a kid. But the other night I finally picked it up and yow. While I can’t say it’s an enjoyable 153 pages, it’s brilliant and fascinating on multiple levels, from the details of everyday suburban life in the 1970s to the jaw-dropping brutality of the fifth-graders at the center of the story. The novel is definitely worth a read, if only to remind yourself that while many aspects of childhood have changed (these kids have an unsupervised lunch period at school, for instance, giving them the perfect opportunity to torture Linda) other things remain the same: Nice fifth grade girls from nice families can seem totally normal while being secretly sadistic torturers. It is psychologically dead-on.

I don’t usually mark up my books, but I did it this time because 1) I knew I was never going to read Blubber again and 2) It’s the kind of book where you find yourself muttering out loud. Circling sentences and scribbling things like “Holy Shit!” on the newsprint-soft pages of an old paperback with an Uni-Ball pen can be oddly satisfying.

Tracy Wu!

Tracy Wu, Jill’s best friend, is depicted as utterly unexotic. Daughter of local physician Dr. Wu (naturally), Tracy collects stamps, eats hot dogs and lives in fear of getting on bully Wendy’s bad side — just like Jill. For a book written in the 1970s, this is totally refreshing.

It’s only much later in the novel that Tracy gets called a “chink.” Because it seems to come out of the blue, it seems that much uglier. Very effective.

The ubiquitous bum costume

A lot of kids show up at school on Halloween dressed up like the homeless “bums,” complete with smudgy faces and bundled-up bandanas tied onto sticks. In fact, the hobo costume is so common among her peers that Jill deems it “nothing original.”

I remember dressing as a bum too. It was a very easy costume to pull off. Sometimes I’d just dress up like a bum for fun, even when it wasn’t Halloween.**

Young kids, sharp knives

Jill and her little brother (I think he’s nine) carve their own pumpkins every year.  The jack o’lanterns usually turn out somewhat lopsided but nobody loses a finger and it is NBD.In my own household, this was the first year I let my 13-year-old carve our pumpkin all by herself. For this, I felt like I deserved a “daredevil mom of the year” award.

Jill is no bookworm.

If you ask me, there are WAY too many middle-grade books featuring earnest, deeply bookish protagonists who serve as stand-ins for the authors’ younger selves. For most kids, It’s impossible to relate to these nerds.

Blubber‘s Jill, on the other hand, is an all-around mediocre student who gets Cs in social studies and struggles in math. It’s the mean girls, Wendy and Caroline, who are the star students.

Who’s afraid of fifth grade girls?  Me.

Chapter 11 is when the torturing of Linda goes from nasty to horrific. The girls make Linda recite “I am Blubber, the smelly whale of class 206” before they allow her to get a sip of water, use the bathroom, eat lunch or get on the bus. Bullying becomes a group activity the girls look forward to because it makes school life less “boring” for everyone. Blume lays bare the ugly truth that for some kids, sadism can be fun.As a desperate survival tactic Linda even starts to volunteer these words before anyone makes her, in the hopes of appeasing her tormentors. This sounds like something straight out of a Maoist re-education camp.

And nobody gets expelled?!

Just when you think it can’t get worse, shit gets even more twisted. The girls hold Linda down and force her to show the boys her underpants.

Then the girls pinch Linda’s nose closed and force-feed her a piece of candy that they tell her is a chocolate-covered ant. Wendy keeps her hand over Linda’s mouth “so she couldn’t spit anything out.”  Linda gags and vomits.

She is going to need years of therapy but these girls don’t even get detention.

Where are the adults? Ha!

Blume wrote Blubber years before Columbine, National Bullying Prevention Month, the movie Heathers or helicopter parenting. The adults in the book are absent, useless and blissfully oblivious to Wendy’s well-supported reign of terror. Although at one point it’s pretty clear that Linda has told her mother something about being picked on (she starts getting driven to school to avoid the bus) we never actually see her mom and the woman never raises a stink.

At one point halfway through the novel, Jill does bring up the situation with her mother in a roundabout way, telling her that there’s a girl who “lets everybody walk all over her.” Her mother says exactly what you’d expect: “You should try putting yourself in her place.” To which Jill responds exactly the way you’d expect: She ignores it.

These days schools spend a lot of effort cooking up anti-bullying programs and kindness curriculums. But I can’t help but think that preaching this stuff to kids can be a waste of time.  The advice goes in one ear and out the other, and the next thing you know some poor kid is getting a chocolate-covered ant shoved in her mouth. I desperately want to believe in the recent studies suggesting that people gain empathy through reading fiction. As a book lover, I’m surely biased, but it makes sense to me. Reading Blubber, Wonder or The Hundred Dresses has got to be more effective than telling kids to “try putting themselves in other people’s shoes.” I think Judy Blume, at least, would agree.

What do you think?

**As a reward for those of you who actually read to the end of this post, please enjoy this 1979 photo of me in my “bum costume.” 

Have You Seen Ryan Gosling’s Tattoo?

This is not news —it was just news to me.

Ryan Gosling has a tattoo of The Giving Tree on his left arm.

After some intense googling, all I could find by way of explanation is an interview in Metro.co,uk where he says that his mother used to read the book to him and his sister when they were kids and this 2010 interview with Vulture, where we get the (false) impression that it’s a faux tattoo, for his role in Blue Valentine:

And your character has a tattoo of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree on his arm? That book is so fucked up; that story’s the worst. I mean, at the end the tree is a stump and the old guy just sitting on him; he’s just used him to death, and you’re supposed to want to be the tree? Fuck you. You be the tree. I don’t want to be the tree.

He says the story is “the worst.” So what gives????

At any rate, this little segment Jimmy Kimmel did on the book a couple years ago is priceless:

Louise Fitzhugh’s Lovable Little Hipster: Suzuki Beane

If you are a fan of Louise Fitzhugh and Kay Thompson  —and you have an extra hundred bucks lying around— you can find rare copies of this 1961 book, The Wonderful Adventures of Suzuki Beane by Sandra Scoppettone. A beatnik take on Eloise, it tells the story of a naughty little hipster who lives on Bleecker Street with Hugh, her Beat poet father, and Marcia, her spaced-out sculptor mother. The distinctively grotesque and scratchy looking illustrations (by Louise Fitzhugh) look straight out of Harriet the Spy.

I was hoping I could find a copy of it through the library, but no luck. Fortunately, you can read the whole thing here on Scribd.

Also, there’s this amazing 1962 pilot for a TV show (never made) based on Suzuki Beane. Totally worth watching:

 

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.

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:

happymealboxes

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