Category Archives: Early Readers

On Emily Arnold McCully, battling grandmas and Mirette

On Sunday, my mother-in-law took my lucky children to see Hamilton. This give me the chance to check out the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival, an annual outdoor event in nearby Chappaqua, NY, which gathers local authors for a day of readings and signings. This year there were almost 100 authors and illustrators, as well as food trucks, face painters, and people dressed in full-body costumes of Elephant, Piggie and Clifford. When I got there Victoria Kann (Pinkalicious and its 37 sequels) was sitting in a prime position at her very own table at the center of the lawn. She was wearing a sparkly sequined cardigan and the line to meet her was at least 40 families long.

But the author I was most excited to meet? Emily Arnold McCully.

She’s been illustrating books since the ’60s and to date she’s written or illustrated nearly 100 titles, including the Caldecott-winning Mirette on the High Wire (1992). My husband adores Mirette and when he used to read it to our kids he always wondered aloud why it hadn’t been made into a movie (more on this later). My own personal favorite Emily Arnold McCully book is a funny little “I Can Read” title from 1998 called The Grandma Mix-up

It’s about a girl named Pip whose parents go away for the weekend, leaving him with his two grandmothers. Grandma Sal is a fun, relaxed, let-them-eat-cake-and-watch TV type of grandma. Grandma Nan, on the other hand, is a rule-bound, type A grandma with a penchant for schedules and vegetables.

The illustrations are more cartoon-like than McCully’s usually painterly work. But they are genius. Fun grandma may be lovable, but as drawn by McCully she’s also kind of fat and dumpy. She looks like someone who watches a lot of daytime TV. She doesn’t even have any eyes, as far as I can tell. Strict grandma, meanwhile, is all sharp angles (nose, chin, elbows) and disapproving scowls, like Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz. But she also comes across as smart and high functioning. She’s the kind of grandma whose car is plastered with decals from Ivy League schools.

The interesting thing about the book is that Pip doesn’t actually prefer fun grandma over strict grandma. (“Grandma Nan is too hard, and Grandma Sal is too easy,” she writes in a secret letter to her parents.) While this doesn’t seem quite realistic — what kid wouldn’t prefer the fun grandma? — I do appreciate this. Grandma Nan is only doing what she thinks is best. She can’t help it if she’s a born task master.

My kids are lucky enough to have two grandmothers, both of them actively involved in their lives. But my husband’s mother is most definitely the fun one (think: Hamilton tickets) and my own mother, bless her heart, is the not-as-fun-one. (To be absolutely clear here, neither are dumb or dumpy.) But just as with Grandma Nan, it’s not my mother’s fault. I know that she would love to be the fun grandmother, but her natural inclination is to buy educational gifts. 

** P.S. Emily told me that Mirette on the High Wire, which has been optioned three times, is finally being made into a film. London director Helen O’Hanlon is in post-production on the short film, Mirette, which stars a talented young unknown actress named Dixie Egerickx in the title role. With any luck we’ll be able to see it streaming somewhere next year. You can check out the movie’s website here.

Actress Dixie Egerickx plays Mirette

 

Summer Sanity Savers

Otherwise known as activity books! You know, the books with doodling pages, stickers, word scrambles, puzzles and other old-fashioned distractions? These things used to feel like throwaways, printed on the cheapest paper. But now publishers are putting out some very sophisticated, beautifully designed activity books, some of which are tempting enough to get kids to put down their iPads.

I corralled a bunch of local kids to figure out which were the best.  Here’s my roundup in the NYT Book Review.

 

Jean Jullien, Genius!

Jean Jullien. Portrait by Daniel Arnold.

French illustrator Jean Jullien’s drawings are simple, friendly and naive in style. His lines are loose, his colors are bold and his people have U-shaped noses. Everything he draws has the effortless appeal of a perfect chocolate chip cookie.

But Jullien, who lives in London and contributes to The New Yorker and The New York Times, really trades in ideas. He’s a creative prankster who transforms familiar scenarios into a witty commentary on contemporary life. Sometimes his observations are gentle and funny, like this one: 

Sometimes his images are unapologetically political. There was this powerful illustration following the violence in Ferguson, MO. And Jullien found himself the unexpected object of media attention after he Instagrammed his simple, powerful image of the Eiffel Tower crossed with the peace symbol right after the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. (The drawing went viral. More about it here.)

Last year, Jullien published his first children’s book, the brilliant This is Not a Book, which played with the simple physicality of a rectangular board book. With each spread, Jullien transformed the book into a series of whimsical objects: a laptop, a monster’s mouth, a tightrope, a naked rear end. Now, Phaidon has published his second book, Before & After, and it’s (dare I say it?) even better.

The concept is simple — showing toddlers the meaning of “before” and “after.”  Before: a dirty cat is licking its paw. After: the cat is clean.

But naturally, the artist doesn’t leave it at that. Jullien plays with the predictability of the pairings, delivering narratives that are by turns funny, surprising and even thought provoking. It’s not all as straightforward as simple cause and effect. There’s often a missing piece to his scenarios— a beat of the story that’s implied but not spelled out. Sometimes it’s psychological. Sometimes it’s existential.

In short, it’s a delight. Each glossy page exhibits a beautiful economy of words and lines, everything meaningful, nothing superfluous. This is a board book that a two-year-old can enjoy, an eight-year-old will giggle over and a fully-grown lover of modern design will marvel at.

PS This short video about Jullien is totally worth watching. Show it to your kids, too!

 

 

 

Out-of-Print Gem: The Man Who Cooked For Himself (1981)

I bought this used book years ago for 25 cents as a throwaway. We were waiting for a table at a restaurant and I was desperate for something to occupy the kids before they destroyed the place. I was sucked in by the book’s (unintentionally anticlimactic?) title. The pancake letter “o” didn’t hurt either.

ManWhoCookedThe book turned out to be a keeper. It’s basically a child-friendly introduction to locavorism and foraging decades before Michael Pollan, starring a funny little man who looks like a Hanna-Barbera character.

The balding bachelor of the title lives with his cat in the middle of nowhere. As we learn: “He didn’t have a wife or children so he always cooked his own supper, cleaned the house by himself, and made his own bed.” (For an author writing in 1981, Phyllis Krasilovsky has a pretty 1950s-ish take on gender norms, but whatever.) The man also doesn’t have a car, so he relies on a friend to bring him groceries every week. When one summer his friend is unable to make his delivery, the man nearly starves.

ManWhoCooked2_0001Finally, he realizes he can pick wild watercress and blueberries, catch fish and even make pancakes from … acorns. (I don’t think even Rene Redzepi has gotten there.) The story is super simple but charming, and the kids think it’s hilarious when the guy briefly considers eating his newspaper. They also appreciate the size of his hat.

ManWhoCooked4