Category Archives: Early Readers

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!

On Emily Arnold McCully, dueling 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 event in nearby Chappaqua, NY, which gathers local authors for a day of readings and signings. This year there were nearly 90 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 was Emily Arnold McCully.

She’s been illustrating books since the ’60s and to date she’s written or illustrated nearly one hundred 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 her with her 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 grandmothers take opposite stances on everything, making Pip miserable. But by the end, Pip saves the day: she stands up to her dueling grandmothers and insists that they compromise. The book is a lesson in moderation.

The illustrations add a fascinating, if unspoken, layer. Fun grandma may be sweet and 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. Strict grandma, meanwhile, looks like Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz — all sharp angles and disapproving scowls. 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, as most kids probably would. “Grandma Nan is too hard, and Grandma Sal is too easy,” she writes in a secret letter to her parents.

I have my own takeaway from this book, which is that I feel sorry for strict grandma. She probably loves Pip just as much as fun grandma does and she’s just doing what she thinks is best for the child. She can’t help it if she’s a born task master — sort of like my own mother.

My kids are fortunate to have two devoted grandmothers, both 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.) I know that my mom would love to be the fun one, if she could be. But just like Grandma Nan, she can’t help her essential nature, which is to buy educational gifts and say “no.”

She’s a tiger mother and, well, I guess I can relate.

** 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