Category Archives: Picture Books

12 Designers and Architects on their Favorite Children’s Books

I loved working on this story for Architectural Digest. The concept was super simple: I asked a dozen top interior designers and architects to name a favorite book from childhood that somehow influenced them in their work today. Thank you to India Mahdavi, Ellie Cullman, Miles Redd, Sheila Bridges, Stephen Alesch, Mara Miller, Alex Papachristidis, David Alhadeff, Deborah Berke, Barbara Bestor, Martyn Lawrence Bullard and Brian Sawyer, who took the time to give such thoughtful responses.

Some of these books I had never even heard of! Mara Miller of Carrier & Company said her favorite book growing up was something called The Fourteen Bears: Summer and Winter.  This book, by Evelyn Scott, was originally published in 1973 and is now out of print.

I found it at the library and I could immediately see its appeal. Each bear has a home in a distinct decorating style. One bear has decorated her quarters in French Empire style, another has gone full Gustavian, another does American Colonial. It’s so good!

In case you’re curious, here’s one of Mara’s interiors. (In fact, it’s Jessica Chastain’s home, shot for Arch Digest.)

I also loved architect Deborah Berke’s book choice, Mistress Masham’s Repose. This 1946 middle-grade novel by T.H. White (The Sword in the Stone) describes the adventures of an English girl who discovers a group of Lilliputians living on her family’s derelict country estate. Berke, who is dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, is probably best known for her modernist architecture, but she has also done a lot of incredible work reimagining old buildings.  Here’s one example below, her transformation of the Richardson Olmstead Complex in Buffalo, NY (a 140-year-old hospital with National Historic Landmark status), into a gorgeous hotel.

Hotel Henry, Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo NY. Architect: Deborah Berke Partners.

“I think my appreciation of a building’s patina and how materials change over time began with [Mistress Masham’s Repose],” she says. 

More proof that the books you read as a kid stick with you for life.

You can read the full story at architecturaldigest.com HERE

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. 

Olympics Special: The Korean Mountains We Don’t Get to See in Pyeongchang

Album of Mount Geumgang by Jeong Seon (artist name: Gyeomjae); ink and light color on silk (1711). From the new Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art.

Right now, the world’s cameras are focused on Pyeongchang (Go Chloe Kim!). But guess what? The hills of Pyeongchang are supposedly nothing compared to Korea’s most famous mountain range just 90 miles away —the Kumgang mountains. This stunning landscape of jagged granite peaks and crystalline waterfalls is the setting for many of Korea’s classic legends and has inspired artists for more than a millennium. The catch is, the Kumgang mountains (aka the Diamond Mountains) are located in North Korea, and it has been impossible for outsiders to visit there for the last decade.

Just a week ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened “Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art,” an exhibit dedicated to art inspired by the region, featuring about 30 works dating from the 18th century to present day. Honestly, I’ve grown up looking at Korean art all my life (the typical stuff: creaky painted screens, boring ceramics, etc) and I had never been the least bit interested in Korean paintings until seeing this show. The works, some of them never before shown in the U.S., have a fantastical quality that takes you out of time and place. They bring to mind Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Cole — but also what Tina Fey’s daughter once said about fairyland (or whatever):

So I went back and found a picture book I bought my kids some years ago: The Tigers of the Kumgang Mountains (2005) by Kim So-un with illustrations by Jeong Kyoung-Sim, based on a Korean folktale.

It’s about a young man who journeys to the Kumgang mountains to hunt down the god-like tiger that killed his father. The young man first has to undergo a series of near-impossible tests to prove he is up to the challenge; once he finally confronts the tiger (who is, by the way, the size of a whale), the creature swallows him. Inside the tiger’s belly he meets the daughter of a king (remember this is a folk tale!) and they hatch a sneaky way to escape (involving a giant bear).

The story is pretty strange, even for a folk tale. But younger children willing to overlook the holes in logic will find it mesmerizing. And the illustrations, based on traditional Korean painting techniques, capture a lot of the magic and mystery of the Diamond Mountains. 

P.S. THANK YOU, CHLOE KIM!!! KOREAN-AMERICAN PRIDE!!!!

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.”

Best Baby Gift for Food Lovers: the Cook in a Book series by Lotta Nieminen

I’m obsessed with food, I’m obsessed with children’s books and I’m obsessed with food in children’s books. (See earlier posts on this here.)

Last year, Phaidon released the ingenious board book Cook in a Book: Pancakes! by Lotta Nieminen.

In terms of interactivity, it’s Pat the Bunny x 10. On each page, kids can emulate the steps of a real recipe for pancakes.

Pull a sliding tab and white flour seems to pour from a measuring cup; spin a dial on the side of a bowl and liquid and dry ingredients magically blend into a batter. I showed this book to a three-year-old and he was ENTHRALLED, demanding an immediate re-read, and then another. 

Earlier this year, Nieminen, a Finnish-born graphic designer and illustrator whose chic client list includes Hermes, Marimekko and Liberty of London, published her equally genius follow-up, Cook in a Book: Pizza! which includes a satisfyingly squishy plastic-covered clump of “dough” for kids to knead.

Check out this video demonstration below (she gets to the dough at 3:27).

Live Illustration: Graphic Designer Lotta Nieminen

Lotta Nieminen is a graphic designer and illustrator whose interactive children's board books have won a cult following. She joins us to demonstrate the drawing and paper engineering techniques she uses in books like those of her cook-in-a-book series, "Pancakes!" "Pizza!" and "Tacos!" Leave your questions, and The Times's Maria Russo will ask some.

Posted by The New York Times Books on Tuesday, June 27, 2017

 

Now Phaidon has published a third in the series. Tacos. Normally, I’d think: Enough Already!  But this one is just as irresistible. Nieminen keeps coming up with new “paper engineering” ideas to keep the series fresh.

This time, kids can chop scallions, slice radishes, and mince cilantro with a little cardboard knife and a slide tab that appears to transform the veggies into neat little segments — you gotta try it to believe it. Also, the tortilla pops out and folds in half.

I am in love with these books. They are the EZ-Bake oven of board books. And best of all, there’s no mess.

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.

 

A Book About a Hapa Baby? I’m In!

I was VERY excited to come across this book, and not just because it’s by Patricia MacLachlan (of Sarah, Plain and Tall fame). It’s just that you don’t often come across a book for kids featuring a mixed-race white and Asian family. Which seems nuts when you think about it because there are so damn many of us these days, and, well, we love books.

Of course, You Were the First  isn’t explicitly about being a multiracial child of Asian or Pacific Islander descent (feel free to use the term hapa). The book, with lovely illustrations by Stephanie Graegin, is a prose poem that parents of any color can read aloud to help prepare their toddler for a baby on the way. It reminds the kid that they were the first to crawl, the first to sing, the “first to lift your head, to look at the trees and flowers and sky.” Underlying message: “Be nice to the new baby! She’s got nothin on you!”

There’s no plot here. It’s one of those sweet, sing-songy, soothing books that don’t need a plot. I love that it exists. Even if the publisher missed out on titling the book “You’re No Second Banana.”  Ha ha.

The grandmother in this illustration is secretly debating whether the baby looks white or Asian. The mother in the picture knows exactly what her mother is thinking.

I’ve recently started a new project on Instagram devoted to hapa culture. Feel free to check it out @generationhapa

 

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!