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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


Last Sunday: My NYT Book Review Debut

Writing about kids books has been a hobby of mine for a few years now but with this review for the NYT Book Review I feel weirdly legit. Too bad my own children refuse to take my advice (read it here) and read Kate Milford’s epic middle grade, Miyazaki-esque, seafaring adventure fantasy novel.nytreview


Double Fudge by Judy Blume: A Novel for Adults

Double FudgeDouble Fudge has no sex scenes and not even a single stuffed bra. But the fifth installation in Judy Blume’s Fudge series has something grownups can appreciate: A realistic view of what it’s like trying to raise three kids in Manhattan on a not-astronomical income.

Blume has never hesitated to spell out the Hatcher family’s precise economic situation. In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, we learn that the family lives in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom on 25 W. 68th St, where Fudge sleeps in the converted den. Throughout the series, money and real estate are the engines that drive the plots (Fudgie’s antics aside). In Fourth Grade Nothing, Peter’s dad, who works in advertising, is fired from the Juicy-O account after he makes the mistake of inviting his boss for an overnight visit; later, Peter’s dad only allows Fudge to appear in the Toddle Bike commercial because he can’t afford to lose another account. In Superfudge, baby Tootsie is born and the family temporarily decamps to Princeton, NJ, where Peter’s dad, apparently having a mid-career crisis, attempts to write a book; we also learn that Peter’s mom, a dental hygenist, dreams of going back to school for art history. In Fudge-a-Mania, the family must share a cramped summer house with Sheila’s family because neither can afford to rent their own houses.

The Hatcher family is said to live at 25 W. 68th St

Double Fudge was published a full three decades after Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and the city Blume portrays has the distinct feeling of a boom-era New York. Peter’s friend’s dad, the formerly struggling artist Frank Fargo, is at a career high, and moves to a big loft in SoHo. Frank’s paintings, Peter realizes, are now too expensive for the Hatchers to afford.  And then there’s Fudgie’s new friend, six-year-old Richie Potter. Richie is a child of privilege and a masterful underminer. When Fudge and Peter’s mom tells Richie she’s a dental hygenist, he informs her, “One of my grandpas is a very famous neurosurgeon.” When the mom tells Richie they don’t have a cook, he says, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were poor.” Later he tells the family about his own mother: “She’s a designer. You can get clothes with her name on it.” There is also his discussion of their summer house (clearly in the Hamptons). “We have a house at the beach. Do you? … Our house is on the ocean side but we keep our boat at the bay.” We’ve all met a Richie Potter — maybe our kids have even gone to school with one — and we all want to slap him.

In the midst of all this, Blume introduces the characters of Howie Hatcher and his family, whose defiantly bohemian lifestyle is a direct repudiation to the New York City rat race. These Hatchers live in Hawaii, home-school their daughters (the “Natural Beauties”) and distain television. But they are insufferable, moralizing mooches who turn out to be weak and hypocritical.

My kids loved Double Fudge, as they loved every one of the Fudge books. They snickered at Richie Rich, howled at the “Natural Beauties” and practically cheered when the overbearing relatives finally moved on. But by the end of Double Fudge, I must say I felt a little bit sad. Their mom has stopped talking about getting that art history degree and the family is still sharing the one bathroom. (What will happen when Tootsie gets potty trained?)

I can only hope that Judy Blume pulls out another Fudge book in a couple of years. In this one, an elderly neighbor in their building could die and leave the family her classic six, which the Hatchers combine with their apartment. That’s the New York dream, right?

Winning Numbers: Two Books About Math to Love (Seriously)

Maybe you’ve never been a “math person.” Maybe you only recently learned that googolplex is not the name of the Google cafeteria. Maybe when you’re out to lunch with friends you sit quietly when the check comes, hoping someone else will calculate how much you owe. But that doesn’t mean your six-year-old isn’t fascinated by numbers.

How Much is a Million by David M. Schwartz, illustrated by Steven Kellogg

“If a goldfish bowl were big enough for a million goldfish … it would be large enough to hold a whale.” – How Much is a Million?

At the beginning of kindergarten I bought my son How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz, originally published in 1985. The book is considered a classic — you see it now with a 20th Anniversary Edition banner — but it didn’t exist when I was in elementary school. Though this is a book I thought L. would tolerate at best, he was captivated from the first reading. Schwartz manages to put numbers like million, billion and trillion in concrete terms that speak to five, six and seven year-olds perfectly. For instance: A million Continue reading

Little House Books: The Lost Covers

Browsing in the library the other day my daughter and I came across this:

BanksofPlumCreek-photoThey also had this:

LittleTown-photo Sacrilege! In the first one, Laura looks like she’s on the front of a Land’s End catalog; on the second one Mary is wearing a full face of makeup. The covers were published in 2007, timed with the series’ 75th anniversary. Evidently, they were not a big hit; the  HarperCollins Little House website has no trace of these covers whatsoever.

In Search of a Few Good Jokes

jokebooks“Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?” If you have a child under the age of seven, you’ve probably endured a period where you heard that one every day. As these sort of jokes go, the orange/banana knock-knock is actually a pretty good one — which is not the case with most of what you find in kids’ humor collections. (The tip-off, of course, is anything promising “1,000 MORE of the Very Best Knock-Knock Jokes!”)

Failed jokes and riddles fall into many categories. There are, for starters…

The ones that presume familiarity with obscure phrases. What’s a ghost’s favorite kind of music? Haunting melodies. Why did the boys shoot their BB guns in the air? They wanted to shoot the breeze.

The ones that presume knowledge of farm life. What did the little calf say to the haystack? Are you my fodder? (My little city chickens have never heard the word “fodder”)

The ones that presume knowledge of U.S. geography. What’s the capital of Alaska? Come on, Juneau this one! (Sadly, we didn’t.)

The ones that presume knowledge of the Bible. Who was the only character in the Bible without a father? Joshua, because he was the son of Nun. (I had to to do a Google search to even understand this.)

The ones that presume familiarity with Telly Savalas. Knock-knock. Who’s there? Hugh. Hugh who? Hugh loves ya baby! (I swear, this was in a joke book published in 2007!)

vintagejokesOf the humor books I’ve scoured, my favorite so far is Laugh Out Loud Jokes for Kids by Rob Elliott ($4.99, Spire) which has a better ratio of groaners to good ones than most. (What do you get from a pampered cow? Spoiled milk.) I was also happy to stumble upon the thoroughly fascinating — if at times offensive — 1963 collection Jokes For Children by Marguerite Kohl and Frederica Young. This out-of-print-book is full of quaint classics, but also jokes so violent you can scarcely believe they were meant for kids.  In the “Whoppers and Insults” chapter you get stuff like: Want to lose ten pounds of ugly fat? Sure. Cut off your head. Here’s a disturbing one: Father: Broke my kid of biting his nails. Friend: You did– how? Father: Knocked his teeth out. There’s even a section called “The Little Moron.”

Little MoronI recently did a call out to friends, asking for their favorite kids’ jokes. I think these are all winners but feel free to argue.


1. What did the flounder say to the shrimp? “You’re being shellfish.”

2. What time is it when you get a toothache? Tooth-hurty.

3. What do you call a pig who knows karate? Pork chop.

4. What letters contain nothing? M-T

5. What does a snowman eat for breakfast? Frosted Flakes

6. When can you knock over a full glass and not spill any water? When it’s full of milk.

7. Why is 2 + 2 = 5 like your left foot? It’s not right.

8. Why did the chewing gum cross the road? It was stuck to the chicken.

9. What do you call a deer with no eyes? No eye-deer (no idea).

10. Which are the two coldest letters? I-C

11. What did 0 say to 8? Nice belt.

12. How do you spell “ninjas?” S … because the ninja is silent.

13. Knock-knock. Who’s there? Isabel. Isabel who? Is the bell broken? I had to knock.

14. Knock-knock. Who’s there? Interrupting cow. Interrupting c—Moo! (interrupts)

15. What word is always pronounced wrong? Wrong.

BONUS (apologies in advance): What is the most constipated condiment? Mus-turd.

Did I miss any good ones? Please let me know in the comments below.

*Special credit goes to our pediatrician and Sam & Daisy Harris

Mari Takabayashi Forever

I love Mari Takabayashi’s I Live in Brooklyn (2004). After buying this book several years ago for my (Manhattan) children, I couldn’t get enough of Takabayashi and all her round-faced, Marimekko print-wearing girls.

Mari_Takabayashi2Takabayashi paints like a Japanese Grandma Moses, and I mean that in the best way.

Carroll_Gardens_TakabayashiWhen I realized Takabayashi had previously written something similar called I Live in Tokyo (2001), I had to get that one immediately, of course. As a kid I would have died for this book — I’ve been obsessed with Japan ever since my friend Tomoko shared her rice balls with me in first grade. I_Live_In_TokyoTakabayashi often does these nice little pictorial guides to her characters’ stuff, sort of in the vein of a Richard Scarry word book. They are easy to obsess over.Mari_Takabayashi6 Rush Hour (1996), which has text by Christine Loomis, is the artist’s totally charming portrayal of a working day in New York City, book-ended by the hectic morning and evening commutes.Mari_Takabayashi7I used to read Rush Hour to my kids when they were little — I thought it was a nice way for them to make sense of where their parents had been all day. Mari_Takabayashi4True, all Takabayashi’s books pretty much look the same. And the stories are not remotely plot-driven. But who cares? Wouldn’t you want your kids to sleep in this room from Marshmallow Kisses (2000)?Mari_Takabayashi8 See Mari Takabayashi’s website here.

4 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Richard Scarry

Retan-RisomI’ve been reading The Busy, Busy World of Richard Scarry (1997) by Walter Retan, Scarry’s longtime editor at Random House and Golden Press. I’ve always loved the way Scarry was able to cram so many little details onto a page and explain complicated real-world things (like the workings of a paper factory), with such precision. But who knew he lived such a glittering life? (At one point, says Retan: “They were weary of the constant parties, the steady flow of house guests, the drinking and the endless interruptions.”) Or that his books made such gazillions? (Think: foreign editions.) I learned a few other things as well…

1) There’s a reason Lowly Worm wore a Tyrolean hat.  Scarry was a Boston-born, Brothers-wearing, New England preppy but moved permanently to Switzerland with his wife and young son in 1968. This also explains why Huckle Cat wears those leiderhosen. Lowly

2) He was fired from Vogue after three weeks. After serving in WWII Scarry got a job in the art department of Vogue. When they told him that he wasn’t right for the position, he asked them why they had hired him in the first place. The HR person explained that they had been impressed by his white suit and blue shirt. (Scarry was a very stylish dresser.)vogue-november-1946

3) He married Peggy from Mad Men! Not really, but when Scarry met his chic wife-to-be, Patsy Murphy, in 1948, she was working as a copywriter at Young & Rubicam. She later went on to write books with Scarry, but for a time she helped support the couple with her work at the agency.

Newlyweds Dick and Patsy Scarry

4) These are his granddaughters, Olympia and Fiona Scarry. Readers of Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and WWD know the Swiss socialites by their regular party page appearances. Olympia is an installation artist who has worked for Matthew Barney and wears a lot of YSL and Haider Ackermann. (You can check out her recent appearance in Interview magazine here.)

Olympia and Fiona Scarry at Cannes 2012 Vanity Fair/Gucci party

Doughnut Heaven

When I was a kid this is what I remember telling myself: “When I grow up and learn to drive, I will be able to go Dunkin’ Donuts any time I want.” The thought was very consoling to me every time our car zipped by the store, leaving me powerless and powdered sugar-deprived in the back seat.

Doughnuts have also inspired some very good kids’ books.

1) Who Needs Donuts? By Mark Alan Stamaty

Who Needs Donuts?

Maybe you remember “Washingtoon,” Mark Alan Stamaty’s terrific political comic strip from The Village Voice. Or maybe you don’t. Regardless, this 1973 book (reissued by Knopf in 2003) is a cult classic for good reason. The story follows a boy named Sam who journeys into the swarming, weirdo-filled streets of what is clearly a pre-Giuliani Manhattan (all that’s missing are the peep shows) in search of a sugar fix. Along the way he lands a job with a paisley-wearing donut impressario, meets a toothless Sad Old Woman, faces catastrophe (escaped bull in a coffee factory), and learns about love.

WhoNeedsPageEvery obsessively drawn page is crammed with thousands of dark and hilarious details (look for the hotel inside a phone booth). You can pore over each page for hours and still discover new microscopic zingers. I know this sounds like a book only adults could appreciate, but my kids are nuts for it. And once you read Who Needs Donuts, you’ll want to read this excellent interview with Stamaty explaining the backstory.

 2) Arnie The Doughnut by Laurie Keller

Arnie The Doughnut

With its whimsical cartoon-style illustrations and quip-exchanging fried-dough characters, Laurie Keller’s 2003 entry into the genre would seem to be pure fluff. But there’s a dark side here.  First, Arnie, a sweetly naive, life-loving chocolate glazed, realizes that his destiny — and that of all doughnuts  — is to be eaten. Then, after his eyes are opened to the cruelty of the world, Arnie is gobsmacked to learn that he’s the only doughnut who didn’t know this was coming.  There’s something compellingly grotesque when the other pastries (including the beret-wearing cruller) tell him that they don’t mind being devoured. As you’d expect, there’s a happy ending. But Arnie’s look into the abyss (that is, a gaping human mouth) gives this confection some umami.

3) Homer Price by Robert McCloskey

Homer PriceAs comfortable as kids are with technology these days, they still grasp the panic of an I Love Lucy-style “Help-me-turn-off-this-craaaazy-machine!” situation. Robert McCloskey (Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal) concocted one of the most memorable such moments in his 1943 collection of stories about small-town Ohio boy Homer Price. In the third tale, young Homer gets into trouble with his uncle’s newfangled automatic doughnut maker. To complicate matters, a millionairess wanders into the diner, and, suddenly overcome by her inner Ina Garten, whips up the batter herself, losing her diamond bracelet in the process.

TheDoughnutsBy the end, our quick-thinking hero manages to recover the bauble (and sell a roomful of warm doughnuts). Unlike the other two titles, this is a book totally free of freaks or authorial winks. If Who Needs Donuts? is the retro Dunkin’ Donuts jelly donut and Arnie the Doughnut is the hip bacon-studded variety, Homer Price is the classic cake doughnut.