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!

 

 

 

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.

Even if Your Kid Has Never Heard of Gefilte Fish: The Carp in the Bathroom

I’m Korean, but I grew up in Great Neck and I was obsessed with the All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor (I’ve written about them here and here). So I have a soft spot for any book set in old-time New York where the characters have names like Zipporah and Moishe and eat noodle kugel.

Each year when Passover rolls around, my husband’s family gets together for a raucous and extremely secularized seder. I’m not sure the kids have any idea what the holiday is actually about because they are too busy stuffing themselves with chocolate-covered matzoh and playing with the felt finger puppets representing the ten plagues. But I’ve developed my own Passover tradition, which is to break out the 1972 classic The Carp in the Bathtub by Barbara Cohen and force my children to appreciate its charms.

It’s about a nine-year-old girl and her little brother who live with their parents in a tenement in Brooklyn. It looks like the 1940s or thereabouts. Their mother is a wonderful cook who makes an especially mean gefilte fish. To make sure she has the fattest, freshest fish every year for their seder, she always buys a live carp a week early and lets it swim in the family’s bathtub until it’s butchering time.

Love this illustration of the mom, walking so purposefully in her polka-dot dress:

The family’s tub carp is a beloved annual ritual. The kids don’t have to bathe for a whole week and it’s the closest they ever get to having a pet.

“Every time Harry or I had to go to the toilet, we would grab a crust of bread or a rusty lettuce leaf from the kitchen. While we sat on the toilet, we fed the bread or the lettuce leaf to the carp. This made going to the bathroom really fun, instead of just a waste of time.” 

Hands down, the most memorable picture in the book: The brother on the toilet.

One year they get especially attached to their carp. His eyes are brighter and he seems “unusually playful and intelligent.”

“There was something about his mouth that made him seem to be smiling at us.”

So the kids hatch a plan to save their friend’s life by sneaking him out in a bucket and begging their downstairs neighbor, the recently widowed Mrs. Ginzburg, to keep him in her tub.

“A few drops of water dripped onto the oriental rug Mrs. Ginzburg had bought at Abraham and Straus with Mr. Ginzburg’s Christmas bonus two years before.” (Love this!!!)

I love how gigantic all the adults are in the illustrations. They suit the story’s point of view perfectly: the adults are firmly in charge, but they’re not intimidating. They’re more like gentle, oversized, somewhat inscrutable giants. The storytelling has a sweet, gentle humor and even though the stakes aren’t super high, Cohen gives the plot some genuine drama.

But warning: Any child reading this book is going to beg you to let them keep a giant fish in the bathtub.

Christmas carp, c.1971 (photo courtesy of ČTK / Czech News Agency)

Today, when I was poking around the web I learned that keeping a fish in a bathtub for a couple of days is actually a well-established Christmas tradition in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. The idea is not only that this keeps the fish fresh, but that a few days living in clean water helps to flush mud from the fish’s digestive tract. (Carp are bottom feeders.) And it’s just as common for the kids to get attached to their pet fish and mourn them when the big day arrives.

 

 

 

 

Frederick Douglass 101

Leo came home the other day with a new school project. The assignment was to pick a biography of a famous African-American figure, take notes, and put together a report.

This is the book he picked out:  

“How did you choose this book?” I asked him.

“It looks like it has a lot of action!” he said. “The guy has a gun!”

I had to agree.

But I also had to overrule.

If Leo was going to learn about one person for Black History Month this year, it was going to be Frederick Douglass. No disrespect to Reeves (the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi who is said to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger) but come on! Douglass was back in the news thanks to Trump’s strange remark implying that the abolitionist was still walking among us. Also, the book Leo had chosen was a picture book. Nice try, Leo.

Our library had several biographies appropriate for a 4th grader. But as soon as I spotted Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom by Margaret Davidson (1968), it was no contest.

And not just because the cover illustration of young Douglass has a smoldering quality, like an African-American Mr. Darcy on the BBC. The author, Margaret Davidson, wrote some of my favorite non-fiction books of my elementary school days. I still have a few of the slim paperbacks (all Scholastic titles) that I read and re-read — including Nine True Dolphin Stories, Five True Dog Stories, Five True Horse Stories (ok, the titles weren’t that creative … but such terrific stories!), and her biographies of Louis Braille, Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.

Davidson had a brilliant way of telling a true story simply, but with intense human (or —as the case may be —dolphin or dog) drama. The book gets in all the important milestones of Douglass’s life, but it never feels tedious, jargony or or in any way like “a book for school.” Davidson knew how to play up the little moments that her readers would latch onto. Leo loved the part about how little Frederick persuaded some poor white kids to teach him how to read by trading “a piece of bread spread thick with butter.” And he loved knowing how much money Frederick had to slowly save up to buy his very first book (fifty cents).

Leo read the book happily, put together his poster (see below), and I daresay he now knows a lot more about Douglass than our own prez.

Amazingly, most of my favorite Margaret Davidson books still seem to be in print. You can find them on the Scholastic website and they’re all priced at, like, $3.99 — so there’s no excuse!

Still My Favorite Baby Gift: A Teeny Tiny Baby

When friends have babies, I love to give books. I buy the same ones again and again:  Amos & BorisI am a Bunny, The Best NestWhen I Have a Little Girl , When You Were Small, Thank You, Bear, and Max Makes a Million, to name a few. The key is the book can’t be so super well-known that I have to worry that my friend already has a copy. (I was annoyed by the time I got my third copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar — bratty, I know.)  But lately, I’ve been stymied. One of my longtime favorite titles to give is out of print: A Teeny Tiny Baby by Amy Schwartz.

When it came out in 1994, I was in my 20s and years away from contemplating motherhood. My boss and his wife had just had their first baby and someone must have given them the book as a gift. When I saw it, I was charmed from the get-go. I remember looking at the illustrations of the scruffily bearded dads with babies strapped to their chests and realizing the author-illustrator had perfectly nailed that new kind of Upper West Sidey-Brooklyn parent I’d kinda sorta noticed on my way to drink cosmos or catch the new Janeane Garofalo movie.

The story is told from the perspective of an infant in Brooklyn in his first few weeks of life. He reports his experiences at the center of the household —everybody cooing and fussing over him — in the most matter-of-fact way.

The illustrations, meanwhile, give us the other side of the story. There’s his parents’ undignified struggle with the stroller down the steps to the cleaners and the big night out at a restaurant where the family is seated (with stroller) at at an outdoor table … in an alleyway … next to a trash can. It’s all very subtle and subversive about the beleaguered/besotted emotional state of new parents, which is why it makes such a good gift for new moms. Not to mention that the illustrations are totally charming, from the cosy interiors (Thonet rocker!) to the characters’ outfits (Marimekko?).

After the Teeny Tiny Baby hardcovers disappeared from Amazon, I noticed you could still find board book versions of the book. So I bought a few and gave those as gifts. But these days I can only find secondhand copies of this incredible book for sale. Heartbreaking!

I might have to buy some used copies as gifts. I know this might gross out some new moms so maybe I’ll also include a bottle of Purell.

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

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

 

New York Fashion Week meets Moomin

I spent many happy and fulfilling years working at fashion magazines but eventually, enough was enough. Just look at these utterly terrifying pictures from last night’s Harper’s Bazaar fete for Carine Roitfeld and you’ll see what I mean.

I do still like to keep up with the collections, however, and I was eager to see what my old HB colleague Thakoon had up his sleeve after taking a year off to regigger his business. I guess it’s safe to say that I’ve been away from the fashion world for quite some time, because Thakoon’s very first look, a grungy-chic layered ensemble …

thakoon-look1

immediately made me think of Mymble from Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. Not just the tightly pulled topknot, but also the voluminous silhouette and black tights.

mymble_0002

Mymble has great style, as do all the Moomin characters.  They’re a crazy, colorful bunch, each with their own distinctive look, like the best fashion world personalities.

mymble3I started thinking about fashion people who have Moomin-world doubles.

With her blunt red bob, Fillyjonk is the late, great Sonia Rykiel:

sonia-fillySonia Rykiel

Dreamy, dapper and portly, Moominpapa is Alber Elbaz:

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-1-01-33-pm

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-12-40-47-pmThe chapeau-loving vagabond, Snufkin, is John Galliano:

tumblr_nin15ovqhu1ssozm3o1_400

tumblr_o6fns4z1kp1ql1x1no2_1280

gallianoWhile Mymble’s Mother is blogger and streetstyle star Susie Bubble:

mymblemother

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Time for one last summer read? My Top 10 Kid Classics

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To my precious handful of Mrs. Little readers:

It’s been a long time, I know. I took an extended hiatus from blogging (reasons: work, kids, laziness, sloth) but I’m determined to get back on track. I’ve got some ideas cooking and I’ll be posting more regularly this fall.

In the meantime, I wanted to link to this round-up of classic kids’ books, which I put together a couple years ago for Jenny Rosenstrach’s blog, Dinner, A Love Story. It’s got my suggestions for ten classic summer reads: All-of a Kind Family, Call of the Wild, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Great Grain, The Pushcart War, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and My Life and Hard Times.  If your kids are up for one last good book before school starts, check it out here.

9780804176309By the way, the amazing Jenny has just written a new book: How to Celebrate Everything. I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet but if it’s anything like her others, it’s going to be one of my go-tos. I don’t know how I would feed my family without her.