Tag Archives: William Steig

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.

The Incredible Sulk! Spinky Sulks; Now Everybody Really Hates Me; By The Side of the Road

That’s me on the left, mad about something or other during a family vacation.

I was a stubborn child, with an impressive capacity for staying mad for long stretches of time. It’s a character trait that runs in the family. My mother is a champion grudge-holder, and my eight-year-old daughter is already proving herself a natural. So I can relate to any character who excels at keeping the pissed-off flame on long simmer. These are my three favorite books on the art of not-forgiving.

1) Spinky Sulks (1988) by William Steig


When Steig’s book opens, our grouchy protagonist, Spinky, has decided that his stupid family doesn’t love him anymore and his only recourse is to turn his back on the world. His mother, brothers and sisters and grandmother try to appease him, coaxing him with sweet words, flowers, and ice cream. But he’s unmoved. Spinky retreats to a hammock from which he refuses to budge, even through a rainstorm.


When we first got this book a few years ago, it was by far my daughter’s favorite Steig title. Spinky is unlikeable — but if you’re a sulker, you can’t help rooting for him. The emotions feel real and raw. I love these lines towards the end, when Spinky starts to cave:

He wasn’t mad anymore, but he still had his pride. After all his suffering, how could he just turn around and act lovey-dovey? That wasn’t his way.

2) Now Everybody Really Hates Me (1993) by Jane Read Martin and Patricia Marx

Turn Spinky into a girl, give him more of an imagination, launch him into the 90s, and you’ve got Patty Jane Pepper. When the crafty freckle-faced heroine is sent to her room as punishment for hitting her brother, she decides that she is never coming out. That’ll show them! 

Now Everybody Really Hates MeShe’s not only a martyr, she’s a drama queen.

Everybody Hates 2Does every kid in this situation have the same fantasies? The authors (and illustrator Roz Chast) nail them all. She will not eat! She will never clean up! She will speak a language only she can understand! She will find a cool way to sneak out of the house! She will run away from home! Patty Jane Pepper, c’est moi. I’m pretty sure I made a go of sleeping on my closet floor during one of my own childhood sulk sessions.

Everybody Hates 3The book is funnier than Spinky Sulks — and more satisfying to bootIt ends the way I remember things really ending: With my parents lovingly dragging me back to the bosom of the family, to my secret relief.

Everybody Hates spreadAs Patty Jane knows, it’s all about the body language.

3) By The Side of the Road (2002) by Jules Feiffer

Side of the Road 2

Every time I start reading this one with the kids I think, “Is it crazy for me to be reading this to my children?” Because Feiffer’s book is totally subversive of my god-given parental authority. The story starts innocently enough: A boy and his brother are squabbling in the back seat of the car when their father gets mad. The kid is given a choice: behave or get out. In a normal book, the character would suffer on the side of the highway for a few hours, learn his lesson, and give in. But in Feiffer’s insane story, the boy ends up LIVING ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE.

Side of the Road 3

Not only that, he builds an incredible underground bunker complete with internet access, becomes a hero to other kids and later marries a cute, like-minded girl who digs a tunnel next to his. The boy never even has to apologize to his father; by the end, his aged, humbled parents decide they like his way of life better and actually move in with him.

Side of the Road end

In short, the boy misbehaves, sulks, and wins through sheer stubbornness, defying both parental authority and societal norms. How has this incredible book not been banned?

Is It Just Me???

Every time I get to this scene in William Steig’s The Amazing Bone — for my money, it’s the most disturbing moment in the book, even worse than when the villanous fox appears —

Amazing Bone I always think of the bizarre series of paintings (by Mexican artist Miguel Calderón) hanging on Eli Cash’s walls in The Royal Tennenbaums. I can’t help it — it’s as if William Steig and Wes Anderson are speaking to one another.

Royal_Tenenbaums_MiguelIs it just me? Another illo from The Amazing Bone:

The Amazing Bone And Owen Wilson chilling in front of Calderon’s Bad Route, which I remember made me burst out laughing in the theater.

Royal_Tenenbaums_Miguel2 To be fair, Kurt Andersen did an interview with Wes and Miguel on his radio show where they discussed the paintings in the film and nobody mentioned any talking bones. But still.


The List: Maira Kalman’s Favorite Children’s Books

The book that singlehandedly reignited my interest in kids’ books long after I had lost all my baby teeth was Maira Kalman’s Max Makes a Million, about a New York City dog who dreams of moving to Paris to become a poet.  I wasn’t exactly the book’s target audience when my mom bought it for me (I was in college) but no matter. I loved everything about it, from the illustrations reminiscent of Marc Chagall to the urbane vision of a Manhattan populated by artists who paint invisible paintings and architects who design upside down houses. I’ve since interviewed Maira a few times (here’s my story for W magazine) and she recently sat down with me to kick off a new feature where I’ll be asking authors and illustrators to name the kids’ books that have meant the most to them.

So herewith …

Maira Kalman’s Favorite Children’s Books 

1) Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne

“I loved reading it to my kids when they were little. It’s beautifully written, philosophical, and funny.”

2) Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

“Probably the greatest children’s book ever written, and also a complicated book about mathematics, language and logic. Did the kids like it when I read it to them? I don’t know. It was more like, “You go to sleep, I’ll read Alice in Wonderland.

3) William Steig’s books

“So lyrical and almost Proustian. The Amazing Bone is probably the one I read the most often. The only Steig books I really wasn’t a big fan of were Rotten Island and Shrek.”

4)  Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

“It was such an amazing experience for me to read about this heroic, intrepid girl who wasn’t afraid of anything.”

5) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

“Growing up in the Bronx, I was astonished that people lived in this kind of splendor. Ever since then I have adored British castles and gardens.”

6) The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

“I didn’t read it growing up. But as with all my favorite children’s books it’s very funny, with a certain sophistication.”

7) The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Marc Simont

“A fantastic book from the 1960s that follows musicians through the process of getting ready for a performance. It has such a sense of both groundedness and giddiness.”

8) Eloise by Kay Thompson

“So terrifically funny, and, you know, there’s no punctuation in the book. It runs on like the madcap chatter in a British comedy! Also, I love the use of language.  Sometimes the vocabulary is a reach, of course, but I think children can appreciate the music in words.”

9) Ludwig Bemelmans’ books

“Ludwig Bemelmans has been a personal inspiration for almost everything in my life. His books, especially the Madeline books, not only inspired my style, but my attitude towards life. Reading about him helped me realize, “Ah! You can write and you can paint, you can do work for adults and for children. You can travel, you can be a bon vivant — which I’m not — and, even in the midst of tragedy, you can have this great joy in life.”

Max Stavinsky

Max Makes a Million by Maira Kalman

P.S. The American history-loving Maira says she is currently finishing up a book about Thomas Jefferson, which will be published later this year. And she’s working on two more books, both tied to an exhibit she’s guest curating for the Cooper-Hewitt (“Maira Kalman Selects”) when it reopens in 2014. One will be an alphabet book for children about design, and the other will be a book for adults on design.