children’s books written and illustrated by Maira Kalman and produced by her husband, the influential designer Tibor Kalman, who died in 1999
Though they have sold well and delighted many, the children’s books written and illustrated by Maira Kalman and produced by her husband, the influential designer Tibor Kalman, who died in 1999, have been criticized over the years. Irked reviewers and baffled kids have found them too hip and worldly-wise for humans too young to grasp a reference to, say, Swifty Lazar. In her new book, “The Principles of Uncertainty,” based on her illustrated blog for The New York Times, Kalman has explicitly concocted what her critics have always accused her of secretly wanting to create: a children’s book for adults.
Children’s books are governed by the logic of dreams, set in a land where the wild things are and where you say good night to the moon. Which ultimately is not so fantastical — it is where many of us will end up. In this book, Kalman offers a painting, for instance, of her father’s best friend at the nursing home where he spent his last days (sweeter than ever before, addled with Alzheimer’s): “His best friend there looked like Humpty Dumpty, carried a lunchbox and listened to Brahms,” Kalman writes in her wild scrawl alongside the illustration. “My father saw invisible people. A woman there thought that leaves were her eyeglasses.” At the end of our lives, as at the beginning, the images and confusion of the dreamworld linger in our waking hours. Kalman paints and writes like someone who has never lost touch with this other kind of consciousness.
Her depictions here of radiant fruit bowls, pink bedrooms and people in flamboyant hats make the case that our consolations for loss, bewilderment and impending death are beauty, humor and surprise. And Kalman can be very witty, particularly in the face of the grim and the unsolvable. With Rick Meyerowitz, she made the first joke that was funny after 9/11: a New Yorker cover called “New Yorkistan,” where they redrew the map of the city with daffy, apt, Afghan-sounding neighborhoods like “Lesbikhs,” “Khandibar” and “Kvetchnya.” In “The Principles of Uncertainty,” she illustrates a trip she took with her sister to their native Israel in 2006, during the “short, furious, the world-is-doomed war” with Lebanon. A man on the street cleans fallen cherries off his car and accidentally flicks one at Kalman, ruining her white shirt and her mood. “Is there room for pettiness during a war?” She asks. “Are you kidding?” But the accompanying painting of a Bauhaus building rendered in ice cream pastels suggests neither war nor exasperation so much as pleasure.
Kalman sees — and frequently succeeds in making her reader see — heaven in a honey cake, an ocean of emotion in an abandoned chair. Objects have a secret, magic life for her. They are not inanimate things but receptacles: “tangible evidence of history, memory. Longing, delight.” Relics of our lives that will probably outlive us. There’s a fine line between celebrating loveliness and commodity fetishism, but Kalman’s tastes are eclectic — she is as entranced by old sponges as by the tassels on Parisian drapes.
All this whimsy rings a bit Hallmark-ian at times. “If you are ever bored or blue, stand on the street corner for half an hour,” Kalman advises. She is drawn to treats and makes many things look like dessert. There were moments when all the sweets in this book did what too much sugar will: gave me a toothache and made me peevish. But then no one is saying you have to eat this whole bag of jellybeans in one sitting. Consume one here, one there, bypass the sicky-sweet ones, and the pages of this book add up to the kind of thing Kalman likes so much to paint: an odd treasure.
Ariel Levy is a contributing editor at New York magazine.