In Praise of Maira Kalman

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I loved Maira Kalman’s work before seeing her new picture book biography, Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, but now….there are no words.  Kalman is becoming the author I turn to in a “life coach” kind of way. Her books and pictures make me feel optimistic.

Her 2007 book, The Principles of Uncertainty, is hard to describe, but it’s one of those books that feels vitally important. It could be described as a philosophical art book. Or an inspiring travel book. I’m just relieved it’s not a children’s book because I would have no idea where to shelve it in a library!

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Another favorite Kalman book is And The Pursuit of Happiness, her visual tour of democracy. This book began as a New York Times blog – and the posts were collected into one volume. There are pieces on Abraham Lincoln, town meetings, George Washington, and life in America. Her bright and cheerful pictures acknowledge that democracy can be messy, but they also make you grateful to be a part of it.

The title of her new book about Thomas Jefferson made my heart jump: “the Pursuit of Everything.”  That’s what I’ve always loved most about visiting Monticello – being surrounded by the spirit and belongings of a person who wanted to know about everything. Kalman’s book captures Jefferson’s urgent and joyful mission to understand and learn. Music, science, gardening, architecture, and books. Jefferson started the Library of Congress!  And he uttered those famous words now printed on coffee mugs and tote bags: “I cannot live without books.”

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness portrays a complicated man. A person interested in everything, but full of contradictions. Kalman writes: “And while they ate the delicious figs, they would pass the slave quarters on Mulberry Row. The man who said of slavery “This abomination must end” was the owner of about 150 slaves. The slaves lived in cramped rooms with few possessions. What did they do? Everything.”  As a reader, you feel like Kalman has called you over to tell you this incredibly inspiring story and then stops and says: Wait. There is this other thing you need to know about Thomas Jefferson.

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My favorite page is the one about Jefferson’s bed. I remember seeing it on my first trip to Monticello and thinking it was the coolest thing in the house. It opens to two different rooms. He could get out on one side and be near his desk and books. Or….on the other side and head outdoors. Every page of Kalman’s book is filled with these sparkling little bits of knowledge and inspiration. It left me wondering how soon I can get back to Monticello.

She has written and illustrated other books. In fact, over the holidays I read Daniel Handler’s young adult novel, Why We Broke Up, largely because of Kalman’s illustrations. Handler’s novel is a romance, actually it’s about the end of one. Written as a letter by a girl (Min) who is breaking up with a boy (Ed), it’s the story of their romance through objects – all of which Min is returning to Ed now that they are breaking up. Handler’s writing is so pitch perfect that you can feel Min’s sadness. Handler and Kalman are the perfect artistic match – and they have a new book coming out in May – Girls Standing on Lawns.

In the meantime, look for Kalman’s book about Thomas Jefferson and be dazzled.

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