Maira Kalman, DARLING BABY

Maira Kalman, DARLING BABY

“It’s so liberating to write for children that I’m in heaven and don’t think I’ll ever stop.” Zibby is joined by the iconic illustrator Maira Kalman to discuss her latest picture book, Darling Baby. Maira shares how she started keeping a diary soon after her first grandchild was born and decided to add drawings to the notes she took. Maira also tells Zibby about her incredible life and family history, and why all of her stories center around fascinating women.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Maira. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Darling Baby and all your other work.

Maira Kalman: Thank you. Great to be here.

Zibby: Congratulations. I understand this book is inspired by your new grandchild.

Maira: Yes. At this point, she’s not that new. There’s a second one, but it was definitely inspired when she was born. I entered into the whole world of being a grandmother.

Zibby: What is that like?

Maira: That’s sublime. Of course, the cliché is, all of the love without any of the responsibility. It’s extraordinarily clear and pure, with human complications of life, but it’s an incredible gift and makes your heart sing.

Zibby: Aw, that’s amazing. My mother started talking about being a grandmother when I was eighteen. I’m like, give me a little time, please.

Maira: I won’t ask you how long she had to wait.

Zibby: I had kids when I was thirty, so not too long.

Maira: Not bad.

Zibby: Not too bad. Your career has been amazing. I think the kids and I have read almost every book of yours. I interviewed Kirsten Gillibrand about Bold & Brave, which you illustrated. What Pete Ate From A to Z, Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, which by the way, was also on the kids’ reading lists, as was Looking at Lincoln, all these books, Max Makes a Million, Swami on Rye, Next Stop Grand Central, it’s amazing. Those are just the kids’ books. How did you get started in doing all of this? What do you love about it? What is most exciting to you about what you do?

Maira: I thought I was going to be a writer as a child and as a teenager. Then my writing became so angst-ridden. I thought, I better do something else, but I knew I wanted to tell my story. I thought, I’m going to do drawings. I started with that level of, I’m just going to draw and tell a narrative relating to literature. I did that for about ten or fifteen years. Then I had children. I thought, okay, this mayhem is very inspiring, having children running around the house. It allowed me to go back to what I wanted to do, which was to write and then to incorporate painting. I can use both sides of my brain. It’s so liberating to write for children that I’m in heaven and don’t think I’ll ever stop.

Zibby: We also, by the way, loved your book Cake, as giant cake fans. Actually, my husband gave that to my son. That’s his special little book. We’re big fans. Sorry, now I’m just repeating myself.

Maira: That’s lovely to hear. Thank you. You couldn’t say it enough.

Zibby: Basically, telling stories through pictures, that is a form of writing. It is a form of telling the story and getting the message out, as you said. Where does that compulsion come from, the desire to tell a story, entertain someone else, get it on paper? Tell me about that.

Maira: If I had to be psychological about it, I would say that it’s the desire to be realized as a human being and not be invisible. I think that at an early age, whatever the forces were at work in my DNA, in my family, I wanted to be present through expressing myself that way. There was no question for me that that was my life. It wasn’t searching and wondering. It was, I know I’m going to do this. I just don’t know how it’s actually going to be realized. The incorporating humor and writing and painting, I thought, this is a very, very good job to think about. It hasn’t left. It sustains you in a way that’s very real. Of course, to find your work is the most nourishing thing you could possibly do besides having a family that you love. The work is sometimes more consistent than the family. You know what I mean. Your brain is producing something. The answer is, who knows why?

Zibby: What was your family like growing up? Where did you grow up?

Maira: I was born in Tel Aviv. We moved here when I was four. There was a very large family. As I’ve written in the book about my mother, Sara Berman’s Closet, the women really were the center of the story in many, many ways. The men were okay, but they were peripheral. I say the men were fine, but the women were wonderous. They told stories and communicated with each other and baked cakes and did the laundry and took care of everybody, basically. That’s the legacy that I come from, a lot of ironing and starching, starching and ironing, which I still do, and that sense that the daily life of a human being can be the most interesting and the most important. You don’t have to go anywhere else. This life that you’re living is incorporated into your work. I never wanted to see a distinction between work and life. It’s all mixed into the batter, to extend the metaphor. I grew up in the Bronx and then in New York City. I always say if you want to come to New York, come in the 1950s. I have to look at my — I don’t have to. I do look at my life and say, what a great thing. I’ve been really lucky.

Zibby: That’s amazing. As you can tell by the sirens, I am also in New York right now. Maybe you couldn’t tell.

Maira: I don’t hear them, though I hear my own sirens every five minutes.

Zibby: When you start a project like Darling Baby, what do you start with? Do you start with one illustration and go from there? Do you start with the idea? When do you start the actual artistry behind it versus the words? What’s your process like when you’re creating?

Maira: Every book is different, but every book is basically the same. It’s born out of something that I love. It’s something that I’m talking about in my life. I’m not trying to artificially find an idea. It kind of bubbles up from daily conversation. Darling Baby grew out of being with my granddaughter at the beach when she was five months old. I kept a diary of what happened to me, what happened to us. It was with drawings and writing. It was all there. This book is very, very close to the diary that I had and that I kept, just a little bit more elaborate, more painting. It was a love letter to her, of course, to my granddaughter Olive. It was a love letter to just being alive.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. That’s so amazing. Do you paint there where you are now in your home? Do you go somewhere to paint? How do you get that done?

Maira: All the children’s books, there are drafts of writing and sketching. I have a separate studio that I go to. When the kids were little, it became clear that if I didn’t have a separate studio, things would end badly. They know “room-of-one zone,” as we always say. That’s where I work. I wake up very early. I hate working at night. I finish working by about six o’clock, that sense of, oh, okay, a lot of work has been done. A lot of work can be from the morning until the evening. That’s interesting. I lead a very quiet existence, and certainly with COVID. I used to travel a lot more. Of course, these years, none. It’s also been interesting to me that taking a walk around the block is exhilarating. You could say that sounds idiotic because exhilarating is going to Paris. Okay, I won’t make that comparison. That would really be ridiculous, but on one level, it’s kind of true because you just don’t know who you’re going to see. It’s all this fantastic serendipity and surprise. I’m a big fan of very little. I mean, I’m a big fan of little things.

Zibby: That’s funny. Sometimes the littlest moments are the things that inspire the biggest stuff. It’s one second or one funny thing your child says that’s enough to write a whole essay about. It’s that glimmer of the shimmer around it that makes you want to snatch it and smack it down on paper.

Maira: Very true.

Zibby: What projects are you working on now? What’s coming next for you?

Maira: Now I’m working on a few books for adults. I did a little pamphlet with my son that we self-published to raise money for good causes. That little pamphlet was called Women Holding Things, a little booklet, which is now becoming a book for adults. That’ll be published with Harper assuming the supply chain issues are resolved, hopefully in a year. That’s about women holding things both literally and metaphorically from a cabbage or a violin or balloons to holding a grudge or holding onto your dreams or holding your family together. It allows me to go back and forth between the very mundane. Oh, look at that incredible woman walking through the park holding balloons, to thinking about my grandmother not being allowed to marry the man that she really loved and what she held through her whole life. So kind of a memoir. I don’t know. Then a few other projects that I’m working on, some embroidery, some product development things.

Zibby: Why couldn’t your grandmother marry the man she loved?

Maira: She was an orphan. The man she fell in love with was considered the prince of the family. This is in Belarus. She was allowed to marry his brother. They said, you know what, can’t get this one, but here’s the consolation prize, that one. That one was my grandfather, who was a wonderful man but who somehow — maybe her heart was broken at the time. I don’t know. Of course, those are things that, certainly, they wouldn’t have discussed with children. This is the story that filtered through the family from this aunt and that cousin. She always looked beleaguered and terribly sad. I sometimes do too, as does everybody. That’s part of the story of what happened to my grandmother, a little bit.

Zibby: That must have been crazy. Every family event, and then there’s the man she really wanted to marry right there.

Maira: The man she really wanted to marry was a cunning businessman who employed his brother. You’ll know more about my family than anybody does. The brother became a huge success. The man she married just wanted to pray and eat potatoes and be left alone, very, very simple. The man she married was a wonderful man. The man she didn’t marry was not a wonderful man, but go tell somebody what they should or shouldn’t love.

Zibby: Wow, that is so interesting. There’s a novel for you right there in your spare time.

Maira: There are so many stories to tell, so I condensed this into one page within the book. I talk about my mother and how she wasn’t happy with her husband, who was my father. The thing about women holding things is the sense of, what do you hold all your life, what responsibilities and obligations and sorrows, as we all do? I always say women are very exhausted all the time because of all the things that you have to hold. Anyway, that’s the book.

Zibby: Wait, so now I’m curious. When you got married, what kind of man did you find?

Maira: I married a stupendously amazing, fabulous man. We met when we were in summer flunk-out class at NYU when we were nineteen. We fell in love immediately and were together for — this is the sixties, so there was a little bit of breaking up and experimenting. We ended up being together for thirty years. He died at the age of forty-nine. It was an insane fate, but we had the most fantastic relationship, a great friendship. Probably, what I learned — maybe it’s a conscious thing. Who knows? I wanted to be with somebody who was my deep and true friend. Somehow, luck guided me to almost flunk out of NYU. We always say out of bad comes good. There I was in this terrible — actually, all the people in that class were so interesting and such crazy, out of the loop of everything that I thought, this is a fantastic group of people. His name was Tibor. He was Hungarian. He also had come to America when he was seven during the revolution. It was a very good marriage.

Zibby: I’m really sorry to hear he passed away, but how wonderful that you got that time.

Maira: We had a lot of time together. It was deeply nourishing, as we say.

Zibby: You’ve had the most interesting life. I feel like it’s just scratching the surface.

Maira: That’s it. There’s nothing else. I make a good plum cake. That’s about it.

Zibby: Crumb cake or plum cake?

Maira: Plum. The one that’s in the Cake book is the New York Times Plum Torte, which is the most popular and most requested New York Times recipes, I’m told or I’ve read. I’ve been making that a mile a minute during this plum season, which is now ending.

Zibby: Of course, I knew that from the book, and I forgot. My husband’s family, his grandmother made a crumb cake that they started a whole business around called Nene’s Treats. My sister-in-law now still runs the company and found a factory to reproduce her famous crumb cake. It’s really yummy.

Maira: Do they sell them in the city?

Zibby: You can order them on Goldbelly. They ship everywhere nationwide. They’re really yummy, Nene’s Treats.

Maira: Nene’s Treats, okay.

Zibby: I’ll send you one. I’ll get your address. I’ll send you a Nene’s Treat.

Maira: I love that idea.

Zibby: I will do it. They’re delicious. Last question, do you have any advice for aspiring authors/illustrators/grandparents, anything you want?

Maira: Don’t do it. No. My only advice is, do what you love. There’s nothing else to say. Either it will work out or it won’t work out. I think that the perseverance of what you need to do — what you really need to do is the issue, so do what you need to do. That’s all there is.

Zibby: Love it. Amazing. Maira, it was so nice getting to know you. Thank you for your time and for all of the illustrations and books that have pervaded my household for a very long time. Thank you for all of it.

Maira: Thank you. Lovely to speak to you.

Zibby: You too. Take care. Buh-bye.

Maira: Take care. Bye-bye.

Maira Kalman, DARLING BABY

DARLING BABY by Maira Kalman

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