Maira Kalman didn’t start out to be a world-famous illustrator, author and artist. Before she created a popular series of children’s books she was, as she puts it, a dreamer and a writer of poetry. Only in college did she start to draw.
Her first children’s book “Stay Up Late,” written in 1985, was a work based on the popular song by the pop group Talking Heads. She wrote it just after the birth of her second child.
Over the next 30 years, she became a brilliant illustrator and the author of 18 popular books for children.
This summer, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art is celebrating this artist and writer, whose Jewish parents came to America from Israel when Maira was only 4. Until Sept. 15, the High is presenting “The Pursuit of Everything: Maira Kalman’s Books for Children.”
While the books have a quirkiness and a simplicity of style and language that is appropriate for younger readers, Kalman makes a point of never talking down to children. She makes no compromises with herself when she writes and illustrates her books for her young audience.
“I don’t think differently for children than I think for adults. I try to use the same kind of imagination, the same kind of whimsy, the same kind of love of language.”
Her children’s book “Max Makes a Million,” is about a dog and a poet named Max Stravinsky, who lives out his dreams in New York while coming up with a continuous stream of new ideas. Kalman, who says she has daydreamed throughout her life, writes in the book about Max’s life of spontaneous creativity.
“I want to say that wonderful ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes you make a mistake or break something, or lose a hat, and the next thing you know, you get a great idea. My idea was to eat.”
Eventually Max sells a book for a fortune and goes off to live his ultimate dream, as a poet in Paris. In another of the Max series, “Ooh-la-la (Max in Love),” his glamorous life in Paris leads him to a new love, a dog called Crepes Suzette.
When asked about who inspired Max, Kalman is candid.
“Max is based on me. A hapless wanderer trying to make sense of an absurd world. Sometimes loving things. Sometimes inconsolable.”
In all her books for children or adults she believes in complex plots. Things just happen, just as she says they do in her own life.
“My life is too random and too confused, and I enjoy it that way.”
Whether through conscious planning or not, during her 40-year career Kalman has enjoyed great success. In addition to her children’s books she has written and illustrated more than a dozen books for adults, including an illustrated version of William Strunk’s instructional classic on good writing, “The Elements of Style.” She also wrote the lyrics to a nine-song concert at the New York Public Library in conjunction with the publication of her drawings.
Her art has also been on a number of covers for The New Yorker magazine, including classics like the one entitled “New Yorkistan,” published in December of 2001. The imaginary map of New York features neighborhoods like Kvetchnya, Taxistan, Khandibar, Khouks, and Youdontunderstandistan. Reprints are a popular seller on the internet.
She has written a series of illustrated columns for The New York Times, ran a pop-up art shop, created an exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and played the role of a duck in “Peter and the Wolf,” created by designer Isaac Mizrahi for the Guggenheim Museum.
Her latest books, both published last year, are “Bold & Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote,” co-authored by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and “Cake,” an illustrated cookbook written with food writer Barbara Scott-Goodman.
And as if all of this is not enough variety, the Alliance Theatre has adapted her book “Max Makes A Million” for an original production that runs on the Hertz Stage of the Alliance through July 21.
“The Pursuit of Everything: Maira Kalman’s Books for Children” was organized by The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, Mass., where the exhibit will be shown after the Atlanta run. An exhibit of her art is also at the Fay Gold Gallery in Atlanta.
For tickets and more information: “The Pursuit of Everything: Maira Kalman’s Books for Children” is running through Sept 15 at the High Museum of Art, https://high.org/exhibition/the-pursuit-of-everything-maira-kalmans-books-for-children.
“Max Makes A Million” is running through July 21 on the Hertz Stage of Alliance Theatre, https://alliancetheatre.org/production/2019-20/max-makes-a-million.