January 2014 | Barbara Basbanes Richter

Great Americans


 "Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything," by Maira Kalman; Nancy Paulson Press, $17.99, 40 pages, ages 5-8. 

Thomas Jefferson was a study in contradictions.  He believed in freedom for all, yet owned 150 slaves.  He built a gorgeous home at Monticello, enjoyed sumptuous foods, yet at his death, had gone bankrupt from financing his lifestyle.    In Maira Kalman's latest ode to a great American, she illustrates the complexity and brilliance of our third president in her own inimitable style, intertwining whimsical gouache paintings with flowing, handwritten text. 

I had the pleasure of speaking with Kalman earlier this week.  She discussed her approach to projects and how she writes for children.  This is the first of two articles about her. 

Thomas Jefferson grew out of an online column Kalman wrote in 2009 for The New York Times.  "It's been part of my life for the past 5 years - going to Monticello and working with the curator there, Susan Stein," explained Kalman.  "I didn't know anything about Jefferson, and so I was easily surprised."  Jefferson possessed an extraordinary desire to learn. Yet, as Kalman concluded, "Coupled with his lifestyle, he was a great study in contradictions.  He was a human being who relentlessly explored everything." 

 Kalman's bibliography includes such works as Last Stop, Grand Central; Looking at Lincoln, and Fireboat. In each she is able to explore some difficult topics, yet maintains a certain lightheartedness that makes her work accessible to children.   For example, in Fireboat, Kalman describes the heroic efforts undertaken on 9/11 by the fireboat John J. Harvey.  The boat, built in 1931, was reactivated to pump water when the city's water mains stopped working and pumped water for 80 hours, until the mains were restored.  

Initially, Kalman didn't want to write Fireboat, but friend and boat co-owner Florent Morellet pressed her to write it.   "A month after the attacks, he approached me, but I flatly refused - I deal in humor, I told him.  Florent believed that it would be an important book, and that I could do it.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could frame it as a love letter to New York and to the resiliency of the human spirit."  


In all of her books, Kalman knows exactly how to capture children's attention.  She is adamant that children can handle any subject - slavery, love, even death - as long as it's done the right way.  "There's always a way to talk to children as long as you are candid and kind," Kalman said.  "You don't have to scare them beyond their understanding or above their age level.  But it's absolutely possible to talk about anything with children.  Because they do understand contradictions, and they do understand sadness and they do understand kindness. There isn't a child in the world who doesn't."

Next time we talk dogs, deadlines and drawing inspiration.