Kalman, born in Tel Aviv in 1949, was 4 when her family moved to New York, specifically the Bronx. She has written and illustrated 18 children’s books, including Ooh-la-la (Max in Love); What Pete Ate; Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey; a collaboration with Lemony Snicket titled 13 Words; and Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything.
She’s a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and is known for her collaboration with Rick Meyerowitz on the “New Yorkistan” cover in 2001 and for illustrating Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. She’s now creating an illustrated column for The New Yorker based on her travels to museums and libraries.
Kalman, who describes herself as a dreamer, began as a poet, eventually deciding she was terrible but still wanting to tell narrative stories and her story. “I decided that I would start to draw,” she said in a 2007 TED talk. “How hard could that be?
“I’m able to make the transition from working for adults to children and back and forth because I can say I’m immature, and in a way that’s true,” she said. “Good things come out of incomprehension.”
Kalman’s work has been exhibited in New York at the Julie Saul Gallery and the Jewish Museum, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville (now called the Frist Art Museum).
She published her first children’s book, Stay Up Late, in 1985, illustrating the lyrics of musician David Byrne. Since 1999, she’s written many more, including a series about a beat poet dog named Max Stravinsky.
The High exhibition, titled The Pursuit of Everything: Maira Kalman’s Books for Children (June 22—September 15), surveys three decades of her work and includes art from several newer publications — Bold & Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote (2018), written by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and the illustrated cookbook Cake (2018), a collaboration with food writer Barbara Scott-Goodman.
The exhibition is the High’s fourth collaboration with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. As with the others, it’s presented in conjunction with a family-friendly show at the Alliance Theatre. The world premiere of Max Makes a Million (Hertz Stage, June 20–July 21) uses poetry, dance, jazz and visual art to follow the poet dog Max as he tries to reach Paris.
Maira Kalman: My Favorite Things opens this Friday, June 21, at Fay Gold Gallery in the Castleberry Hill district near downtown. It features gouache paintings and prints, which are for sale, and continues through July 12.
“I don’t think differently for children than I do for adults,” Kalman said in her TED talk. “I try to use the same kind of imagination, the same kind of whimsy, the same kind of love of language.”