Hey Willy, See the Pyramids by Maira Kalman
Illustrated by Maira Kalman
There are images that recur. Identical twins, chickens, pompadours, fezes, pointed shoes, big hairdos, cloche hats, Bertoia wire chairs, black and white cross-lined suits that look like Bertoia chairs. There are recurring characters. Pete the dog, Max the beat poet, Aunt Rose, Maishel Shmelkin, Lulu, Alexander. They may resurface in consecutive books or there may be a lapse of decades. Many of the characters derive from life. Take Lulu and Alexander. They are Maira Kalman’s children, once young, later grown. There is a highly personal narrative that runs as a linking thread throughout.
The books began in 1985 with Staying Up Late, a collaboration with David Byrne. The lyrics of the Talking Heads song form the text, and the best way to read this book is to listen to the song while turning the pages. A dozen children’s books followed, half with Max or Pete as dog protagonists. They are variously set in Japan, Paris, Hollywood, and India but the home city is clearly New York. Witness Next Stop Grand Central or Roarr, Calder’s Circus (which can be seen, the circus that is, at the Whitney Museum). The most moving is Kalman’s tribute to the twin towers tragedy, Fireboat: the Heroic Adventure of the John J. Harvey, which tells about a 1931 fireboat, once destined for the scrap yard, that came back into service when the World Trade Center burned.
Then there is the work intended for adults. A monthly blog for the New York Times that loosely explored the big philosophical questions (the meaning of life, the inevitability of death) was published as a chapbook, The Principles of Uncertainty. A chance garage sale encounter with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style resulted in an exquisitely illustrated edition that would inspire anyone to address those nagging grammatical questions for which it turns out there are beautifully written answers.
Hey Willy, See the Pyramids begins with a black page. Lulu and Alexander have a whispered conversation in the dark, and Lulu agrees to tell bedtime stories. The stories, some no more than a single sentence, have a dreamlike surreal poetic quality that make them perfect foils for Maira Kalman’s quirky faux-naif visual aesthetic. Pages may be filled with a kaleidoscope of figures and objects, some floating, some upside down, some relating to the story, some not. There is a zany humor tinged with angst, as befits the descendent of Russian Jews who fled pogroms for Palestine and then New York. In Hey Willy, Maishel Shmelkin appears at Aunt Ida’s party wearing red and white polka-dotted boxing shorts, having neglected his pants. What of the real Maishel Shmelkin, the genius of Kalman’s ancestral village, who forgot to wear his pants one day when he went for a walk? Of what, we wonder, was he thinking?
Aside: Max, the bohemian poet-dog, subsequently starred in four other books, but he made his poetic debut in Hey Willy, See the Pyramids.
“Dig that boy
with the box
on his head.
Is he buying bread?
Is his name Fred?
And that tall noodle woman
with the polka-dot shoes –
have you ever seen
a nose so red?”