When I was a kid, my dad–a doctor–worked insane hours, as doctors are wont to do. When he was home, our time together primarily consisted of his reading to me and my little sister. He was extremely picky about his selections. Typically, he’d research what he could in The New York Times Book Review when they did a children’s book round-up, gravitating toward the latest Newbery Medal winner. (I’m thinking back to tearjerkers like What Hearts and Missing May.) But when we were pressured for time, he’d always revert back to a Maira Kalman book. We were all captivated by the tales of Max the Dog (a poet from New York City!), who went on a soul-searching journey to India, fell in love with a poodle in Paris, and tried to make it big in Hollywood. Combined with Kalman’s luscious and spell-binding paintings, the books in the Max series were my favorites–and among the most prized in my book collection today.
Not only is Kalman a terrific children’s author, but a brilliant artist, too. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that she’s been writing (and illustrating) books for more of a distinct adult audience. She recently illustrated Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, put out an illustrated version of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (never before has grammar been so appealing!), and wrote about her love for Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in And the Pursuit of Happiness.
So imagine my surprise and joy to learn that Kalman’s latest illustrations accompany Daniel Handler’s YA novel, Why We Broke Up. Handler–author of the insanely popular Lemony Snicket series–poignantly dives into sixteen-year-old Min Green’s head. The novel is composed of Min’s detailed letter to her jock (now ex-) boyfriend Ed Slaterton, listing all the many reasons why they unfortunately broke up. The letter is paired with a box of personal mementos from the relationship, and it is these objects that Kalman so beautifully paints, accompanying Min’s sad, relatable tale.
I’m a sucker for YA, and I’m even more of a sucker for love stories gone awry. Handler (who I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read before, despite my being a huge fan of The Magnetic Fields) perfectly nails the valley-girl lilt of a teenage girl who is not only obsessed with her love, but obsessed with her heartbreak. Teenagers are angry, and bored, and annoyed, and frustrated. And Handler gets all that through Min’s remembered conversations and saved detritus from past dates. (Who among us hasn’t saved an old ticket stub or phone number scrawled out on a napkin?) I’ll admit, when I first received this book (perhaps my favorite of holiday presents), I wasn’t aware it was a legit YA novel. My initial attraction was Kalman herself. But with the combination of Kalman’s artwork and Handler’s story, this book of nostalgia is perfect for any audience, young or old.
– Megan Fishmann, Publicist