8 Questions For: David Sedaris

December 1st, 2011 · 22 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

For a bunch of years when I worked in magazines, I was lucky enough to have the chance to work with David Sedaris. For an editor, this was like being a baseball-loving kid and having had the chance to be the bat boy for Lou Gehrig. (Or maybe that’s not the best example here, but you get the idea. It was, as Abby would say, a priv-uh-lege.) Anyway, those years were some of the best and most fun I ever had, professionally — and personally, too, as David proved as kind and generous a person as he was talented as a writer. A few months ago, we had him over for some dinner (we made a version of our yogurt-marinated chicken) and he arrived with gifts for the kids: bottle-shaped candles, magnets that looked like leaves, chocolates, Japanese note cards, and two books: Strange Stories for Strange Kids and It Was a Dark and Stormy Night. They’re two parts of a remarkable three-part series, called Little Lit, which was edited by the great Art Spiegelman (of Maus fame) and his equally talented wife, Francoise Mouly. As much as the kids (more…)

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Kid Book Picks from Pseudonymous Bosch

July 27th, 2011 · 9 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized


“Ask me a question.”

Every Saturday afternoon, I go for a long run, and Phoebe bikes alongside me, and this is what she says to me the minute we hit the trail. “Ask me a question.” Which is really her way of saying: Ask me a question about a book I am currently reading, and I will summarize the plot for you while you run, which will distract you from the agony of exercising. Some of these summaries are quick, easily dispatched. Family lives on prairie, endures terrible storms, long winters, and much suffering, but survives. Girl deals with embarrassing dental issues, gets braces, endures much teasing, but survives. Handsome man has superpowers, saves world. The past few weekends, though, things have gotten a little more involved. “Tell me about this Pseudonymous Bosch guy,” I say to Phoebe, as we set out. “What are those books about, exactly?” Phoebe pedals for a bit, thinking. “Hmmmm,” she says. “That’s hard.” “Try,” I say. “Well,” she says, “they’re basically about the five senses: smell, sight, feel, hearing, and taste. There’s a lot of chocolate in the third book. And there’s this group of evil guys called the Midnight Sun, who are trying to figure out The Secret, which I think is about immortality. The main characters are named Cass and Max-Ernest and… it’s hard to explain.” She’s often still explaining when we stop, forty-five minutes later.

I first encountered the Pseudonymous Bosch books two and a half years ago, on one of those gray winter days when the town library is closed and you’re sitting in your house, dying of claustrophobia and getting on each other’s nerves and it’s too cold to do anything outside, so you end up — jail break! — camping out in the kids’ section at Barnes and Noble, trying to avoid spending money on Care Bear sticker books. The kids wandered off, and I did, too. I found a book and picked it up based entirely on the title (The Name of This Book is Secret) and the beauty of its cover. God, was this a nice looking, well thought-out, creative book. I flipped to the back flap, to see who was behind it: based on the author bio alone, I wanted to have it. Then I opened it up, and here’s what I saw on the third page:


Okay, now I REALLY wanted this book. Or, better, I couldn’t wait until our kids were old enough to read a book this weird and fun. Two and half years later, we find ourselves in the summer of Pseudonymous Bosch. Phoebe is obsessed. (Jenny and I wish she’d be a little less obsessed, to be honest, as it feels like we never see her anymore.) She’s knocked off all four since school ended, and is awaiting the fifth, You Have to Stop This. (Memo to P. Bosch fom Phoebe: Hurry the heck up already!) Unfortunately, that next installment is going to be a little bit later than it otherwise might have been, as Pseudonymous himself was kind enough to take precious writing time to contribute the next installment of our Summer Reading Series, a roundup of his favorite mysteries for kids. To be a nine year old again…

As my readers well know, I am a secretive author, desperately afraid not just of the public spotlight but even the smallest penlight. (It’s the batteries—I have trouble replacing them in my remote location.) Nonetheless, I occasionally find myself making appearances at glamorous venues such as elementary school cafeterias and the backs of chain bookstores, most of which seem to close permanently a few days later. Why a phobic character such as myself should choose to expose himself like that is a question best left to my psychiatrist. (I mean, my publicist). I have, however, learned to come armed with certain provisions to protect myself against the prying public. They are, in no particular order: large scratch-proof sunglasses, emergency chocolate rations, a discrete handheld sound-effects machine (sirens, gunfire, broken glass, farts, etc.), and book recommendations.

Why book recommendations? Because What books do you recommend? is almost always the one hundredth question I get (the first ninety-nine being What is your real name?). Because my books are meant to be mysteries, I usually recommend mystery books. And because my audience is meant to be younger, I usually recommend adult mysteries. I figure somebody else has already recommended The Hardy Boys or Harriet the Spy, so instead I mention Edgar Allan Poe or Dashiell Hammet or Dorothy Sayers (the latter author being a particular favorite of mine when I was a kid). But I fear that you—the reader of this blog—are most likely an adult. Thus, out of sheer perversity, and also because it was requested, I am going to recommend a few children’s titles that have lately held my interest. One thing that is wonderful about young readers is that they still retain the power to be mystified. As an adult, I find that children’s books help restore my sense of mystery. Hopefully, these books will do that for you, too. And if you have an actual child by your side, all the better.

The Circus in the Mist by Bruno Munari (only available used)

This almost wordless book was one of my favorites when I was very young and I still love to look at it. Written and illustrated—perhaps the best word is created—by the Italian designer and book-magician Bruno Munari, The Circus in the Mist takes the reader on a journey into a “mist,” which is represented by translucent vellum pages. Spare yet playful, each page teases you into turning to the next. In the middle of the book, you are rewarded with a circus, and all its fun and familiar acts, but at the end you are returned to the mist, as if to say that the mysteriousness of the mist itself—not the circus it hides—is the true wonder. (more…)

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Summer Reading List: Daniel Handler

July 18th, 2011 · 15 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

You should have seen the look on Phoebe’s face when I told her that Daniel Handler was going to contribute a Summer Reading List for DALS. It’s how I imagine my own face would have looked if, back in 1981, my dad had walked through the door and said, “Hi everyone, yeah, long day at work. I’m just gonna go upstairs and put my bathrobe on. Oh, and Andy: the Rolling Stones are going to play at your birthday party this year.” Daniel Handler — and how many people, other than close relatives, can you say this about — has had a genuine, rock star-like impact on our oldest daughter’s life. The thirteen mind-blowing books he wrote, under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, are the books Phoebe might well remember most when she’s old and forty. First of all, she read them all in about two weeks, curled up on the corner of our family room couch, and we basically didn’t see or hear from her until she was done. We’re talking serious, deep transportation. Second of all, these books give you faith in the human imagination. They’re so beautifully, joyously done. In some ways, they’re the books that opened her up to the value of darkness in a story, and of the way good and evil, and life and death, can coexist. “Imagine lemonade,” Phoebe said, when I asked her to describe what the books are like. “Only with barely any sugar.” Which is exactly how I would have put it, happy as I was to discover these books, too, after so many years of unrelenting cheeriness and pointless plot-iness and overweening cutesiness and, as Phoebe suggests, way too much sugar. (I’m not naming names.) You can never accuse Daniel Handler of ever using too much sugar. That goes for his adult books as well, and, we presume, for Why We Broke Up, the young adult book he is publishing this fall with the illustrator, Maira Kalman, with whom he has partnered before, to gorgeous results. (This is a go-to gift book for us.) We are huge Daniel Handler fans here at DALS, and we’re honored to have him tell us about his favorite picture books. (Plus one not-so-picture book that he couldn’t resist throwing in. See: Darkness, above.) Without further ado, Daniel Handler on what your kids should be reading this summer…

Dillweed’s Revenge by Florence Parry Heide

This one was written a long time ago, and Edward Gorey was supposed to illustrate it, but he pulled a jerk move and died. It’s really remarkable, the story of a young man with terrible parents who evntually finds ways to deal with them — through monstrous acts of witchraft and menace. It was finally illustrated by the amazing Carson Ellis, who’s probably best known for the album covers she does for her husband’s band, The Decemberists. The art has this kind of abstract, Rothko-y, wet quality to it. It’s old-fashioned Victorian meets the dark unplummable depths of the human soul. For kids!

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (note: this is coming out in September, but you can pre-order now) (more…)

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The Reading List: George Saunders

July 7th, 2011 · 25 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

I remember exactly where I was when I read the short story, “Pastoralia,” by George Saunders: I was finishing lunch at my desk, back when I had hair and worked at Esquire magazine on 55th Street. As soon as I finished, I copied it and – this was 2000, remember – faxed it to a couple of the writers I worked with, no cover note attached. I thought it would inspire them. A few hours later, the emails started coming in: “I’m never going to write again.” “Jesus, man.” “Why would you do that to me?” Would I do this again? I would. Because great writing is inspiring and George Saunders is a great and inspired writer. He has the distinction of being the author of some of my all-time favorite grown-up fiction (my favorite is the story collection, Pastoralia, but really: you can’t go wrong), my all-time favorite kid fiction (The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, for ages 6-12, which we have featured before), and some of my favorite non-fiction (collected, thank you god, here). He’s also a genius. (True story. He’s way too modest to tell you this, but he’s a winner of the crazy-prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant.) What I’m saying is, we love George Saunders, love his beautiful, generous view of the world, and love the fact that he is a friend of DALS. We asked him for a Summer Reading List for Kids, and here’s what he sent us. I don’t know about you, but I’m buying all of them. Take it away, George…

Well, to start with, an apology/disclaimer. Our kids are grown and I’ve been away from kids’ books for awhile, although I well remember the thrill, on a cold autumn night, of snuggling in with both our girls and feeling like: ah, day is done, all is well. Some of what follows may be old news, but hopefully one or two will be new to you.

Okay. Let’s start with Kashtanka, by Anton Chekhov and Gennady Spirin (Ages 9-12). I’ve written about this at length at Lane Smith’s excellent website, but suffice to say it’s a beautiful, simple, kind-hearted story with illustrations that are beautiful and realistic with just the right touch of oddness.

Speaking of Lane Smith, who is, to my mind, the greatest kids’ book illustrator of our time, I’d recommend all his books but maybe particularly an early one, The Happy Hocky Family (Ages 4-8). It’s funny and arch but at its core is a feeling of real familial love. With Lane, every book has its own feeling, and this one is sort of minimal and yet emotive – right up my alley.

Back when we were doing our book together, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Lane turned me on to The Shrinking of Treehorn, by Florence Parrry Heide (Ages 6-8). This is one of those books that stakes out its claim to greatness by showing something that, though harsh, is also deeply true: Grownups often don’t see kids and don’t listen to them. The illustrations are masterpieces of 1970s cool, by the great Edward Gorey.

I love The Hundred Dresses (by Eleanor Estes, illustrated Louis Slobodkin, ages 7-9) for a similar reason. On this ostensibly small palette of a kid’s book, Estes has told a deep unsettling truth, one that we seem to be forgetting; as Terry Eagleton put it: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” Here, poverty equals petty humiliation, which drives a child, Wanda Petronski, to lie, and be teased for the lie, and then to create something beautiful – but the great heart-dropping trick of this book is that the other characters in the book discover Wanda’s inner beauty late, too late, and she is already far away, and never gets to learn she has devastated them with her work of art, and changed her vision of the world. This is a book that, I think, has the potential to rearrange a child’s moral universe in an enduring way. (more…)

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Summer Book Club

July 5th, 2011 · 43 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Rituals

In some ways, I feel like my mother’s philosophy of raising children can be distilled into two of her favorite expressions. The first one is this:

Only boring people get bored.

This was not so much an expression as it was a response to the “I’m booorrred” cries from my brother, sister, or me when we’d be driving somewhere or if, God forbid, there was no formal activity scheduled for a stretch of hours when Rocky III was not playing on HBO. The idea was that we should be resourceful enough to entertain ourselves at all times. You can only imagine how annoying this phrase was to a 10- year-old who had an entire shelf of lock-and-key diaries, the contents of which proved she was anything but boring. But apparently, the line was not annoying enough to have stopped me from using it at least once a week in my own house with my own kids 25 years later. Not only do I love this expression — I have embraced it as my worldview.

The other expression from Mom is: (more…)

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