Reading List: John Jeremiah Sullivan

When Jenny launched Dinner: a Love Story eighteen months ago, I sent out a group email to all nine of my friends to let them know what was up, and to spread the word. She called me at work a couple of hours later, excited. “John Sullivan just registered on the site,” she said. Our first victim! John Sullivan, aka John Jeremiah Sullivan, is a writer, a funny person, a kind soul, and a former colleague of mine from the men’s magazine known as Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Have you heard of him? You will. Just last week, he published a collection of essays, Pulphead, that has been getting some halfway decent reviews. NPR called it “a collection that shows why Sullivan might be the best magazine writer around.” On Sunday, The New York Times Book Review called it “the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since [David Foster] Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Dwight Garner, reviewing it in the Times last week, said it “put me in mind of one of Flannery O’Connor’s indelible utterances.” Time had this to say: “He’s not exactly a national secret — he’s already won two National Magazine Awards, among other things, and he’s not yet 40. But he’s the closest thing we have right now to Tom Wolfe, and that includes Tom Wolfe.” Larry McMurtry, in Harper’s, called it “the most involving collection of essays to appear in many a year.” To which I will add: Please. The fact that you can buy this book on Amazon right now for less than I spent on swiss chard at the market this morning is one of the great bargains, and investments, to be found on this earth. It’s hard to put into words just how sublime stories like this, this and this are. (Seriously, take an hour and read some. Start with “Upon This Rock.” Afterwards, feel free to complain directly to me if you feel I have steered you wrong.) John, in addition to being a DALS charter member, was kind enough to offer up a few of his favorite kid books for us. Of his picks, I can only claim to have read The Giant Jam Sandwich, but I’m here to say: if John Jeremiah Sullivan says these books are good and true, I’m going to believe him. I now cede the floor. — Andy

Here are four beloved books of my childhood, possibly out of print, but worth the while of parents to hunt down, especially if their youngsters are between, say, three and six. Written by an author who has actually prepared multiple DALS recipes (greatly enjoyed by family in cases where he didn’t burn, mush them up, or accidentally serve them raw). P.S. DALS also turned me on to Don Pepino pizza sauce in a can. It’s all I use anymore.
The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway

A small town (Itching Down) is infested by wasps, to the point that folks can’t deal. The townspeople have a meeting, where it’s decided that they will build an enormous, field-sized jam sandwich, to trap all the wasps. Watching them do this, page after page… I can still feel the child excitement. They turn a swimming pool into a mixing bowl. They turn the town’s biggest building into a giant brick oven. The pictures are bright but also detailed and subtle. If your kid loves books, it’s a minor crime not to read him/her this one.

Shaggy Fur Face by Virgil Franklin Partch

A dog has a good master–and mistress, a little girl–but they’re poor, and they can’t keep him. They sell him, for the cost of “ditch-digging britches,” to another man, who seems nice at first, but turns out to be a tyrant. That’s when you get the story: of Shaggy Fur Face’s escape from the new mean master, and his return to the old nice family (who are doing better financially, thank you). The line I’ve had in my head for 35 years now, that sustains me sometimes, is, “And he kept paddling south. And he kept paddling south.”

Billy’s Balloon Ride by R. Zimnik

A boy is sick. His friends and relatives keep bringing him balloons, which his mother ties to his bed. Finally one night, there are so many balloons, he floats off into the sky. Great, gently suspenseful storytelling. Strange, haunting, somehow German-looking illustrations. The boy has a chubby red face and glasses. I’ll never forget him. Haven’t seen this book since my own actual childhood but could, if I knew how to draw, recreate it page for page.

Lamont the Lonely Monster by Dean Walley and Don Page

Lamont is sad. He has no friends. He’s too freaky looking. And so he searches for buddies. But in a twist that turns on its head the whole crap Nick, Jr. narrative of “Just act nice and normal, and you’ll be popular and happy!!”, Lamont’s soulmate turns out to be… an even scarier monster! Who’s named, in a delightful Dickens nod, Uriah the Heap. Read your kids this book, and then when they’re a little older, read them David Copperfield. Great way to teach them what “allusion” means.

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The Giant Jam Sandwich is a favorite in our house. The others look awesome! I’ll track them down.These books posts you guys do are the best. : )


yes – always love your book suggestions! we have the giant jam sandwich – which I found used and we LOVE it!! it was a book from my childhood that I can almost recite by heart!


Giant Jam Sandwich was my favorite book ever as a kid. You’re right, it’s a crime that I’m not reading it to my kids yet. Will order it asap! Thanks for the reminder.


The Giant Jam Sandwich was in strong rotation a few weeks ago in my house, and we all love it, despite the fact that EVERY time I read it, my son asks “but how do three escape?” Will be searching out the others at the library!


You simply have the best blog going – so heartfelt. Thanks – you make me smile on many a day!


I had a lift-the-flap book of Lamont the Lonely Monster book as a young child–and it’s one of those I still loved to flip through from time to time in high school, college, and on…Now it lives in the room reserved for grandchildren at my parents’ house. Always loved how scared and sad Lamont looked–and then how happy with Uriah! Good rec–and now excuse me while I go stop by my mother’s for a quick flip…


The Giant Jam Sandwich! I’m so glad to see this book on your list. It still survives at my parents’ house, where I think we first got it as part of a monthly book club or something back in the 70s when I was a kid. I’ve never seen it anywhere else until now. It has a little of the feeling of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and I still get a delicious little shiver when I see that photo of the wasps being stuck in the jam and then trapped by the bread–just the mix of yucky food and slightly creepy bugs that kids love 🙂


Maria–totally agree with you about the Cloudy with a Chance (which i read for the first time a week ago) comparison to Giant Jam Sammy (which I know by heart and own in both paperback and baby board book). Only I thought Cloudy with a Chance paled a little bit. In any case, the best names are in GJS–Mayor Muddlenut, Lord Swell, Bap the Baker…kinda makes me wonder if they were inspired, a la Uriah the Heap, by Dickens.


I loved Sullivan’s Disney piece in the NYTimes and will now have to read all of these. Thanks for highlighting his work and his book picks — these look fantastic.


“Upon This Rock” was beautiful. I’d read the Disney piece before and actually re-read the entire thing. So insightful and honest.