13 Words

Lemony Snicket & Maira Kalman | Harper

There is only one way a book like this comes about—when two iconoclasts rub their minds together and record what happens. 13 Words is every bit a picture and wordbook for kids and adults alike. It fits all the criteria of a good kid’s book—nice story, well-illustrated—except that the story and illustrations are products of two big kids playing feverishly hard together—governed solely by what they think is good and satisfying work. It’s a different kind of book.

When asked what it was like to work with the other, Lemony (aka Daniel Handler) says of Maira Kalman, “an unfettered, digressional delight.” Maira says, “Daniel is a force of nature. I am quiet and point to things. He keeps me laughing. We walk around and look at things and talk about what we are thinking about and looking at.”

Their contribution to each other’s contribution is evident, yet begs the question who informed who first? Maira tells me, “Daniel and I talked about images that I liked and was interested in painting, then Daniel thought about images, then he wrote and I responded. A bit of back and forth, but then the manuscript was written and the final paintings came after that.” Daniel recounts, “the text came first, then got nudged around as the paintings continued.” A perfect partnership—both taking appropriate responsibility (and credit) for the creation and neither having the same recollection of how it happened. Whatever—it’s a beautiful thing.

The book revolves around 13 of what Daniel calls ‘oft-neglected’ words like despondent, and haberdashery and cake. They frame a tale of characters—a dog, baby, bird, goat and opera singer—that makes perfect sense as soon as you buy into a depressed bird painting eleven ladders with ten colors. Daniel owes a lot to Maira for making his words completely rational and probable. Maira owes equally to Daniel for writing prose that justifies her love of painting goats as if walking out of Barney’s. “The driver in the convertible is a goat. He is wearing a spiffy jacket.”

My favorite word in the book is panache. It describes Maira’s work perfectly. Every page is an illustration that bears tireless revisiting. Incredibly personal and interesting objects, jokes, references, innuendos, scenes and content—all painted with masterful color-sense and total disregard for perspective, light, scale or accuracy. They ooze the style, spontaneity and intuitiveness that every serious illustrator pines for. Maira calls it “a funny combination of work and not work.” Oh, that’s the secret.

What a duo—Maira and Lemony should start a band.

Maira and Daniel bribe patrons with ice cream, posters, and buttons at Cones in NYC.

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