In 1988, Maira Kalman made a propitious children’s book debut when Viking released Hey Willy, See the Pyramids, a picture book in which a girl’s bedtime stories for her sleepless brother—including one about a poet dog named Max Stravinsky—transform the black pages of night into a vivid array of dreamscapes. On September 12, the New York Review Children’s Collection will reissue that title, along with Max Makes a Million (Viking, 1990), which gives Max his first title role. The creative canine will return in two February 2018 reissues, Max in Hollywood, Baby and Ooh-la-la (Max in Love), and again in September 2018 in Swami on Rye: Max in India, where he searches for the meaning of life.

Among the earliest of Kalman’s 18 children’s titles, these five picture books represent but one facet of the author’s eclectic output. She has also written or collaborated on 12 books for adults, among them The Principles of Uncertainty, a collection of her New York Times columns; and she created the art for illustrated editions of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White; and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. A contributor to the New Yorker, in recent years Kalman has also served as a curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. And her work has been exhibited at a variety of venues, including the ICA Philadelphia, the Jewish Museum, and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.

Despite her subsequent endeavors, Kalman’s soon-to-be reissued books starring Max (the Viking editions of which have gone out of print) are indisputably beloved by the author. “These books are near and dear to my heart, especially Hey Willy,” she said. “This was my first book, and it allowed me to find my voice, and gave me a forum for my desire to write and paint for children—as well as adults. Hey Willy is really a journey of life, a series of scattered incidents that have a sense of play and whimsy and inventiveness. This reflects the way I wanted to work from the start.”

Kalman’s early picture books also have deeply personal roots. “These stories are collected from my life and imagination,” she explained. “I always just have to look around me—that’s the way I work. Max the poet dog is basically me, and does what I do. I try to base stories on the most interesting incidents in my life, and many of my characters are friends and relations. Like Max, I’ve traveled to Paris and India, and I wanted these stories to reflect that sense of curiosity, discovery, and humor that keep us going.”

Finding New Life, New Readers

For New York Review Children’s Collection editor Edwin Frank, acquiring these five Kalman titles to reissue was “a no-brainer” when Kalman’s literary agent, Charlotte Sheedy, contacted him with the news that the rights to the picture books had reverted to the author, and were available. “Maira is an author and illustrator without equal, and these are wonderful books,” he said. “I remember getting them for my kids when they first came out, and I knew that this was a great opportunity to bring them back into print.”

Asked what it is that makes these picture books stand out, and still relevant after almost three decades, Frank immediately ticked off a list of qualities. “Maira’s illustrations are sumptuous and fun—you can pore over the pages endlessly and always find something new,” he observed. “At the same time, the stories play with the format in the same way the illustrations play with the format. These books have a dreaminess to them, and everything is all mixed up—in Maira’s way. They look and sound like no one else’s books.”

Frank explained that the New York Review Books’ production team reproduced the Kalman reissues as closely as possible to the original editions, and that the texts have not been altered. Unlike most of the Children’s Collection books, the five titles have dust jackets. A fittingly whimsical addition to Hey Willy’s flap copy is a message from Kalman’s daughter, Lulu, who inspired the storytelling sibling of her mother’s first book: “Dear Friends, This is about Maira Kalman. She draws and writes books. She is a very good artist. She likes her home. She has wonderful kids and she has two kids. One of them is me. The other is my brother. The end.”

In addition to emphasizing his personal affinity for Kalman’s work, Frank noted that the five Kalman reissues will be right at home on the Children’s Collection list. “One of our main goals is to bring books with real character back into print for another generation who can carry on the torch for these authors and illustrators,” he said. “That is very gratifying to me.”

And for Kalman as well. “I love New York Review Books—they do such beautiful work,” she said. “Somehow having them publish these books places them in a classical mode, and I’m delighted my books are in their capable hands.”

Though recently she has been immersed in book projects for adults rather than children, Kalman’s affection for the latter has not waned. “Children are so willing to accept the surreal and embrace the absurd—you don’t have to explain anything to them!” she observed. “It is such an honor to create children’s books, with the playfulness of the language, art, and typography—they all inform each other.”

So might she venture back into the children’s realm? Characteristically, Kalman does not mince words: “I shall.”

Hey Willy, See the Pyramids by Maira Kalman. New York Review Children’s Collection, $18.95 Sept. ISBN 978-1-68137-168-9

Max Makes a Million by Maira Kalman. New York Review Children’s Collection, $18.95 Sept. ISBN 978-1-68137-170-2