The New York Review Children’s Collection, launched in 2003 to bring classic children’s books back into print, adds another timeless tale to its list on March 20 with the reissue of I Wish I Was Sick, Too! by Franz Brandenberg, illustrated by Aliki. First published in 1976 by Greenwillow Books, this is one of 22 children’s books created by these husband-and-wife collaborators. The picture book stars Elizabeth, a young cat who resents the fact that she must go to school and do chores while her parents and grandmother pamper her flu-ish brother Edward—until her wish that she were sick in bed comes true.
Aliki loved to draw as a child growing up in Philadelphia, and her artistic talent emerged at an early age. “My kindergarten teachers told my parents that I would be an artist some day, and that always stuck in my mind!” she recalled. After graduating from the Philadelphia Museum School of Art in 1951, Aliki worked in advertising, created murals, and taught art classes before she married Brandenberg, whom she met while traveling in Europe.
The couple lived for a time in Brandenberg’s native Switzerland, where Aliki was first inspired to write and illustrate a children’s book. “I came across a wonderful book about how St. Francis tamed a wolf,” she said. “It was fresh and fun, and I thought, ‘I can do that!’ And since we were living in William Tell country, I wrote a children’s book about him.”
After The Story of William Tell was published in 1960, Aliki realized she had found her niche. “I remember thinking, ‘Why would I ever want to be doing anything else?’ When I made the decision to do books it felt right. I am kind of a loner—though I also love people. I am happy being my own boss and making my own books.”
A Creative Partnership Is Born
Brandenberg and Aliki became book collaborators soon after the births of their children, Jason and Alexa, in the mid-1960s. Aliki illustrated her husband’s debut book, I Once Knew a Man (1970); No School Today!, their first tale starring Elizabeth and Edward, appeared in 1975, followed by I Wish I Was Sick, Too! a year later.
“Somehow, our kids seemed to loosen up Franz’s ability to express himself emotionally,” the artist remarked. “You can’t help but put your life in your books, and Franz wrote about his own past and about our children. When he wrote I Wish I Was Sick, Too!, the fact that the characters were cats rather than humans seemed to liberate him. All of our books are special, but this one is particularly special. As I read the story again with this new edition, I couldn’t believe that the characters of Edward and Elizabeth are so Jason and so Alexa! The story is very much in character with both of our children at the time.”
Brandenberg explained that the couple’s young offspring did spark his stories—often by bringing him back to his own youth. “I would say that our children were my touchstone,” he said. “Whenever I saw something happen to them, I would remember parts of my own childhood.”
His inspiration for I Wish I Was Sick, Too! was an all-too-real chapter from his past. “As a child, I was sick all the time, beginning at around the age of five,” he recalled. “I caught a very terrible cold and was hospitalized, and my parents thought I might die. After that, if I coughed, they wouldn’t let me go to school, and my younger brothers really resented that they had to go to school. But I do remember that I actually missed going to school, because it was boring staying at home.”
For Susan Barba, senior editor at New York Review Books, bringing this book back into print is personally as well as professionally rewarding. “As a child, this was one of my very favorite books,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it had ever gone out of print. And it was so stunning to realize that, on the last page of the book, the cat father is in bed reading The New York Review of Books. This book was calling out to be reissued!”
I Wish I Was Sick, Too! “fits perfectly” on the NYR Children’s Collection’s list, Barba observed. “The story has a smart humor that is characteristic of our list, even though it is one of the simplest and most straightforward of our picture books. Kids can relate to the characters’ sibling rivalry, and the story of this cultured cat family is entertaining for adults as well. I think the characters really come alive in Aliki’s illustrations, which deepen rather than overpower the story.”
Brandenberg and Aliki expressed their excitement to see the book back in print under the NYR Children’s Collection imprint. “I think Aliki and I were among the first people who subscribed to the New York Review of Books!” said Brandenberg. “We are very grateful to the publisher for bringing out this new edition. Aliki’s artwork is a legacy—and this is a wonderful example of what beautiful books she makes.”
“It has been so lovely to work with Susan and all of the thoughtful and caring people at New York Review Books—it was like joining a family,” Aliki added. “We have been very lucky to have spent so much of our lives making children’s books. And we are so lucky to see this book back again now. As long as any book is in a child’s hands, I am very happy.”
I Wish I Was Sick, Too! by Franz Brandenberg, illus. by Aliki. New York Review Children’s Collection, $16.95 Mar. ISBN 978-1-68137-228-0