Abraham Lincoln? Boyfriend material. George Washington? A wise man, even as a teen (he wrote a list of rules for decent behavior — “Rule 100: Cleanse not your teeth with the table cloth”). Thomas Jefferson? The puzzle piece to understanding America. Today is Jefferson’s birthday. Had he been immortal, he would now be 271 years old. Author and illustrator Maira Kalman would have definitely welcomed this. The newest in her series of books for young readers about U.S. presidents, Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, is a whimsical and hypnotic look into Jefferson’s life and accomplishments. “Thomas Jefferson is perhaps best known for writing the Declaration of Independence,” reads the inside flap of this book. “But there’s so much more to discover.” Indeed. He had many freckles (twenty, Kalman thinks); he could not live without books; he repaired the lining of his jackets with socks; and he grew over fifteen types of peas. After reading Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, I couldn’t wait to e-mail Kalman to ask her about it.
What’s the importance of reading about Thomas Jefferson? Why now?
It is always encouraging and inspiring to learn about people in the past who were both brilliant and very human at the same time. Thomas Jefferson is one of the people that actually created this country as we know it. We are all, in some way, products of the development of this land with all the good and bad. So it is interesting to look at who we are now in relation to who they were then. It gives perspective on the changes that keep coming at you. It helps to cope.
You wrote this about Jefferson’s house, “If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to his home in Virginia. Monticello.” What moment from your visit to Monticello has stayed with you?
If there was one moment, it was standing in his bedroom and looking at the room. His bed, his boots, his study on one side of the bed. I felt like I was looking at his brain. But in the bigger picture, I was constantly overwhelmed by the breadth of Jefferson’s passions. Architecture. Art. Music. Industrial design. Inventions. Farming. Flora. Fauna. History. Science. And his love of books, books, books. You really see curiosity as a guiding force.
Curiosity is for me the thread that connects all your books. You’ve said, “You don’t really have to have knowledge — what you have to have is curiosity.” You possess such a sublime sense of wonder I have to ask, what advice can you give on this front?
The process of losing curiosity is amazing to me. We all have it when we are children. Then little by little, some people decide that it is not vital for their life or work. I am not sure why. My only advice is that if you can connect to the sense of innocence and wonder you had when you were a child that is a very joyous place to be. It brings you into a love of the moment and of what that moment can bring in terms of insight and humor.
I was floored with how you handled the controversy of Thomas Jefferson in connection to slavery and Sally Hemings. “The monumental man had monumental flaws.” It’s a striking sentence, because it speaks to all ages. How did you arrive at it?
If you write every day, a lot of what is written needs to be rewritten and edited and rewritten. But sometimes a very nice sentence appears from nowhere. And you take it.
How has your experience as an immigrant affected your telling of American history?
It has always felt like an asset to be an immigrant. Though I was certainly not underprivileged. I came with a certain amount of pride and good nature. And a sense of humor that was part of the family makeup. That helped me believe in myself and enjoy the new place that I came to. Reading about American history has become a real pleasure in the last ten years or so. So now I have fresh, curious, amazed eyes.
Has your inquiry into looking at the lives of presidents changed the way you look at Barack Obama?
I am still not equipped to answer a question like that. The complexity of a president’s tenure takes decades to analyze. I would say though, that the delusional idea that he would solve all problems, was just that.
Are there any contemporary presidents you want to write about in the future?
Not that I can think of. George Washington is the next president that I might write about for children.
How do you change your writing when you’re taking on a project for a young audience?
There is always a desire to be as succinct as possible, no matter who the audience. So it works well for children. I may simplify the language some, but not too much.
Maira Kalman is the author of And the Pursuit of Happiness (which, if you’re looking for an adult version of Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything you are in luck — this book is divine. Read an excerpt). Keep up with Maira Kalman at mairakalman.com.