Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag: Maira Kalman’s Sweet Design-History Alphabet Book about Embracing Uncertainty and Imperfection
“Life is not a straight line. Life is a zig-zag.”
By Maria Popova
As a lover of imaginative and intelligent alphabet books and of absolutely everything Maira Kalman does, I find the letters of the alphabet and the words they make insufficient to express the boundless wonderfulness of Kalman’s Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag (public library | IndieBound) — the children’s-book counterpart of her magnificent My Favorite Things, which began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
In this ABC gem — which doubles as a design-history primer full not of snobbery and self-important art-speak but of a playful celebration of uncertainty and imperfection — Kalman culls thirty-one objects from the museum’s collection and strings them together into a tour of the alphabet, with her characteristic quirk, candor, and exuberant creative curiosity as the loving guide.
Her unusual selections, often of seemingly mundane artifacts, bespeak her extraordinary gift for finding magic in “the moments between the moments between the moments.” The accompanying words emanate from a beautiful wanderer’s mind and a spirit that is so clearly generous and kind.
There is the “itsy-bitsy nail” in I; the beautiful embroidered pocket in P, which offers the pause-giving factlet that “a long time ago, women didn’t have pockets in their clothes”; the clever play on continuity that offers “terrible news” in T as a painting of burnt toast accuses the antique toaster in Q (“Quite the toaster!) of malfunction.
The last letter winks at Kalman’s wonderful Principles of Uncertainty:
The final spread in the story offers a sweet message of embracing imperfection — a gentle reminder for all ages that, as Anne Lamott memorably put it, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”:
But the end is not really the end — perhaps the most touching and empowering part of the book is its postscript of sorts. In the closing pages, Kalman tells the heartening story of Nellie and Sally Hewitt — the two young women who founded the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum:
They loved to sing and dance. They were just a little bit wild. A little bit.
They had sharp eyes. The kind of eyes that really LOOK at things.
One day they decided to collect the things they loved, and create a museum. And they really did it. Which is a lesson to be learned. If you have a good idea — DO IT.
Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag is an absolute delight in its entirety. Complement it with its indispensable grownup counterpart, then revisit Kalman’s children’s-book collaboration with Lemony Snicket and this fantastic short documentary about Kalman’s work and spirit.
Published November 14, 2014