My Breakthrough Moment: Maira Kalman

The illustrator and writer discusses how, already 30 years into her career, a commission from the New York Times for a column called Principles of Uncertainty opened up a myriad of new possibilities

I was born in Tel Aviv. A glorious Bauhaus city on the Mediterranean. A beautiful life. When I was four, my family moved to New York City. Hamburgers and Coca-Cola. That was also a beautiful life. I grew up in the Bronx and later we moved to Manhattan.

The need to write was present from a young age. There were many books that I loved, but Pippi Longstocking was the moment I decided to be a writer. I knew that telling my story was imperative. Why does a child of seven or eight know that? The women in my family were an inspiration. They were bold and interesting and told stories with a sense of humour and irreverence. No one was sentimental. That was thrilling.

Only later in my early 20s, did I add illustration. To write and paint was a way not to be invisible. When I decided to become an illustrator, it was because I was frustrated by writing. So many words and emotions to choose from. Saul Steinberg was a big influence, as was Ludwig Bemelmans. To be able to paint and write and have a narrative literary connection was the key for me.

When I was 19, I met Tibor Kalman, the man that I would eventually marry. We worked together our entire lives. His sense of work and productivity and play were immensely important in the development of my self-esteem. He was a great inspiration to me.