When I was a kid back in the 1970s, and kids were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, the typical answers for boys were a policeman, a fireman, a garbageman, or President; girls were more likely to answer a secretary, a nurse, a teacher or a ballerina. For a while, my sister hit on a great answer: a teenager. That was brilliant because it required no advanced education, and (barring disaster) everyone would get a crack at it regardless of sex.
I get depressed when I remember that time. All my doctors were men. All my dentists were men. All the Presidents (and their Men) were men. Women dominated the teaching field and monopolized steno pools. The one man I knew who was a nurse was always referred to as a “male nurse” because nurse=woman, right?
Baruch Hashem, my children are growing up in a different era. Their doctor and dentist are women. (They’ve made clear that that is the only configuration acceptable to them.) The lawyers who drew up the papers when we bought our houses (both in America and Israel) were women. Yes, rabbis are still men in our part of the Jewish universe, but sometimes I like to shake things up a little and tell the kids that there ARE female rabbis; just not Orthodox ones. (That, of course, may change in our lifetime, who knows?) They live in a country where there has been a woman prime minister. Scientists, college professors, business professionals—they can see examples of both men and women in these fields.
But what of those in other professions? Plumbers, electricians, hair stylists? Construction workers, postal employees, children’s book authors? Computer geeks, retail salespeople, poll-takers? You know—everyone else.
Maira Kalman addresses the careers of the glamorous and the mundane with equal enthusiasm and admiration in her children’s picture book entitled Chicken Soup, Boots. Kalman, an author and illustrator of numerous children’s books, is also a designer and artist whose work has graced the cover of The New Yorker magazine and the new illustrated Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and who keeps a monthly blog on the New York Times website entitled “And the pursuit of happiness,” is a master of thinking out of the box. Her text is lyrical, witty, and full of wonder. Her vocabulary is that of an adult, but her perspective is that of a child, making her books entertaining for both parents and children. And her brightly-colored gouache paintings on paper complement her text with modern inexactitude and humor.
In Kalman’s world, adults who ask children what they want to be when they grow up suggest things like “A lion tamer? A prune pincher? An alarm clock salesman?” And children are as likely to respond, “I don’t know. I may be a stargazer. Word twirler. Nose twister. Insult lister. Ladder climber. Song singer. Mountain mover.” In this book she explores careers like traveling salesman, song writer, piano tuner, doorman, avant garde artist, photographer, barber, astronomer, architect. One of my favorites is Barney March, the short order cook at the diner, who gets orders yelled at him by the waitress such as “Adam and Eve on a raft. Wreck ’em!”—scrambled eggs on toast—and the title of the book, “Chicken soup, boots!” (chicken soup to go). Another is Dr. Mel Smellman, “a world-famous Doctor of Smellology,” who will say knowingly to a patient, “[Y]ou ate a gooey Gorgonzola three weeks ago. With a salted sesame cracker, correct? No need to respond. I’m always correct.” And Doc Johnson, a therapy dog who, while kids can’t necessarily become a therapy dog, could become a therapy dog handler.
Chicken Soup, Boots seems like an acknowledgement that what EVERYONE does has importance and contributes to the maintenance of our society, not just the millionaires and the mucky-mucks who make a lot of money, then appear in the papers as they get led off to jail. Kalman thinks out of the box to the kinds of people she might have seen as a child in her everyday life, who have jobs that while they are ordinary, are nonetheless captivating in their way. I like the idea of my children reading this book not just for the rhythmic, thoughtful prose, but also for the idea that where their life’s work is concerned, they can aim high, low, or anywhere in between, depending on what interests them.