An illustrated memoir by renowned New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan.
“If The Little Prince had crash-landed, instead of in the Sahara, into a middle-class Jewish home in Maplewood, N.J. in the late 1960s, it might feel something like I Was a Child.”—The Hollywood Reporter
Bruce Eric Kaplan, also known as BEK, is one of the most celebrated and admired cartoonists in America. I Was a Child is the story of his childhood in suburban New Jersey, detailing the small moments we all experience: going to school, playing with friends, family dinners, watching TV on a hot summer night, and so on. It would seem like a conventional childhood, although Kaplan's anecdotes are accompanied by his signature drawings of family outings and life at home-road trips, milk crates, hamsters, ashtrays, a toupee, a platypus, and much more. Kaplan's cartoons, although simple, are never straightforward; they encompass an easy irony and dark humor that often cuts straight to the truth of experience. Brilliantly relatable and genuinely moving, I Was a Child is about our attempts to understand the mysteries that are our parents, our families, and ourselves.
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BRUCE ERIC KAPLAN, also known as BEK, is an American artist whose single-panel cartoons frequently appear in The New Yorker. He also has a whole other life as a television writer and producer, currently for HBO’s Girls.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I was a child, but I wasn’t very good at it. I’m not sure why. I think a lot of us are born waiting to be adults. I know I was. I just sat there, waiting. This is that story.
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MY MOTHER went into labor with me at the 1964 World’s Fair, which was in Queens, New York. Every time I fly into JFK and take a cab to Manhattan, I look out the window at the old fairgrounds and I think, That’s where I began.
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I WAS TAKEN home to 20 Sommer Avenue in Maplewood, New Jersey. On the front porch was a gray box meant for milk bottle delivery and pickup. When I was a baby, a milkman would come by once a week to pick up the old bottles and replace them with new ones. Then, of course, he stopped coming when all the milkmen stopped coming.
That box stayed on the front porch for the next four decades, empty. When something was put somewhere at my parents’ house, it stayed there—long after it broke, or no longer served a purpose, or just wasn’t used anymore for whatever reason.
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I HAVE two brothers, Michael and Andrew, seven and four years older. I have no idea how they felt about me showing up.
I do know that very early on, I had the sensation that everyone was a lot bigger and they could hurt me.
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MY MOTHER couldn’t take having three boys. She was extremely jumpy, to say the least. Any noise startled her. The sound of a pot dropping on the ground could make her hit the ceiling.
“I’m getting discombobulated!” she would scream, when we were too loud or would be too much for her in some way.
She spent a lot of time being discombobulated.
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WE HAD a hamster whom we named Hampy. One day, she somehow gave birth to baby hamsters and we clamored around her tank, looking at them. Then we watched in horror as Hampy ate all her babies. My mother told us it was because we scared Hampy.
I felt we were too much for Hampy, just as, apparently, we were too much for my mother.
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ONE NIGHT when I was very little, I had a dream in which I saw a bee who started crying. I woke up very upset about the sad bee. I wish I knew why that bee was crying and why I was so sad that he was so sad.
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MY FIRST best friend was Majorie O’Malley, who lived next door. We got into a fight and she scratched my face. The scratch is still there.
The O’Malleys’ house smelled different from our house. In fact, everyone’s house had its own distinct smell. I was confused because that meant our house had a smell but I couldn’t smell it.
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IN OUR LIVING ROOM, there was an enormous dark piece of furniture. It was a cabinet with a built-in record player on the right side and a place to store records on the left side. I remember listening to a recording of “It’s a Small World” and studying the album case. Much later, I would learn that “It’s a Small World” was written for the 1964 World’s Fair, and made its debut as a ride there. Maybe that’s where my parents got it, just before I showed up.
Albums were mysterious objects that you studied over and over again, memorizing every single corner of them while you listened to the record. My parents had a copy of My Fair Lady. On it, there was a drawing of Rex Harrison pulling strings attached to Julie Andrews as if she was his puppet.
I was transfixed and horrified.
The record player broke shortly after I was a toddler and it was never fixed. That enormous dark piece of furniture stayed in the living room for the next twenty years.
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WHEN I got older, I was in charge of dusting the living room. Once a week I took the bottle of Pledge and a rag and dusted the cabinet with the record player that didn’t work.
We inherited a piano when I was in junior high, and I dusted that every week, too. No one in my family could play the piano, and the piano arrived at our house out of tune and was never in tune. It was a place to put photos.
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MY MOTHER’S JOB was to take care of me and my brothers. My father’s job was being a math textbook editor. He took the train into the city each day to go to work. My mother drove him to the train station each morning, and each evening, he walked home from the train. He usually caught the same train and always arrived home at the side door. So when the clock said six, I got in place at the top of the back stairs and waited for him.
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MY FATHER always wore a hat to work.
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WE WERE always told that my father wanted to be a short story writer or a novelist or a TV writer, but he had to give up his writing career for something more steady once he had a family. There was a box of his old writing in the attic. One piece was an unpublished short story about a man and a woman who fall in love when the woman’s platypus escapes and the man finds it.
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WHEN I was three I started preschool. It must have been only several times a week because when my kids started preschool, my father asked, “So, do they go two or three days a week?” I said, “No, every day.”
For the next four years, anytime preschool came up, regarding my son, and then my daughter, my father would pause and say, “So, do they go two or three times a week?” Sadly, preschool came up a lot. “No, every day,” I continued to say, during our weekly telephone calls. And then I would hold the phone away from my ear while he kept talking and would jump up and down with frustration. My wife wondered what the noise was the first time it happened, then got used to it.
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I SPENT a lot of time at the Maplewood Memorial Park playground. There were wooden logs to walk on there that I have never seen in any other playground.
I would think about those logs when I wasn’t there. And when I was on my way to the logs, I would think, “Soon I’m going to be on those logs.” There’s nothing better than having a purpose. I love purposes and hate vacations.
There was also a seesaw. You don’t see seesaws as much anymore. It must be because the person on the bottom was always deciding to get off without telling you and you would crash to the ground and it would really hurt. It happened again and again and you just kept playing on the seesaw anyway.
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ONE OF my earliest memories is sitting on my father’s lap, watching Here’s Lucy, a Lucille Ball situation comedy on CBS that began with a dancing little doll Lucy. The credits would come on, and at the end, the little doll Lucy pulled back a stage curtain, revealing the real Lucy. Although I wasn’t able to put it into words then, I think what I found so compelling about that moment each week was the expression of a truth—we are all just little dolls of ourselves who occasionally pull back the curtains to reveal the real us.
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THERE WERE only two comfortable chairs in our den, where the TV was. Then there was one uncomfortable chair.
So if all five of us were watching, it would be two parents in the good chairs, one kid in the bad one, and two kids on the floor. If it was just the three kids watching, then two got the good chairs and one got the bad one. If you were in a good chair, under no circumstance could you get up, because then someone would take your good chair. If you had to go to the bathroom, you held it in.
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