Swami on Rye: Max in India
“The charming story is sure to enchant . . . Kalman’s folk-art style, reminiscent of Grandma Moses and Marc Chagall, provides the perfect, slightly surreal accompaniment to the whimsical text.”
Author, designer, and frequent cover artist for The New Yorker, Maira Kalman has developed her own take on the picture book form in her popular series about Max the dog. Sophisticated stream-of-consciousness text, playful design, and whimsical artwork make these books equally well suited for adults as for their intended audience of child readers.
The latest installment in the series—Swami on Rye: Max in India—is no exception to the rule. The story kicks off with the discovery that Max’s beloved wife Crepes is pregnant. In his first-person-dog narration, Max says:
“I was elated. I was deflated. I was delirious with joy. I was itchy. I was ticklish. I was all things confused. Life was so big. And I was so small.”
When Max is dispatched to Hairy Harry’s Fish Shop to fetch Crepes the stinky herring snacks she craves, a woman on the subway passes him a mysterious note inviting him to the Magic Lantern Café. There, he meets a levitating man, Vivek Shabaza-zaza-za, who styles himself “your genial genie, your garrulous guru, your suave swami.” Before Max can spell MISSISSIPPI, he’s whisked away on a magic carpet to India, there to seek the meaning of life.
Kalman’s deft wordplay spices up the journey, with passages like this from Vivek’s description of India:
“You can’t get a sour pickle in New Delhi and we call TV the ‘telly.’ A swami won’t eat salami, he can live on water and air.”
Occasionally, Kalman skirts the edges of mocking Indian culture, as when Vivek greets Max with “Namaste,” and Max thinks “Canasta?” But the good-hearted silliness triumphs as Max enjoys the speed tour of India: Ganesh and cricket, Bollywood and sacred temples—even a trip to the Taj Mahal. Just in time, he makes it back home to the hospital, where Crepes delivers three puppies and Max finds meaning in his new family.
The charming story is sure to enchant (although adults might have to explain references to Danny Kaye and Anna Pavlova). Kalman’s folk-art style, reminiscent of Grandma Moses and Marc Chagall, provides the perfect, slightly surreal accompaniment to the whimsical text. Kid readers will enjoy exploring all the rich visual details of Max’s Indian adventure, and maybe find some meaning of their own.