Happy Birthday, Alice Babette – Monica Kulling and Qin Leng, Groundwood Books, 2016
It’s actually a little early to be wishing Gertrude Stein’s companion a happy birthday; she was born on April 20, 1877. Gertrude, however, was born on February 3, 1874, so the day to celebrate the actual author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Stein herself) is coming up soon. It’s neither too early nor too late to celebrate a children’s picture book about the warm and caring relationship between these two independent women who enjoyed, in the words of a famous book about the era, “being geniuses together.”
Young readers who are unfamiliar with Stein’s inimitable cubist-inspired poems, or her mentoring friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Picasso, will learn about Stein and Toklas’s devotion to one another, including Stein’s successful creation of a poem, and failed attempt at pineapple upside-down cake.
Monica Kulling (I’ve written about other books by her here and here and here) describes the traditional elements of Stein and Toklas’s partnership: “Alice was the one who cooked and cleaned and typed and shopped.” Qin Leng’s image of Gertrude hunched over her work at a cluttered table, Alice placing one encouraging hand on the poet’s back while holding a cup of tea in the other, reinforces their division of labor. “Gertrude was a writer. She wrote mostly at night. During the day, she talked about writing or sat around thinking about it.” Kulling has managed to allude to Stein’s writing style in her own words, without simply imitating it. Yet Alice is not a downtrodden housewife. She leaves Gertrude to celebrate her birthday by riding a carousel in the Luxembourg Gardens, enjoying a children’s puppet show, and having the chutzpah to apprehend a jewel thief by hitting him with her pocketbook. When she returns home to find the wreckage of Gertrude’s cooking disaster, she is unperturbed, confident that everything her companion does will become
ingredients in her literary experiments. Qin Leng’s delicate and detailed pictures, featuring a palette of pastel and earth tones, work perfectly with Kulling’s text. On Alice’s birthday, the pair enjoys croissants for breakfast under a wall of cubist and other innovative paintings, including Leng’s own version of Picasso’s famous portrait of Stein. This is the work about which Stein reacted that it didn’t look like her, but Picasso assured it, “It will.” It certainly does here! Children will relate to Stein’s cheerful and puzzling mess, with pots boiling over broken eggs left unattended, and two mice hiding under the stove.
The book’s cover, as well as several of the pictures inside, features floating objects which serve as a kind of supporting cast in Gertrude and Alice’s story. There are flowers, plates, slices of cake, and written notes, all drawing the reader’s eye to the small physical objects which make the women’s home real, as she did in her earlier book about Jane Austen.
In an “Author’s Note,” Kulling briefly explains that the women were American expatriates, and that Gertrude both wrote herself and encouraged other avant-garde writers and artists. Happy Birthday, Alice Babette has to function on two levels and it does. Children will learn about Stein and Toklas through an age-appropriate vehicle, one that respects their intelligence. Adults will enjoy the artistic and literary background and the lovely normalization of a same-sex relationship in a book they are reading to kids. They might smile, reading that the birthday party guests “agreed that the brownies were the best,” given Alice’s famous recipe. There is quite a lot to admire in this book, which is both clever and sincere. As Gertrude put it, “A charm a single charm is doubtful…It is earnest.”