In three stories, Mitzi has small, but engrossing adventures in her family’s New York City apartment and neighborhood. In ‘Mitzi Takes a Taxi,’ Mitzi and her baby brother, Jacob, attempt to visit their grandparents, but their plans are thwarted when they don’t know the address to give the taxi driver. In ‘Mitzi Sneezes,’ the family gets sick and Mitzi’s mom takes care of them, even though, she, too, is sick – thankfully, Grandma shows up, as if summoned by motherly intuition. In ‘Mitzi and the President,’ Mitzi, Jacob, and their father are out for a walk when they 1. watch a parade, 2. speak with the president, and 3. get a stick of much yearned for chewing gum.
The book is great and I’m not entirely sure why. The words have a persistent rhythm, and the dialogue is full of deadpan humor. The illustrations are bizarre, yet completely captivating.
Maurice Sendak matched author Lore Segal and illustrator Harriet Pincus up together. Pincus illustrated a handful of other picture books that are now hard to get your hands on. She contracted polio at sixteen and was confined to a wheelchair in her parents’ Brooklyn apartment; she died in 2001 of polio-related complications. Segal is author of the novels Other People’s Houses, Her First American and Shakespeare’s Kitchen. She was born in Vienna in 1928 and escaped the Nazis on a Kinderstransport train to England. Today, she lives in the Upper West Side.
In the preface to Other People’s Houses, Lore Segal writes: “Finally, I’ll posit two oddities that, I think, attach to the survivor: an inappropriate anxiety, together with an inappropriate happiness.” Segal goes on to explain that the former keeps her out of the movies, while the latter makes her mother distrust her bank statements: “She [her mother]…tells the bank officer that there must be a mistake. He calls up her account on the computer and the account is correct. My mother comes home and says, ‘It’s a mistake. I can’t have this much money.’ My mother can’t accommodate the happiness of having what we need.” This “inappropriate happiness” is very present in Tell Me a Mitzi — from the lively detailing of the many steps Mitzi takes to get Jacob ready to go to grandma and grandpa’s house (only to collapse into laughter when Jacob points out to Mitzi that she is still in her pajamas), to the equal parts attention paid to both meeting the president and getting that stick of chewing gum.
I was read Tell Me a Mitzi as a child and now I read it to my daughter. Recently, we were staying over a friend’s apartment and at bedtime when we took out Tell Me a Mitzi my friend was overjoyed to see it (the book is no longer print). She had read the book to her now grown daughter; it had been like a language between them, she told us – they still sometimes said to each other, “Tell me a Mitzi” as a turn of phrase.
Tell Me a Mitzi
Written by Lore Segal
Illustrated by Harriet Pincus
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970