I’m not manic about keeping crap. During the last survey of the garage, I counted five medium sized brown boxes which I knew contained report cards, year books, a painfully out-of-date set of Dungeon and Dragon books, and a collection on comic books I plan, at some future date, to impressively hand over to my son… THIS IS YOUR LEGACY. WRITE WHEN YOU GET WORK.
These boxes are the stuff from another age. An age I like to think about every now and then, but it’s also the age that I was feebly attempting to figure the world out while also drowning in a flood of hormones. It wasn’t pretty. Poetry was involved.
When it comes to items from this age which made it into the house, the list is stunningly short. Two books. A copy of Huck Finn which was given to me (and signed by) my now deceased grandfather and a copy of Who Needs Donuts? by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Who needs what?
While it’s clear why Huck Finn made the cut, you have probably never heard of Who Needs Donuts?
I can only explain by showing it to you:
Copyright (C) 1973, renewed 2001 by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Reprinted with Permission.
Yes, there is a story, a little boy who wants more donuts, but, in the end finds what he really wants is what he already has, love. It is a simple story wrapped the most complex visual minestrone you’ll ever find. The way it goes with this book is that you read it once or twice, swallow the deceivingly simple plot, and then you read it again. This time you spend thirty minutes on each page trying to figure out what the hell is going on within these pages. You think you’re looking for Waldo, but what you’re actually doing is searching for a deeper meaning amongst the Stamaty induced chaos… and it never stops. I received the book from my mother when I was eleven… some two decades later, it’s still sitting in a drawer on my night stand.
After thirty years, Random House is republishing the Donut Book. Through a strange confluence of events, Mark Alan Stamaty and I connected a few months back. I had a chance to interview him recently via email.
Rands: Do you like donuts?
Stamaty: I like donuts, but I try to avoid eating them for health and waistline reasons. But they are tempting.
But the reason this book is about donuts is because of an actual incident that took place when I was in art school. It was sometime in, I think, it was the late fall of 1966. I was in my second year at Cooper Union in NYC. I used to go often to a 24-hour Bickfords Coffee Shop (it was a chain back then) on 23rd and 3rd Ave. to watch the various crazy characters who’d come in there at night.
I always had a sketch book with me, looking for material. On that night, an old woman was seated on a stool with her head down on the counter appearing to be asleep. She didn’t budge. About ten minutes later a 30-ish man in a suit and overcoat walked in and ordered two cups of coffee to go. The waitress asked him if he’d like donuts with his coffee.
“No, thank you,” said the man.
At that point, the old woman suddenly raised her head, pointed up toward the ceiling and said: “That’s right! Who needs donuts when you’ve got love?”
I immediately pulled out my sketch books and wrote that down. I thought it was a beautiful line. Funny and poignant. For her, it was all poignance. For several years, I kept a sign on my wall with that quote.
One day in about 1971, I was sitting in my apartment trying to come up with an idea for a children’s book that would have a real meaning to me. I looked up and saw that sign and began writing Who Needs Donuts? I wanted to immortalize that Sad Old Woman’s words.
Which of the characters in the book are reflections of real people?
Mr. Bikferd is named after the coffee shop but I changed the spelling. The license plate on the donut wagon is the address of the coffee shop, which is no longer there. Pretzel Annie is partly inspired by a tough old Ukranian woman who used to sell pretzels on the corner of 14th and 4th Ave. The woman yelling at the bus on the title page is based on a woman who used to yell at buses on 3rd Ave.
Describe the reception the book received on it’s first publishing.
In 1973, the donut book got a mixed reaction. It received a full-page rave review in the New York Times Book Review and another rave in Saturday Review Magazine. The title page received a Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators (1974) and it got an “Art Books for Children Award” from, I think, the Brooklyn Public Library. And some other nice things.
But it also got really slammed by several reviewers who thought — back in those days — that it wasn’t suitable for kids. School Library Journal slammed it and, unfortunately, at that time, libraries were 90% of the kids’ book market. That has since changed.
Publishers Weekly slammed it after having praised the earlier book I’d illustrated in a similar style ( called “Yellow Yellow”). But an interesting thing happened: Four years later, I was in the offices of Publishers Weekly being interviewed for an article about humor in children’s books when a woman came in the room and introduced herself as the person who had written that negative review of Who Needs Donuts. She then APOLOGIZED to me for having written it and said, “I was wrong.” And she praised the book.
Was it because of the mixed reviews that the Donut book received that you didn’t do another children’s books in the same style? Now that is being republished, would you consider writing/illustrating another like it?
Yes, that had a lot to do with it. I did do a book after that called “Small in the Saddle.” A cowboy book, which might get reprinted someday. The cowboy book was a bit in the spirit of the donut book but much less intense and much less detailed.
The fact is: WHO NEEDS DONUTS? took a lot of time and energy to produce and I was getting into my late twenties after that and I really couldn’t afford to keep producing more books in that style if they weren’t going to earn me enough money to live on.
So I gradually embarked on an effort to please the children’s book critics at School Library Journal. The peak of those efforts was my book “Where’s My Hippopotamus?” which garnered a mediocre (as opposed to a scathingly negative) review from SLJ.
Meanwhile, I had a disappointing experience with a editor who failed to keep an important promise she’d made to me.
In 1977, I basically went a different direction and got myself a comic strip in the Village Voice. The way I got them to let me do a comic strip was by, first, doing two large centerfold poster spreads for them. One was of Greenwich Village. The other was of Times Square. They attracted a great deal of attention and praise. They were done in the style of WHO NEEDS DONUTS?
Your current work is heavily influenced by current events and politics. Are there any political or topical references in the Donut Book which make a statement regarding the world in the year it was original published?
Not much. I wasn’t very political back then. The reason I got as political in my work as I eventually did was because, in 1981, I was doing an only-occasionally-political comic strip in the Village Voice when, out of the blue, I got a call from Meg Greenfield who was the editorial page editor of the Washington Post. She was a fan of my comic strip and wanted me to create a new one, about Washington for her op-ed page. I did a LOT of research and created “Washingtoon”, which ran for 12-and-a-half years on the Washington Post op-ed page, the Voice and in about 45 other newspapers. After that, it ran in TIME magazine for two years.
But, though I care a great deal about politics and have SOME very definite opinions about it, I like to say I’m not a political person. Politics is very important, but it’s not my passion.
One interesting highlight of my political cartoon career: On March 13th, 1993, during an White House visit with a group of political cartoonists and our wives, I did my Elvis Presley impersonation for President Clinton and Vice President Gore IN THE OVAL OFFICE. And President Clinton signed and gave me an Elvis necktie. And this event got mentioned in an article on the front page of the New York Times and I did a cartoon about it in Newsweek. As far as I know, I am the FIRST and ONLY cartoonist in American history to do that. So I do have a place in history. Plus, I still have the tie.
In prior conversations, you mentioned that many folks described their intense personal relationship to the book. Can you share some of those experiences?
Well, I can tell you that during the past 20 years that the book was out of print, I was contacted by many people who were anxiously searching for copies of Who Needs Donuts. I had and have a small stockpile of the original donut book. They are very hard to find.
The most famous person who contacted was Nora Ephron. She would read Who Needs Donuts with her son every summer in the library and one summer it wasn’t there anymore. In that case, we traded books.
I’ve been told many stories about people’s donut books having been stolen, or borrowed and never returned.
About ten years ago a young man sought me out trying to win back a girlfriend who had left him. Her favorite book was Who Needs Donuts and she, like many other people, had been unable to find a copy of it. That young man paid me a hundred dollars for a signed copy for his girlfriend. I never heard whether or not he got her back.
A couple in Minnesota claim that Who Needs Donuts served as a kind of shared interest that helped turn their friendship into love and marriage.
I kept hearing from so many people that I decided I would try to see how much I could get for one copy. I wanted to auction it but I didn’t know how to do that so I just offered one signed first edition over Amazon for five hundred dollars. It sold to someone in California.
How do you account for the Donut Books apparent “cult” following?
I suppose I’d account for its “cult” following by saying that maybe it was ahead of its time, but, nonetheless, it had a very strong appeal to certain numbers of people. And it wasn’t as widely seen as I think it ought to have been because of the handful rather heavily conservative reviewers who panned it. I also think this term “cult following” comes into play because Who Needs Donuts is rather quirky, unique and deeply personal. Drawn from intuition and a very personal vision of the city (and suburbs). I always wanted my art to be about personal expression. I hoped to NOT be a hack. I hoped and strove (and still do) to be original.
And that can tend at times to get a person into uncharted territory in terms of the mass market or what-have-you.
How the did the re-release come about?
I was at a book industry convention doing research for my comic strip ( “BOOX”) in the NY Times Book Review when a young woman saw my name tag and said: “MARK ALAN STAMATY! I’m a big fan of WHO NEEDS DONUTS? My boyfriend is a big fan too. He’s the one who turned me on to it!” And this woman turned out to be the publicity director for Random House children’s books.
I can’t even remember all the stories people have told me about their searches for and enthusiasm about “Who Needs Donuts?” And I can’t tell you how many times I had to tell people I just couldn’t let go of too many copies of the book and we’d all have to hope that someday it would come back into print.
And now Knopf (Random House) is releasing it. On its 30th anniversary.
Is there an additional content being introduced as part of this new edition?
I had always been unhappy with the spread where the bull runs through the coffee factory. I was very rushed at the very end of finishing up the book originally because I had missed several deadlines already. So I refined that spread for the new edition. It had always been incomplete in my eyes, so I was glad for the chance to complete it.
And I added more donuts to the copyright page which had always felt a little unbalanced to me.
And I touched up the page in the warehouse with all the donuts. Especially the outline of the white area around the type/copy.
And I made some subtle alterations and changes here and there, but nothing major.
Essentially, I’d say it’s the same book, only slightly improved.
And the art director made the wise choice to reverse the red and the orange in the lettering on the cover, which I think snaps up the cover.
And she or we (I forgot exactly who said how much about what in the choosing) chose a much better color paper for the end sheets. They are now red rather than the original orange. And I think it is a vast improvement.
Do you have a favorite character? Are you in the book? After the copyright page, there is a Streamline car with a hippie-like gentlemen in the back seat. For some reason, I was a kid, I loved this guy. I called him the SHABAZZ guy and looked for him on every page in a pre-Where’s Waldo? search. Is there any back-story to this guy? What language is he speaking?
Copyright (C) 1973, renewed 2001 by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Reprinted with Permission.
My favorite character is probably the Sad Old Woman, because she is based on the actual woman who spoke the actual words in real life and I am forever indebted to her.
Yes, I am in the book.
To some degree, I’m the boy, Sam. His name is my initials inverted. It is also my maternal grandfather’s name.
I appear in several places in the book. The “hippie-like gentleman” in the back seat opposite the copyright page is a portrait of me back then. (I don’t look like that now.) In that drawing, I am speaking Greek. (I am half Greek.) What I am saying is: “YES, LIFE.”
I also appear on the page where Sam first arrives in the city. I’m the hippie-looking guy in the pea coat standing by the marquee that says “Corner Vegetable Market.”
I also appear as a bird on the right hand side of the spread that has Abe Lincoln in it. I am also speaking in Greek there, saying: “I can” or “I am able.”
What is the process you follow for drawing a page? On average, how long does it take to draw a page? What’s the actual size of one of these pages?
It is very hard to estimate how much time I spent on each page. I can tell you I spent a lot of time on each page. Especially since, back then, I was working to develop this style and discovering and experimenting a lot as I was going along. I drew and redrew a lot. I used and still use a light box to draw and redraw and I did a lot of redrawing and refining. Arranging, rearranging, etc.
The early sketches would be a kind of scribbly gestalt of the intended feeling of the page, but working it down to the detail so that the details express the gestalt was/is a somewhat complex process.
I worked at the same size as the book because I didn’t want to take the chance of losing any details in a reduction.
Did any of your friends and family make it into the book?
The big kids playing catch on the last page are Howard and Danny, the big kids who lived next door to me when I was a boy. The unraveled baseball on the street is in remembrance of how they would play with a baseball until the cover came off and keep throwing it back and forth until it came completely unraveled.
The little girl with dark hair who appears looking at Sam on the first suburb page, sadly watching him ride off on the page where he leaves and waving to him when he returns on the last page is a little-girl version of a girlfriend I was involved with while working on the book. Originally, I was going to dedicate the book to her, but just as I was finishing it, she left me.
One day she said to me: “I’m so afraid you’ll leave me.” The next day SHE left ME.
On the page where Sam says good-bye to the Old Woman, there is a girl running away from a boy and calling back to him: “I’m so afraid you’ll leave me.”
Instead of dedicating the book to that girlfriend, I wrote a different dedication opposite the copyright page in Greek. Translated, it says: “For love.”
By the way, that girlfriend came back three months later and we were together for about another year, but I’m glad I didn’t dedicate the book to her. I like the dedication just the way it is.