Most children’s books written in the 1970s and set in New York would be definite Old School entries here, but somehow I missed this one as a kid. In a way, though, I’m glad I first encountered it recently, when a friend gave it to Dash as a gift a few years back, because I got to experience the same awed sense of discovery he did, and at the same time.
Who Needs Donuts?, which first came out in 1973, was among the first (and almost last) children’s books by illustrator Mark Alan Stamaty, who would go on to an (ahem) illustrious career as a cartoonist for the Village Voice, the Washington Post, Time, and the New York Times Book Review, as well as an internationally acclaimed illustrator (New Yorker covers and the like). It seems to have been perhaps a little ahead of its time, however—it went out of print for almost 30 years almost immediately, which is probably why I never encountered it as a child myself. Happily, this publishing travesty was rectified in 2003, by which time it was reissued, having attained something of a cult following in the intervening years.
Which was and remains entirely deserved: Who Needs Donuts? is a dazzlingly, wondrously eccentric masterpiece. Its story is simple, if unusual: Young Sam has a lovely life in the suburbs—nice house, nice family, nice friends—but he feels there’s something lacking in his life: He wants donuts, multitudes of them, more than his parents can provide, so he heads on his tricycle to the big city (pretty clearly New York, though it’s never specifically labeled as such) to find them. There he conveniently meets the beaming Mr. Bikferd, a man who collects donuts by the thousand in his big wooden wagon, and who takes on Sam as his assistant. But when his mentor falls in love with a woman named Pretzel Annie and suddenly no longer cares for donuts (proving the edict of a sad old lady they’ve encountered in their quest: “Who needs donuts when you’ve got love?”), Sam is left on his own to figure out what to do with a warehouse full of donuts. (I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say he finds an ideally humanitarian use for them.)
This is obviously not your typical picture-book plot, but to be honest, the narrative is in fact the most linear and logical thing about Who Needs Donuts? Stamaty’s art is like nothing you’ve ever seen, endlessly imaginative in its surreal depiction of the wild, wonderful, weird life of the big city Sam has traveled to. The illustrative style is also detailed to the point of obsession, with the result that you really can’t help but notice something new—many of them, really—every single time you read the book; there’s literally no way to take it all in at once. (You’ll probably need to click on the image below to enlarge it and get a full sense of what I’m talking about here.)
This makes it an everlasting favorite of Dash’s as well—he was blown away by the absurdist humor of the book from the start, which accorded well (as we were to start discovering around that time) with his own burgeoning sense of humor. But he loves that on every new read, he can pore over the illustrations and find something new to be amazed by. Who Needs Donuts? is the perfect picture book for the typical young kid’s reading pattern, really: It’s read intensely for a while, then recedes to the shelf for an extended period, only to re-emerge again and be read just as intensely during every subsequent rediscovery.
As a side note, I also have to say that Stamaty has captured here a child’s perception of New York City in the 1970s to a degree that I find downright uncanny. I grew up in NYC in this era, and this is exactly what walking around with my parents in a downtown neighborhood I didn’t know well felt like when I was four years old—the endless, often incomprehensible surge of activity both drawing me in and scaring me a little, alluring with possibility yet always bordering on grotesque, and all at the same time.
Those who already love Who Needs Donuts?—and really, the rest of you too, because you’re going to—should check out this great interview with Stamaty, in which he tells some great stories about the book’s origins, its initial poor reviews, and its road to rebirth.