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FOR THE KIDS

A Word About Undies

Author channels a personal interest into the unusual topic of new book.

October 22, 1998|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Looking back on her decades-long career as an author and illustrator of books for young readers, Deborah Nourse Lattimore admitted recently, "I never thought I'd be doing a book about the history of underwear."

You, too, may never have thought that you or your kids would look into this topic in a serious way, but you may be curious enough to drive to Tarzana to see Lattimore demonstrate her new pop-up book on underwear. (Actually, it's a lift-up-the-flap book).

Pages Books for Children will host a morning event this Saturday, for kids 4 to 10, featuring the Los Angeles-based author and her newly published "I Wonder What's Under There? A Brief History of Underwear."

A veteran writer of children's nonfiction, Lattimore has written on topics as diverse as 18th century France, 19th century Maori life in New Zealand, 16th century Sung Dynasty China, and Aztec life prior to the arrival of Cortez (the last recently optioned by Fox TV).

She said she had not been aware that she frequently discussed the historical evolution of underwear when talking to her literary agent, Linda Zuckerman.

"I recalled childhood trips with my grandmother to visit the Los Angeles County Museum, where we got to go behind the scenes to the costume collection," she explained with a vivacity that may be the legacy of her mother, who was a dancer in Busby Berkeley movies.

"People through the ages got to wear a lot of interesting clothes, different kinds reflecting different ideas about comfort. They had underwear [at the museum], including Nijinsky's dancing underwear!"

Finally her agent put a stop to all the underwear talk. "I've had enough," Zuckerman said.

"Why don't you just do a book about it and get it out of your system."

Well, Lattimore did and she didn't. That is to say, she did the book and has even moved onto other projects on Shakespeare, the Greek goddess Medusa and, fearless as ever, Vlad the Impaler, the real-life model for Dracula.

But she's still filled with a vivacious, childlike, but quite expert interest in the topic of underwear, which those attending her presentation Saturday will certainly notice. (Her personality was probably a big factor in her being chosen to be profiled in a forthcoming series about author-illustrators on cable TV's Learning Channel.)

One of her favorite recollections involves being given, at about age 5, a doll that came with a miniature steamer trunk filled with doll clothes.

It also had shelves with doll underwear, as well as tiny gloves.

Lattimore theorizes that this episode was on her mind when she decided that her study of underwear would be a pop-up book, unlike her previous books.

And she might have had her fond memories of a 1950s childhood in mind when she readily agreed to her agent's suggestion that "we must do it with dignity."

Parents may be surprised to learn that there's an abundance of dignified children's books on the topic of underwear, available at Pages or your local bookstore or public library.

They include: "The Adventures of Captain Underpants" by Dav Pilkey; "Where Oh Where's My Underwear" by Barney Saltzberg; "Why Did the Underwear Cross the Road?" by Gordon Korman; "The Secret Life of the Underwear Champ" by Betty Miles; "Always Wear Clean Underwear" by Rabbi Marc Gellman; and the book considered by some to be the granddaddy of underwear stories, "The Emperor's New Clothes" by Hans Christian Andersen.

BE THERE

Author-illustrator Deborah Nourse Lattimore introduces her new pop-up book for kids 4-10, "I Wonder What's Under There? A Brief History of Underwear," Saturday at 11 a.m. at Pages Books for Children, 18399 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. Free. (818) 342-6657.

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