Winner — 2010-2011 New York City Book Awards
— The New York Society Library

My Brooklyn Boyhood Martin Lemelman

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“A BEST MEMOIR of 2010” — Kirkus Reviews
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Praise for Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood

“Memory comes alive in this compelling amalgam of drawing, narrative and archival photography. A prolific illustrator of children’s books and an artist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review and other magazines, the author made a major leap into memoir with Mendel’s Daughter (2006), his debut in the genre. Where that well-reviewed volume focused on the Holocaust from the perspective of his mother, this follow-up continues the story of Lemelman’s family through the author’s Brooklyn boyhood. Though there’s an innocence to his tales of working at his father’s candy store—squashing cockroaches, playing pranks and exploring the worlds of the streets (“There was always something going on at the Market…Life was everywhere”)—this was not an idyllic childhood, nor is it rendered sentimentally. After immigrating to America following World War II, Lemelman’s parents turned family life into an ongoing battle as they balanced the nonstop demands of a neighborhood shop with the challenges of raising two rambunctious sons. “Deh Tateh” had served in the Soviet army after surviving the Holocaust, complained incessantly about life in America and barely hid his alcoholism. “Der Mameh” refused to back down to her husband, insisted she was more of a help in the store than he thought she was and left her son feeling deprived. The author and his brother Bernard became both allies and antagonists within the family dynamic. It all comes to vivid life through the artist’s drawing and through a narrative that conjures the voices of his dead parents to complement the author’s perspective, which retains a childlike spirit. The family chronicle unfolds against the backdrop of a tumultuous era—the assassination of a president, the escalation of the war in Vietnam and, perhaps most significant for the family, the changing demographics of a neighborhood that initially brought new waves of customers but saw a rise of anti-Semitism that drove so many families and businesses from what had long been their home.

“Life is the biggest bargain. You get it for free,” reads one of the Yiddish sayings that introduce the chapters, in a book that is both a celebration and an affirmation of life.

— Kirkus Review (starred review)

Two Cents Plain takes the cutting edge form of a graphic novel, but it’s a classic coming of age story set in Brooklyn in the 1950s and ’60s. Lemelman’s detailed pencil drawings, sprinkled with Yiddish sayings and dialogue capturing the colorful, broken English of his immigrant parents, tell the story of his hard-working parents fleeing the Holocaust after WWII and setting up shop in Teddy’s Candy Store, selling ice cream, cigarettes, sodas, egg creams, newspapers, and toys.

“We cross to Prospect Place. Mommy holds my hand as we walk the 3 blocks to my new school. ‘Study good, Mattaleh,’ says the ladies underwear and foundation man. ‘You wouldn’t have to work so hard like me.’

‘Good luck, Mattaleh,’ says the Pushcart Man — then, ‘Listen, Gusta, I got good new merchandise. Maybe you’ll take a look later?’ “

Between recipes for egg cream and black and white malts, spats with his brother, and stories about the lively characters in the neighborhood are glimpses of real suffering: an enraged father trapped in drudgery, inhaling vodka and working long hours; an hysterical mother; cramped, squalid living quarters infested with ants, roaches and rats; packing boxes for furniture; children sharing a bedroom with parents or sleeping next to the refrigerator; screaming arguments.

Even-handedly, with humor and not an ounce of self-pity, the author follows the neighborhood’s decline and the traumatic event forcing them to close the store and move. One Yiddish saying goes, “Life’s the biggest bargain. You get it free.” It’s what comes after you’re born that costs.

— San Francisco Book Review

Martin Lemelman’s rich graphic memoir is based on his recollections of growing up in a Brooklyn, New York neighborhood in the 1950’s and 60’s. Drawing on memories and recordings of his mother and father (see his other graphic memoir, Mendel’s Daughters), Two Cents Plain traces Lemelman’s path to manhood. His restrained images give the book its soul; with a combination of spare drawings, artifacts, and photographs, he evokes intense feelings of nostalgia. Lemelman’s story, while not unique, does contain truly unique elements. He grew up in a typical Brooklyn Jewish neighborhood, where his parents and brother ran a candy store, “Teddy’s Candy Store,” which was stocked with comic books, novelty toys, fake engagement rings, light bulbs, a variety of strange items, and a delicious egg cream made behind the counter. But as the years passed, the neighborhood changed dramatically and the “Jewish” stores began to disappear. By 1968, with Teddy’s as the last “Jewish” store on the block, Lemelman’s world was altered forever when a black youth robbed the store by holding a knife to Lemelman’s mother’s throat. Through Lemelman’s strong narrative voice and spare images, Two Cents Plain is a haunting and unforgettable black and white encounter with the past.

— Jewish Book World

Food or Comics? This week’s comics on a budget…
At the $30 level, there are some very tempting choices, but the one that trumps them all is Martin Lemelman’s Two Cents Plain ($26), an autobiographical graphic novel about the author’s boyhood in Brooklyn, where his parents owned a candy store/soda fountain. Lemelman tells his story in a series of vignettes, sprinkled with images of period toys and knickknacks, but the nostalgia is mixed with bitterness as he recalls his family’s strained relationships and the difficulty of running a small business in a vibrant but changing neighborhood. Good stuff.


I’ve read many books, even written a couple, about growing up in Brooklyn, but this graphic coming of age memoir brought back memories like none other.  Reading it while viewing the pictures took me home, produced tears of nostalgia and let me see, feel, even smell the old neighborhood.  I loved it, roaches and all.

— Alan Dershowitz, Author of Trials of Zion

Two Cents Plain evokes a mythical world that once seemed like it would last forever. But nothing heroic and beautiful ever lasts very long. A sweet, unforgettable account of an impoverished yet oddly magical childhood.

— Joe Queenan, NY Times Bestselling Author

Living in a candy store may sound like every kid’s fantasy, but as Martin Lemelman’s memoir Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood (Bloomsbury) attests, the reality is more than a little bittersweet. With a mother haunted by the Holocaust and shtetl superstitions and a father pining for the bad old days in Stalin’s army, Lemelman’s formative years in Brownsville, Brooklyn were a pungent mixture of old country and new. As with his “memoir” Mendel’s Daughter, which he wrote from his mother’s perspective, much of Two Cents Plain is described in the fractured English of Lemelman’s immigrant parents, with all its shifty syntax and transposed froms and ofs intact. That voice—along with Lemelman’s smudgy pencil sketches, family photos, and scanned childhood artifacts—brings these often-understated vignettes to life, even when they’re recounting something as mundane as attrition warfare with insects. The ever-present roaches aren’t the only thing Two Cents Plain shares with Will Eisner’s tenement stories, and the book doesn’t shy away from the cycles of racial strife and neighborhood death and renewal that characterized Brooklyn following World War II. Like a two-cent seltzer water, this graphic memoir is an unassuming treat, whether sipped a story at a time, or quaffed in one satisfying sitting.

— The Onion, AV

Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood by Martin Lemelman. You know that “authentic old Brooklyn” everyone’s always lamenting or trying to recapture? Martin Lemelman’s 1950s childhood in his parents’ candy shop and soda fountain was the real thing, though it also included the aftereffects of the Holocaust and the city’s racial and class tensions. Thick with period detail and family history, this is a sobering and yet still charming piece of nostalgia.

— Graphic Holiday Round up edition

Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood, by Martin Lemelman, is a black-and-white graphic memoir by a child of Holocaust survivors who operate a candy store in Brooklyn. Lemelman is sensitive, poignant, nostalgic, funny, bitterly ironic and caustic as he recounts his childhood in a series of cleverly-drawn vignettes... Lemelman conveys the sights, sounds, smells and impressions of his Brooklyn boyhood and his family history in a manner that seems just as vivid and immediate as anything by Marcel Proust.

— Canadian Jewish News

Lemelman’s viewpoint is affectionate but not gauzy…The book tracks the transformation of the neighborhood from a kind of shtetl to one of uneasy racial mix. This is literary territory familiar to fans of Mordecai Richler and Saul Bellow; what Lemelman brings to it is artistry featuring a fine eye for detail, penmanship nuanced but never watery, and a stylistic fearlessness that can stuff pop art tropes, photography, and naturalism onto the same page.

— Boston Globe

In this rich sketch and scrap book of sorts — a compelling compendium of expressively-rendered anecdotes and black-and-white drawings, documents, photos, and artifacts — Lemelman begins Two Cents Plain with those grim days of wartime and war torn Europe to chronicle the struggles of his and his brother Bernard’s parents to get to the United States, and their ultimate dilemmas and decisions that went into opening the candy, comic books, and novelties store — kid tested, mom ultimately approved.

— Seattle Post Intelligencer

Lemelman captures the challenges, tastes, and smells of a particularly nostalgic time and place for many immigrants through his compelling illustrations.Two Cents Plain offers a firsthand account of the first generation American’s experience as the structure of the 1950s evolved into the freeform 1960s.

— Miami New Times

Amazing…Author Martin Lemelman mixes nostalgia and realism, bringing in period touches such as drawings of vintage toys and candy but never shying away from the grittier details such as his parents’ anger, their poverty and the rats that swarmed through their apartment.

— Comic Book Resources’ list of the top 100 comics of the year

Praise for Mendel’s Daughter

“Mendel’s Daughter ... is a gritty eyewitness report on the great upheaval of eastern Europe in the 1930s and ’40s, based on Lemelman's recordings of his mother in 1989; at the harshest moments, the reader can take a small bit of comfort that Gusta survived to live a long life in the U.S.A...a stark account of human weakness and fear, tragic missteps with fatal consequences, and unimaginable hardships as she survives for two years with two brothers in a hole in the ground.  Lemelman's subdued art gives the story its heart; with a combination of charcoal drawings and photographs, he creates a sense both of an almost mythical time gone by and the very real lives that were snuffed out.”

— Publisher's Weekly

“On virtually every page Lemelman skillfully juxtaposes haunting pencil drawings, family photographs, and handwritten text, sans comicslike borders. He keeps intact Gusta's Jewish American dialect. His unique contribution to Holocaust literature will doubtless educe comparisons with Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (1986), yet many may find Lemelman's more realist work more approachable, immediate, and, ultimately, unforgettable.”

— Booklist

“Mendel’s Daughter strides bravely...into Maus’s footprints and, against all odds, succeeds. Lemelman’s first novel, is a tender, faithful retelling of his mother’s Holocaust story. The routine details of shtetl life, family politics, brief moments of kindness amid devastating hardship, move us beyond clichés, beyond Good and Evil, to convey a powerful, tragic, human history. Ultimately—miraculously—about hope, not horror.”

— UPstreet magazine (UK)

“In this captivating story of one woman’s survival in Poland during World War II, Lemelman tells of his mother Gusta and how she and a few siblings managed to deal with a horrifying situation and survive…The real heart of the story is Gusta’s distinct way of speaking (the sprinkling of Yiddish words in her sentences), which Lemelman does a great job of reproducing. Her unique voice makes the reader wish she were in front of them telling her story personally. The paperback version includes an author interview and a reading group guide...Drawn in black and white and mixed with photographs and mementos of Gusta’s life, Mendel’s Daughter is a heartbreaking and fascinating story. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.”

— (Starred Review)

“Hardly a cheerful book, but a quite remarkable one is Mendel’s Daughter: A Memoir by Martin Lemelman whose pages are filled with pencil drawings by the author based on his mother’s telling of what it was like to be a Jew in 1930s Poland and her eventual escape from Nazi persecution. Any reviewer will tell you that there have been hundreds of books written about the Holocaust. They vary in quality, but this one is truly unique for its graphic approach to the history of that period and tragedy. As a piece of Jewish history, the book adds its message of an event beyond imagination.”