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Three Views of Van Gogh for Children

Three new picture books give complementary views of the artist’s life.

Authors use the same facts differently. That is as true for picture books as it is for books geared to older ages. When you show children a set of books with different perspectives on the same subject, it helps them develop the capacity to think analytically. Doing this with picture books is a great way for younger kids to have fun while learning how to understand and master their world.

Here are three picture books that, together, help children think about the life of painter Vincent van Gogh.

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Vincent Can’t Sleep by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary GrandPré is a biography of the painter told from the hook of children fighting sleep. It looks at van Gogh as a struggling artist driven to express himself and paint the night sky. Ages 4 to 8.

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The Artist and Me by Shane Peacock and illustrated by Sophie Casson uses van Gogh’s time in Arles, France to teach about bullying. It looks at van Gogh as a visionary, bullied for being both poor and different. The story is told by one of the bullies as an adult looking back at what he did and what he learned. Ages 5 to 9.

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Vincent, Theo and the Fox by Ted Macaluso (yes, that’s me) uses van Gogh’s life to teach about growing up and brotherhood. It looks at van Gogh, and his brother Theo, as two young boys who wonder what they should be when they grow up. Chasing a mischievous fox through van Gogh’s paintings they discover the answer to how to be the best you can be when you grow up. Ages 4 to 10.

One artist and three viewpoints. All three perspectives are true, which is the beauty of reading these three books together.

All three books have great reviews.

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Kirkus Reviews called Vincent Can’t Sleep “a soft, sad, lovely introduction to a masterpiece.” Booklist said it is “a beautiful exploration of van Gogh’s influences and achievement.”

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The School Library Journal’s assessment of The Artist and Me is that the book presents “…a troubling issue observed through the lens of art history [and] delivers a meaningful message about individuality and tolerance.”

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Kirkus Reviews called Vincent, Theo and the Fox “a charming, unique way to introduce youngsters to great art while providing an important message.” ThePictureBookReview.com said: “[Vincent, Theo and the Fox] is the first book I’ve read where the illustrations are storied instead of the story being illustrated….It adds a depth of imagination that I’m not used to in picture books. I can’t think of any other picture book doing this–it’s wonderful!” 

Reading all three books can be a powerful experience. Together, they reinforce the reality that Vincent van Gogh was, like each and every one of us is, a complex, many-sided person.

Ted Macaluso lives in Reston, Virginia and blogs about children’s books and art at www.tedmacaluso.com.

Text © 2019 by Ted Macaluso.

Note: Some of the links above are “affiliate links” to Amazon.com, which means that Amazon pays me a few pennies if you end up buying the book through the link here. Your price is the same whether you use the affiliate link or find the book another way. The pennies don’t influence my judgment. These are all books I’ve read and recommend. You’re free to click, look on Amazon, and not buy.

7 Art Books Children Will Love

The secret to finding books that get kids engaged with art and art history is simple: find books that go beyond the facts of an artist’s biography to address important themes about life.

With hundreds of picture books about art available, finding the ones that have meaning for your child can feel daunting. Here are seven picture books that stick with young readers and engage their imagination.

1. Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!  by Jonah Winter (Author) and Kevin Hawkes (Illustrator) is about Picasso and his art but, even more, it is about courage and standing up to mean comments. Winter turns Picasso’s life into a drama. By doing that, the story reaches into the heart of every child who is told to “just behave.” It can touch every child who needs inner strength to pursue a dream in the face of criticism. The book starts with a canvas of a peaceful landscape. Turn the page, and a young Picasso is bursting through that same canvas. When art dealers tell Picasso his new work is terrible, Picasso “expands himself to a height of one hundred feet” and shouts, “The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good sense!’” What a marvelous way to relate to the intense feelings of children. Readers feel what it means to resist the judgments of peers and forge one’s own path. Ages 4 to 8.

2. Children intuitively know that perseverance in the face of adversity is the way to succeed. They don’t always know how to persevere or how to overcome the constraints of disability. In Capturing Joy: The Story of Maud Lewis written by Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrated by Mark Lang, children learn about a Canadian painter who, through force of will, created images of joy despite a hard life. Lewis was born with several birth defects, had rheumatoid arthritis, and was dirt poor. Her husband was a fish peddler and they lived in a house without electricity and indoor plumbing. Despite these challenges, she persevered, and became famous slowly, over time. Lewis’ house—which she turned into a work of art—is now a part of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. In addition to illustrating what self-determination means, the book introduces children to a less known female artist and to folk art. Ages 8 to 12.

3. Imagine! by Raúl Colón is a pure picture book: there are no words. Yet it tells a beautiful story based on the author’s life. Colón became a highly acclaimed children’s book illustrator. But growing up, he had only visited one museum, the American Museum of Natural History. He learned to draw by copying what he saw in comic books and on the printed page. His first visit to an art museum — the Museum of Modern Art — was as an adult. He responded to van Gogh’s Starry Night like a child and was overwhelmed with emotions. Imagine! shows the creative adventure he might have had (and that anyone might have) if visiting an art museum as a child. In the book, a young boy skateboards by the Museum of Modern Art and decides to go in. Artwork by Picasso, Rousseau, and Matisse step off the canvas and follow him around New York City. At the end of the day, when the imagined art returns to the museum and the boy returns home, something very touching happens. I won’t spoil the ending by giving it away, but it is wonderful. Ages 4 to 8.

4. Anna and Johanna: A Children’s Book Inspired by Jan Vermeer by Géraldine Elschner (author) and Florence Kœnig (illustrator) takes its inspiration from two of Vermeer’s paintings: The Milkmaid and The Lacemaker. The author noticed that the women in the paintings look like they could be sisters, despite the fact that one is a servant and the other upper class. This sets the stage for an imaginative mystery tale set in the Dutch city of Delft.  It takes a real event – an explosion at a gunpowder magazine in 1654  – to show how two women react to a secret shared in a letter. Ages 4 to 8.

5. This next book is about a woman who writes and illustrates picture books. The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life is by and about Lois Ehlert, one of the most gifted picture book makers of our time. It is incredibly colorful, has many craft lessons for readers, and shows what it is like to be an artist. It addresses where inspiration comes from. I especially liked the time when Ehlert’s sister’s cat brushed her ankles. No spoilers here, but I recommend reading the page where she shows two versions of the story that grew out of that incident. Ehlert is a recipient of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art Artist Award for lifelong innovation in the field of children’s books. What a role model for an aspiring young artist. Ages 5 to 10.

6. How do you step out and claim your own voice? It’s a question every child faces. Giving an answer makes a book relevant and engaging. Me, Frida, written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist David Diaz, is one of many books about artistic pioneer Frida Kahlo. What I like about this book is that it focuses on Frida’s time in San Francisco. This is where she found her inspiration to step out and find fame on her own, separate from the shadow of her husband and mentor, Diego Rivera. The book shows Frida and Diego exploring the city. How familiar is this: he expresses an opinion; Frida disagrees? When the couple explore towering redwood groves Diego feels empowered; Frida falls asleep. Gradually, she explores the city on her own, focusing on the things that appeal to her. There is a great illustration where, out of the blue, Frida starts to sing Mexican songs at a party to honor Diego. That night, she painted a picture that made her famous. It was a portrait of her and Diego. As in life, he was big, and she was small. However, in the portrait, in a ribbon in the beak of a bird, she puts her name first. Unlike many other children’s books on Kahlo (which, overall, give more information about her life and art), Me, Frida recognizes the significance of this step. In the story, it occurs in a context in which its meaning makes sense. Ages 5 to 7.

7. Written by Shane Peacock and illustrated by Sophie Casson, The Artist and Me is a picture book about both bullying and Vincent van Gogh. The artist was misunderstood during his life and tormented by both inner demons and public criticism of his appearance and eccentric behavior. The contrast between van Gogh, the artistic genius, and van Gogh, the disheveled human man, became intense when he moved to the French country town of Arles. Van Gogh created some of his most beloved paintings in the few months that he lived in Arles. But he had few friends there, many of the townsfolk complained about him, and their children would tease him. The book takes an approach to the facts of van Gogh’s life that is relevant to the times we live in. The protagonist is fictional and nameless–one of the many children who teased van Gogh. The text captures the difference between a private child, who is secretly fascinated by van Gogh’s paintings (which he sees while spying on van Gogh from a hiding place), and a public bully who was mean in crowds “since that is what cowards do.” The ending is a lesson about how bullies can change and grow. It is also a lesson about the rewards of artistic integrity. The illustrations capture not just the meanness of bullying but also the yellow, green and gold hues of the French country side memorialized in van Gogh’s work. The text is lyrical and subtle. It works like the best picture books should, with the pictures telling and foreshadowing the story in partnership with the words. Ages 5 to 9. 

case8.000x10.000.inddTed Macaluso is the author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox: A mischievous adventure through the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, an adventure story for kids about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (ages 4 to 10). Kirkus Reviews calls it “a charming unique way to introduce youngsters to great art while providing an important message.” He lives in Reston, Virginia and blogs about children’s books and art at www.tedmacaluso.com.

Text © 2019 by Ted Macaluso.

Note: Some of the links above are “affiliate links” to Amazon.com, which means that Amazon pays me a few pennies if you end up buying the book through the link here. Your price is the same whether you use the affiliate link or find the book another way. The pennies don’t influence my judgment. These are all books I’ve read and recommend. You’re free to click, look on Amazon, and not buy.

Book Holiday

No, not a break from books, but holiday gifts for the book lovers in your life.

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You know it’s going to happen. You’re at a party or meeting with one or more writers and someone will have a literary-themed tee shirt or tote. Not just any tee or tote but a really cool item. Like me, you may have a frisson of jealousy. 

Here’s an opportunity to be better than that. Obvious State is one of the companies where you can buy these really cool objects of identity. They’re not paying me — I stumbled on their website and said to myself, “Ted, you have to share.” The image above is theirs. 

Here are two more examples from the firm’s website: a poster for the Shakespeare lovers among us (with a quote about fools) and a tote for those who wish to accessorize with Jane Austen.

Obvious State has a lot of items book lovers might like.  

Having stumbled across one company, I quickly figured there had to be other firms like them. (Us writers are smart, know how to research things. Right?)  

Sure enough, searching for “literary gifts” on the world’s most ubiquitous search engine revealed… The Literary Gift Company. (Did you ever have that brought-down-to-earth feeling? What did Shakespeare say about fools?) 

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The Literary Gift Company is not paying me and is also cool. One of my favorite categories on their website is socks.  If you love Sherlock Holmes or The Little Prince, go for it.

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Keep someone’s feet warm. And Happy Holidays.

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10). He lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

Text © 2018 by Ted Macaluso.

Know Your Spaceships — But Think Big

Science fiction has generated lots of spaceships. Whether you’re primarily an author or fan, it helps to know them.

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Elizabeth Howell, writing at Space.com, put together a list entitled The 25 Greatest Spaceships of Science Fiction. It has the can’t-do-without classics, such as the Millennium Falcon, the USS Enterprise series, Doctor Who’s TARDIS, the Battlestar Galactica, and–my personal favorite– the Rocinante.

It’s a great list. But it stops with star ships, which are really quite small. The biggest ship on her list is the mothership from the movie Independence Day, which comes in at over 300 miles long.

51zn0RcEtnL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_Two masters of science fiction, Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, think way way bigger. In their book, Bowl of Heaven, and its sequel, ShipStar, they envision a species that turns a star into a ship to travel through the universe. Humans on an interstellar voyage encounter a bowl-shaped artifact that half envelopes a star. Mysteriously, the star is heading toward the humans’ destination. The bowl has a habitable area bigger than a million earths. The humans land and…OMG.51gcohxevul-_sx304_bo1204203200_

 

Can’t think bigger than that! The books are great reads and an essential addition to your list of space ships

 

Full disclosure: if you click on a book and then decide to buy it, Amazon gives me a few pennies. Your cost is the same whether you buy here or some other way. (This is why Jeff Bezos is as rich as a shipstar is big.)

 

Text © 2018 by Ted Macaluso.