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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.

Annibale Carracci, Vincent van Gogh and Michael Jackson

Self-portraits and easel paintings have a long tradition in art, from Carracci through Cezanne and, yes, Michael Jackson.

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Today, July 15, is the anniversary of Annibale Carracci’s death (in 1609). One of his more famous works was his self-portrait, displayed right. Read about the significance of self-portraits and easel paintings in the post below, not just for Carracci but for van Gogh, Corot, Cezanne, Marc Chagall, Norman Rockwell and more.

Vincent van Gogh, Easel Paintings and a bit of Michael Jackson

 

 

© 2017 by Ted Macaluso

When young readers grow

Vincent, Theo and the Fox is a picture book for young readers. As kids grow, here are some of my favorite books about art for middle grade readers.

Here are six chapter books by authors that I like. Some of the links 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.

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From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by e.l.konigsburg is for older children (8 to 12) and is as incredibly delightful today as it was when it won the Newbery Medal in 1968. Claudia, who decides to run away, wants to go someplace beautiful and comfortable, not someplace untidy like a picnic with bugs. And that’s why she goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m quoting the book jacket here but it is because it says exactly what I want to say about this gem of a story: “It is an adventure, a mystery, a celebration of art and beauty, and most of all, a journey of self-discovery.” This is one that really makes art more exciting!

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Under The Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald is so good I couldn’t put it down! The young heroine, Theodora Tenpenny, discovers a hidden masterpiece in her recently-deceased grandfather’s art studio, a masterpiece that he may have stolen. The book is about so much: the painter Raphael, how to determine if an artwork is real or a forgery, what happened with the art looted by the Nazi’s in world war II. But it is also about making friends, the challenges of being 13 and responsible for a mother who has retreated from the world, and how a girl re-discovers her emotional connection with a father-figure (the grandfather) who died leaving you poor, questioning his integrity, and faced with a mystery. Phenomenal. Get it! (Grades 4-7.)

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Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, illustrated by Brett Hellquist. This is a charming and suspenseful book. Two nerdy kids, Petra and Calder, find themselves in the middle of an international art scandal when a priceless Vermeer painting is stolen. The story is also about secret codes, puzzles and unexplained coincidences that matter. The story conveys some of the mysteries of Vermeer’s life. Although the book does not show color reproductions of Vermeer’s paintings the text gives a good sense of what it is like to look at his paintings. For example, when Calder is looking at a book of the artist’s work, he thinks, “Most of them showed people in front of a window…the same yellow jacket turned up in a number of places. The pictures made you feel as though you were peeking in at someone else’s private moment.” An exciting book!

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Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells with illustrations by Marcos Calo is a middle grade mystery about–you guessed it–art thieves trying to steal a few Picasso paintings on New York City’s “museum mile.” I don’t remember learning that much about art (except for the fact that NYC has lots of wonderful museums) but it is a quick read with great voice. Fun book.

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A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home by Henry Cole (author/illustrator). This graphic novel (for grades 3 – 5) uses a fictional mouse to introduce readers to naturalist and painter John James Audubon and his assistant, Joseph Mason. While the book does not include any of Audubon’s paintings, Cole’s illustrations are beautiful. The opening is exciting and the ending is a heartfelt reflection on what “home” really is. It was an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection when it was published in 2010.

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Masterpiece by Elise Broach with illustrations by Kelly Murphy is for grades 3-7. Marvin, a beetle, has the talent to make miniature drawings as good as the ones Albrect Durer made. He becomes friends with the boy, James, whose house he lives in. James, of course, gets all the credit for the drawings, which sets up some tension that is eventually resolved. Together, James and Marvin help solve the mystery of who stole the real drawings. Readers empathize with Marvin, who is one brave and resourceful beetle that kids can look up to. The book is a little like The Borrowers, a little like Chasing Vermeer and a lot like its own heartwarming tale of friendship and bravery with some good art information thrown in. Nice read!

 

What do you think? If you know of similar books to recommend, please leave a comment below.

  • Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso is the author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, 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 © 2017 by Ted Macaluso

Vincent van Gogh’s Peasant Women

Van Gogh painted dozens of portraits of peasant women. What do we know about them? And, why was this one used in a children’s book?

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This portrait by Vincent van Gogh, Head of a Peasant Woman with a White Cap (Nuenen, 1885), is dramatic: for the lighting, the woman’s chiseled features, and the intense concentration and intelligence in her eyes. The image marks an equally dramatic turn in Vincent, Theo and the Fox, my children’s book story about van Gogh and growing up:

“On silent, padded paws the fox jumped to the kitchen counter, where there was a basket of potatoes. He took one and ate it….With a clang and a clatter, the potatoes spilled everywhere. One of the women looked over and saw the fox. She nudged her husband. “I shall catch that fox,” her husband said. “We shall eat him for supper. Later, I will make you a fur coat…” 

I won’t reveal what happens next. Authors have to live, so please buy the book here to find out. However, I do want to talk about van Gogh’s portraits of peasant women. Here are four more examples of the many portraits of women created by van Gogh:

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(These examples are from WikiArt.org- encyclopedia of visual arts, where you can find many more similar portraits.)

Van Gogh did not just paint peasant women, of course. Between 1881 and 1885 he made many paintings of women, men and couples. These paintings include both portraits and studies of working people engaged in everyday chores: sowing and sewing, fishing and weaving, farming and cooking.

Why did van Gogh make these and his other peasant character studies? First, he was aware of the industrialization creeping across the Netherlands. Vincent saw the changing landscape and its increasingly harsh impact on the working poor, who had little chance to change occupations. Second, as an artist, he admired another painter, Jean-François Millet, a pioneer of the “peasant genre” in the realism movement in art.

For a full explanation we also have to recognize that the life of peasants and the cycles of nature are closely related. The significance of that point becomes clear when we look at van Gogh’s own moral compass: he started out ministering to coal miners and trying to serve their needs. His life and work were dominated by intense spiritual needs even after he had renounced formalized religion. As Ann H. Murray, retired Assistant Professor of Art and Director of the Watson Gallery at Wheaton College, points out, Van Gogh painted landscapes and images of  “simple people who lived in harmony with nature” because “he had turned to nature as his sole source of spiritual fulfillment and admittedly tried to express such feelings in his art.”

Back to the story. Why did I select the first portrait above to use in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? She’s looking to the right, first of all. In the story, the fox starts the scene by observing image010the people in van Gogh’s famous paintiimage012ng, The Potato Eaters, at their table. In my mind’s eye, van Gogh’s Basket of Potatoes was on a counter to the right.
So the woman had to be looking in that direction. More importantly, the woman’s expression is neither contemplative nor beaten-down. She is focused on something see sees and she is reacting intently to it. Perfect for a story character seeing a fox trying to eat her poor family’s scarce potatoes.

It is stimulating and fun to weave stories around fine art. I believe anyone can do it if they try. The trick is to make sure that the choice in art (of which there are many) matches the arc of the story (where the possibilities are almost infinite but under your control). How do you think  I did with this one match-up? Leave a comment, below. I’ll be sure to read it.

– Ted Macaluso

51yxdllnnwl-_sx416_bo1204203200_For more reflections about van Gogh and religion, see my earlier essay, The Church at Auvers.

If you are interested in learning more about van Gogh and nature, check out the Clark Art Institute’s Van Gogh and Nature, written by Richard Kendall, Sjraar van Heighten, and Chris Stolwijk [affiliate link].

If you liked this post and want to make sure you learn when future ones are posted, please subscribe to my newsletter by clicking here. Every other week you’ll receive news about blog posts on art, children’s books and writing; information about new books; and an occasional subscriber-only giveaway.

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.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. All rights reserved.

 

The Harvest and The Story

Vincent van Gogh’s The Harvest at La Crau is the painting that inspired Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Here we learn more about the painting and how it led to a children’s tale about growing up.

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During the time he lived in Provence, van Gogh braved the heat of the day and went out numerous times to paint the glorious countryside. He  completed The Harvest at La Crau, with Montmajour in the Background in June of 1888.

If ever a painting captured the beauty of a summer day in the country, this one is it. The color scheme is particularly appropriate, with a blue sky, blue carts, and blue sides of barns  encircled by the orange of the foreground, the wheat stack and the roofs of houses. These elements highlight the almost luminescent gold of the wheat that dominates the image. The brilliant red wagon wheels in the middle right of the picture draw the eye on a line leading back to the white Abbey of Montmajour in the far background of the upper left. Van Gogh was fascinated with the Abbey, visiting it at least 50 times.

Wheat fields are a subject for many of van Gogh’s paintings and can be seen as metaphors for humanity’s cycles of life. Which brings us to children and growing up. How did this painting inspire Vincent, Theo and the Fox? Here is the story behind the story.

To get my son to go on exercise walks with me I would tell him stories. They were simple action tales: Suddenly, a monster…Bam, a hero…Wham another monster. And then one day a real monster struck: Mark had a series of lung infections and several times a day had to sit still for twenty minutes breathing through a nebulizer. Not what an active 5 year old boy wants to do! Just before one of these episodes his grandmother was visiting and we had all gone to the National Gallery of Art to see an exhibit of van Gogh’s paintings. She bought the exhibit catalog, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam by Richard Kendall with contributions by John Leighton and Sjraar van Heugten. One afternoon when Mark was being nebulized, he asked me to tell a story. I did not have it in me. He pointed to the catalog saying, “Read me the story.” I tried to explain, “It’s not a story.” Neither he nor Grandma would let me off easy. I had to “read” the catalog to him.

What to do? An art catalog is not a wham, bam action tale. I opened it at random and it showed The Harvest at La Crau. I thought to myself, “OK, Vincent has to be a boy to make this interesting…but what is he doing?” I surprised myself by saying, “One day, when he was a boy, Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo, were looking at the harvest when they saw a fox sneak into the cart.” That picture and that idea became the start of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Vincent and Theo chased the fox through a bunch of van Gogh’s paintings until the nebulizer was done. At that point, the fox got away and the boys went home.

The tale kept Mark engaged but it was not really a story yet. I knew it needed more. I asked myself, “What do boys do?” The answer, of course, is that they grow up. And while they grow up they wonder what they will become. We all know that van Gogh became a painter, but he didn’t go there directly, trying a number of different jobs first. So as a boy in a story there is wonder and mystery when Vincent thinks about growing up. I came up with the idea that the fox was young too—he was also trying to grow up and find his way in the world. And that, I believe, is what makes Vincent, Theo and the Fox a delightful tale. We have two boys and a fox thinking about growing up and through their actions teaching each other about life. The writer, Susan Sontag, writes that “art is not only about something, it is something.” By this, she means that art isn’t like science or history, it doesn’t teach you facts you should know. Rather, literature gives readers an experience from which they learn and take their own lessons. I like to think that Vincent, Theo and the Fox achieves this: it does not teach about growing up, it lets readers learn about it.

Because the art is beautiful and chase tales are exciting, young readers don’t “get” what they are experiencing until it is over. But my hope is that the story stays with children and they learn while they process the experience of the story. Because the book gives a biography of van Gogh in an epilogue, children learn about van Gogh while processing the experience of the story. I think this really engages them in van Gogh’s art and gives the story more depth.

What do you think about the story? What do your children get from it? If you want to leave comments I will read them with interest.

Thanks, Ted Macaluso

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.

If you liked this post and want to make sure you learn when future ones are posted, please subscribe to my newsletter by clicking here. Every other week you’ll receive news about blog posts on art, children’s books and writing; information about new books; and an occasional subscriber-only giveaway.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. All Rights Reserved.