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Five Bold Girls and Two Sweet Boys

Some of the best children’s books provide young readers with insight into the adults they could become. Sometimes these books have positive role models, other times not. But the 7 books below answer a child’s question: what can I be?

If you’ve ever been to the ocean or stood on the banks of a mighty river you know the magical pull of water. Today’s book recommendations start with women on the water.

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Eleanor, the heroine of Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud, is a shining example of a bold woman. Written by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, this book is an exciting read and I couldn’t put it down. Eleanor became a great navigator and she led her husband’s boat from New York, around Cape Horn, and on to San Francisco in record-breaking time. Storms; a broken mast; a woman winning by skill, guts and a quicker grasp of science than competing  navigators! The language is beautiful. Here is one example: “Ellen’s heart raced like a riptide….”  The illustrations are perfect. Did I say I like this book? I do. A lot! Both your sons and daughters will too. Intended age range is 5 to 8.

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Steamboat! The Story of Captain Blanche Leathers, written by Judith Heide Gilliland and illustrated by Holly Meade, is the tale of Captain Blanche, the first female steamboat captain on the Mississippi (ages 4 and up). Published well over a decade ago, the book is as fresh today as it was then. While the story focuses on her skill and bravery, I like that the book also tells us that she became a legend for her kindness as well as her skill. The book makes clear what a perceptive person she was. When the era of the grand steamboat was giving way to the new age of the locomotive, a reporter asked her about this change. Leathers replied, “Today belongs to land. Tomorrow–air. That is life, nothing humdrum about it. I love it!”

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The thundering drop is as tall as a 17 story skyscraper. So, if you’re going to be bold, why not go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? The next book is about a bold, older woman who decides to win fame and fortune by doing just that. Written and illustrated by two-time Caldecott medalist Chris Van Allsburg, Queen of the Falls is the true story of Annie Edson Taylor (ages 6 – 9).  She was not just the first woman to successfully ride the falls in a barrel, she was the first person ever to do it (and there have only been 8 other successful rides in 100 years). I like that the book shows Taylor designing and helping to construct her special barrel. A strong barrel is only the start. Taylor solves the problems of how to survive inside the barrel. I like that the text is also honest about age discrimination: Taylor did not achieve the riches for which she had hoped because audiences wanted to see a young, beautiful daredevil rather than a 60s-something grandmother. Finally, I like that the book’s powerful lesson is not that a lady daredevil rode the Falls, it is that Taylor found inner satisfaction: she knew she had done the greatest feat ever performed.

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Pirates–love ’em or hate ’em (or both). I’m mixed about this next book because it tells of a lady pirate who was as bold as any man–and just as immoral as any other cutthroat. Emily Arnold McCully’s The Pirate Queen is about the half-real and half-mythic Grania O’Malley, an Irish woman who pillaged with the best of them. The book gives a sense of the clans along the Irish coast, the brutality of the English, and the political alliances necessary for survival during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The book is for older children (publisher’s suggested age range is 7 and up). To her credit, McCully presents her swashbuckling heroine straight, not as a Lara Croft or Xena stereotype. Published in 1995, you will probably have to find the book in your local library.

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After all of the above women navigating treacherous waters, let’s look at our two sweet boys before discussing the last bold girl. Daniel Finds a Poem by Micha Archer is a beautifully illustrated book which addresses the question, “What is Poetry?” The book’s answer ties everything together in a neat way (and, yes, poetry is all around us). For ages 5 – 8.

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Nothing quite like birds to help a story soar. The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, does just that. Although John James, as they called him, could ride and hunt better then most boys, what he really liked was to watch birds. Before Audubon, there was plenty of mystery when small birds flew south for the winter and small birds appeared in spring. Were they the same birds? How could that be? In the fall of 1804 Audubon was determined to find out. His ingenious method and meticulous drawings gave us the answer. This book tells us about America’s greatest painter of birds and conveys the passion of a boy who did his duty as a farmer while holding true to his desire to dream and observe. For ages 4 – 7.

51ubrx2blgzl-_sx394_bo1204203200_And finally, going from birds to butterflies, we have a girl from the Middle Ages who pursued truth at the risk of being labelled a witch. Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian is written by Newbery Honor-winner Margarita Engle and illustrated by Julie Paschkis (ages 5 – 8). In the 1600s, people thought bugs were evil, arising from mud in spontaneous generation. Thirteen-year-old Maria was observant and knew better. The book shows readers how she observed caterpillars, documented their transition to butterflies (the “summer birds”), and made brilliant drawings of their life cycle. This bold girl from the Middle Ages was both scientist and artist. Her paintings, by the way, became famous (see them here on WikiArt.org). The author of this book, Margarita Engle, is one of my favorites and also wrote the marvelous Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music.

Heroines and heroes are important. The books above are just a start. If you want to suggest others, please add them in a comment, below. I would love to hear from you. And always encourage your child to read.

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. The author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh (ages 4 and up), he now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced but please include attribution back to tedmacaluso.com. Some of the links above are affiliate links to Amazon.com.

The Church at Auvers

A church with no doors, sitting in its own shadow, splitting the path ahead in two, dark clouds reaching for it from above. What is Vincent van Gogh telling us about faith and religion?

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Monday’s blogposts are each about one of the 30 Vincent van Gogh paintings that illustrate the children’s story, Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Today, the last Monday before Easter, the painting is The Church at Auvers.

First, a few facts. Van Gogh completed the image in June 1890, the month before he died.The church is a real building that still stands in the Place de l’Eglise in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise.  Its architecture is Gothic. The building is believed to have been constructed in the 13th Century. The oil and canvass painting is in the Musee d’Orsay, 27 kilometers southeast in Paris. The deep blue of the sky was also used in Portrait of Adeline Ravoux, the innkeeper’s daughter discussed in last week’s post. The church refused to hold a funeral mass for van Gogh because it was believed he committed suicide.

country-churchyard-and-old-church-tower-18851blogVan Gogh mentioned today’s painting in a June 5, 1890 letter to his sister, Wilhelmina. He mainly wrote about the colors he used; but also referred back to his earlier life, saying, “it is nearly the same thing as the studies I did in Nuenen of the old tower…[only] the colour is more expressive, more sumptuous.” Completed five years earlier, The Old Tower is indeed a darker painting.

Viewers, of course, want more than facts. We all want to extract meaning from van Gogh’s art and life. In this regard, there is a lot of misperception of van Gogh, especially given his romantic appeal in popular culture. As Teresa Watanabe pointed out in her excellent Los Angeles Times article, A Divine View of Van Gogh,  the artist “is commonly portrayed as a sometimes loony genius who failed in a fanatical quest to become an evangelical preacher, turned his back on religion and went on to become one of history’s most celebrated painters.”

The misperception that van Gogh turned his back on religion gets some support from the absence of doors in today’s painting (the church is closed to him) and IMG_1610from the bleakness of The Old Tower. Interestingly, in his famous painting of The Starry Night, the church is dark and silent even though the houses in town are warm and lit (the spire is also needle-sharp, touching a dark patch in the sky, and stands in contrast to the cyprus, with its living curves touching three stars).

A dark church at night means nothing by itself, but Kathleen Powers Erickson makes some cogent points in her scholarly book, At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh. Ericsson is an art historian who also holds a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity from the University of Chicago. Her full argument is too long to cover properly here, but I find her essential points convincing. She argues that religion was a central driving force in van Gogh’s life.

Van Gogh, Erickson explains, faced a crisis of faith in his early adult years. His father withdraw support for van Gogh’s desire to be a pastor, the protestant church that gave van Gogh a six-month appointment did not renew it, and a significant religious influence on his life, his Uncle Stricker, continually rejected van Gogh’s many efforts to marry his daughter, Kee. Allegedly, van Gogh never set foot in a church again and, as with the three paintings here, his art reflects some of his bitterness. It was a bitterness with organized religion, however; not with God, not with faith, and certainly not with spirituality which his work exudes. Erickson shows, through van Gogh’s letters and his art, that the artist went on a voyage of religious discovery. His struggles with religion and modernity led to the synthesis of the religious and the modern which he achieved in both his life and his work.

Van Gogh subscribed to the sentiment, “Religions pass away, but God remains” (he believed Victor Hugo said this, although it was actually Jules Michelet). Van Gogh “believed in a religion that teaches people to have reverence and awe of creation, and to have compassion and feelings of charity and sympathy toward people suffering. It was totally non institutional,”according to another scholar, Naomi Margolis Maurer (quote is from Watanabe’s article).  Maurer is the author of The Pursuit of Spiritual Wisdom: The Thought and Art of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin.

The recognition of the spiritual in van Gogh’s art makes me love him even more. What do you think? Leave a comment, below, and I will be sure to read it.

Now, for some crazy stuff. The Church at Auvers is featured in season 5, episode 10 of the British sci-fi show, Doctor Who. In it, there is a monster in one of the church windows, signifying (to the Doctor) that an ancient evil is lurking in Auvers-sur-Oise in June 1890. Vincent must go inside the church to battle the monster before the painting can be returned to its original form. Hey, why not? Some other people believe there is a hidden portrait of Vincent’s face  in the painting. I don’t see it, but why not?

How is the painting used in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? After young Vincent and Theo have finished chasing the fox, they reflect on how the fox tried and failed at different activities before finding happiness. Vincent thinks he too will try different things as he grows. One is to be a pastor like his father. Today’s painting illustrates that thought. As a young boy, Vincent does not know that his religious journey will be complex. As an author, I like that the illustration has some darkness to foreshadow the path that the real-life Vincent followed.

– Ted Macaluso

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is given. Some of the links, above, are affiliate links to Amazon.com.

Thatched Cottages By A Hill

An unfinished painting from van Gogh’s final days, an innkeeper’s daughter, and a Bob Dylan song. Today’s post ties them together, and also includes a giveaway prize.

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As with last week’s column, this week we continue to look at van Gogh’s work during the period he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise. Van Gogh was fascinated by the thatched roofs he saw in the area. In a letter to his sister dated the same month as the painting (June 1890), van Gogh wrote, “there are some roofs of mossy thatch here which are superb and of which I shall certainly make something.”According to Ronald Pickvance, author of Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers, today’s painting “shows the most extensive view of thatched cottages in all van Gogh’s Auvers canvasses (p. 269).”

However, while it is an extensive view, a number of art historians believe that today’s painting is unfinished. It is easy to see the reason for this belief when we compare the painting to another painting of thatched roofs done in the same month, the dramatic Houses With Thatched Roofs, Cordeville shown below (courtesy of WikiArt.com):

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In contrast to the Cordeville painting, today’s painting has a blank sky and some of the fields appear uncharacteristically plain. Compared to the turbulent sky and the witches tree hovering over the Cordeville house, the dwellings in Thatched Cottages By A Hill appear calmer.

At the same time that they offer relative calm, the dwellings in Thatched Cottages By A Hill lack straight walls and roofs: they curve organically and feel almost alive. There is a tension in them, accentuated by the angle formed between the cottages on the left and right. They offer shelter, both in the form of solid roofs and the hills that surround them, yet bear the knowledge that storms will come. Van Gogh was suffering from psychiatric problems and he died in July, the month after creating these paintings. It is tempting to think that van Gogh sought shelter from his coming storm through them.

When vaportrait-of-adeline-ravoux-1890-1blogn Gogh was living in Auvers-sur-Oise he stayed at the Auberge Ravoux, an Inn run by the Ravoux family. The innkeeper’s daughter, Adeline Ravoux, was young (I believe 15) when van Gogh lived with them and painted her portrait. When she was 76 she wrote a memoir about the artist which you can read here. Her memories include:

“Vincent did not visit anybody in the village, to the best of my knowledge. He had few conversations with us….On the other hand, Vincent had attached himself to my little sister Germaine…then a baby; two years old. Every evening, following the meal, he took her on his knees, and drew The Sandman for her on a slate: a horse harnessed to a cart, in which the sandman stood upright, throwing sand by the handful. Following this the little girl kissed everyone and went to bed.”

Thatched Cottages By A Hill and the facts surrounding van Gogh’s life in Auvers therefore evoked for me Bob Dylan’s classic song, Shelter From The Storm, especially his last two verses:

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Even though I doubt Dylan was thinking of van Gogh when composing this song,¹ the parallels between his lyric and van Gogh’s life are intriguing.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. I write about one of the paintings in the book every Monday for readers who want more information. See the book here.

¹ Some claim that Dylan’s beautiful song Visions of Johanna is about van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger, who moved Dylan because of her single-handed transformation of the reputation of an obscure suicide into that of a major artist….

WIN A FREE GIFT

I’m introducing free giveaways this week to reward readers and build up my followers on Twitter. It is administered by Amazon.com. Click here to win a copy of a Van Gogh Coloring Book from the Van Gogh Museum. Three copies being given away, winners chosen at random.

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Bob Dylan’s lyrics copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music. Everything else © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. This post may be freely reproduced provided attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Children’s Books About Artists That Also Teach About Life

Children’s biographies of famous painters teach about an artist’s work and life. A few books go beyond that and use an artist’s life as a way to convey deeper lessons and virtues.

Stories of courage, compassion, standing up for oneself, choosing a path in life, or overcoming adversity are important for children. Finding those themes in the context of the arts gives the readers of such books an experience that goes beyond facts and inspires them to think about their own life choices.

Here are six books that can both educate and inspire young readers (uses affiliate links).

51hlarmxwil-_sx425_bo1204203200_Themes: Courage; Standing up to Mean Comments. At one level, Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! by Jonah Winter (author) and Kevin Hawkes (illustrator) is about Picasso’s life and artistic evolution. At a deeper level, the book is about courage in the face of doubt; about the exuberance for life that helped make Picasso one of the prominent painters of the twentieth century. Winter turns Picasso’s life into a drama (rather than a mere retelling of biography). By doing that, the story reaches into the heart of every child who is told to “just behave,” of every child who needs to find the inner strength to pursue a dream in the face of harsh criticism. The illustrations reinforce the drama of the story. The book starts with a peaceful landscape. But, turn the page, and a young Picasso is bursting through that same canvas. When art dealers tell Picasso his new work is terrible and ask why he is abandoning prior styles that made money, 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.

61048cn65vl-_sx362_bo1204203200_ Themes: Compassion; Bonds Forged by Fathers and Sons. Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt is based on a true story in Vincent van Gogh’s life. The book recounts how Camille and his father, the postman Roulin, help van Gogh when he was a poor stranger arriving in town. The father models good behavior and Camille becomes friends with van Gogh, despite area children who tease the artist. When Camille feels helpless, because he cannot defend his new friend, his father helps him. Camille learns compassion and hope from his father and from his friendship with van Gogh. The book is about the facts of van Gogh’s life but it is also about a boy learning what compassion means.

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 Themes: Perseverance, Overcoming 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. The details of Lewis’ life are fascinating, but the book is really about the artist’s self-determination. 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 (rather than suddenly–another good lesson for today’s children). 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.

 Vincent cover 17x10-5 2-11 half for v3-3Themes: Growing Up, Learning from Failure.  Vincent, Theo and the Fox is written by Ted Macaluso (full disclosure, that’s me) and illustrated by Vincent van Gogh. The book is a fable about van Gogh’s life that addresses growing up and figuring out what one wants to do in life. 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. In the story, the fox was young too—he was also trying to grow up and find his way in the world. So the book has two boys and a fox thinking about growing up and through their actions teaching each other about what to do in the face of failure and, eventually, success. Full-color reproductions of 30 van Gogh masterpieces illustrate the story. A brief, factual biography of van Gogh ties the events in the story to van Gogh’s life.

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 Theme: It’s Never Too Late to Pursue your Dream. At first, one might think that the story of a toll-collector who didn’t start painting until he was 40 years old, would hold little interest for a child. But the lesson–just because you haven’t started, it doesn’t mean you can’t still do it—applies to every age, especially children who procrastinate over homework or have self-doubt. In The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Amanda Hale, we learn that “not a single person has ever told him he is talented.” But Rousseau wants to paint anyway. “Why? Because he loves nature.” And so he does. Teaching himself, mocked by experts, doing it over and over again, until—like The Little Engine That Could—he succeeds. One of my favorite parts of the book comes when Henri is 61. He is too poor to ever travel to a real jungle. And then we read, “It doesn’t matter—he sees one before him. Clear as day.” The story tells the facts of Rousseau’s life in a way that can inspire children to appreciate art and to pursue their dreams.

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Theme: Inspiration Strikes When You Least Expect: Listen to It, Believe in Yourself. Langston Hughes was a poet, not a painter, but Langston’s Train Ride, written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Leonard Jenkins, enables readers to experience the magic moment, that single instant, when inspiration comes. The story starts at a moment of success in Hughes’ life and flashes back to his youth, when he was riding a train to Mexico to meet his father “who left us to fend for ourselves when I was just a little boy.” As the train crosses the Mississippi, three words come to Langston, “I’ve known rivers.” From that, comes one of the first poems that made Hughes famous. The magic of this book is that the writing and the pictures combine so that readers experience the train ride, the buildup of thoughts that led to the words, and how Hughes captured them and expanded upon them. The book teaches facts about Hughes’ life but draws readers in to experience the creative process and how one learns to believe in oneself.

Books that go beyond the facts of an artist’s biography to address important themes about life are ones that stick with young readers and engage their imagination. The books above are just a start. If you want to suggest others, please add them in a comment, below. I would love to hear from you. And always encourage your child to read.

 – Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. The author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, he now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced but please include attribution back to tedmacaluso.com.

Landscape with the Chateau of Auvers at Sunset

Sunset is a time of transition and, like all transitions, it holds potential. Vincent’s ability to paint potential is part of what makes his art timeless, part of why he speaks to us today, and also why this painting coincides with an important transition in the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

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“a night effect – two completely dark pear trees against yellowing sky with wheatfields, and in the violet background the castle encased in the dark greenery” – Vincent describing his painting in a letter to his brother Theo, June 24, 1890

I’ve wanted to write about this painting for a while as it is one of my personal favorites. For me, the effect is both peaceful and haunting. The painting’s emotional impact stems from the fact that sunset is a time of transition, of impending change. And, changes in state–day to night, land to sea, the pause turning to action–always grab me emotionally because they indicate potential: the “what might be” that we don’t quite know yet.

In the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, this painting marks the point where the fox has gotten to safety and the two brothers transition from exploring the world to returning home. But the painting also coincides with a transition in theme, for this is when Vincent and Theo start to reflect on their chase of the fox and what it taught them. It is at this point in the story that young readers experience what it feels like to think about how to be the best that you can be when you grow up (all while continuing to learn about van Gogh).

About the painting: it is a double-square painting that Vincent created in one day in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise during the short months before his death. Did he know what was coming? I don’t think so, but many commenters believe that the 70 or so paintings he created in Auvers have an intensity that begs for such “significant” interpretation (see, for example, the interpretations of Wheatfield With Crows, another double-square painting from his time in Auvers, which I wrote about here).

I believe Vincent was “merely” in search of beauty. According to VincentInParis.com (a neat website and app that lets you geomap the location where van Gogh created his paintings so that you can visit them), today’s painting is one of three double-square paintings that Vincent wrote about to Theo. In Vincent’s mind, this painting is meant to hang between Undergrowth With Two Figures and Wheat Fields near Auvers. What unifies the three paintings are color and scale. (See them here.)

Auvers-sur-Oise, by the way, was a very pretty place that attracted a number of artists. Here is a view of the town painted by Paul Cezanne (courtesy of WikiArt.org):

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Finally, van Gogh’s time in Auvers was an important one. We will be writing more about it over the next few Painting Mondays as several other paintings from Vincent, Theo and the Fox were created there.

And oh yes, if you haven’t yet heard about the painted movie being made about van Gogh, the trailer for it starts with one of his Auvers paintings, the beautiful Landscape With Carriage and Train in the Background:

As I implied at the start, it is all about potential. Many of van Gogh’s works capture the essence of potential. It is why even today his work evolves in new ways without ever losing its magnificent beauty.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. I write about one of the paintings every Monday for readers who want more information. See the book here.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is given.

Interior of a Restaurant

What does van Gogh’s beautiful painting of a restaurant have to do with a new eBook from the U.S. Department of Agriculture? This week, we find out.

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The children’s book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, weaves an adventure story around Interior of a Restaurant and 29 other Vincent van Gogh paintings. Readers also want information about each painting in the book. Every Monday, I write about one of those paintings. Why this painting, this week? Hint: it’s related to what you get in a restaurant: fun and food. I’ll explain in a minute.

First, a few facts about the painting. Vincent van Gogh painted it in Paris during the summer of 1887. You can see the picture at the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands. Unlike his other restaurant pictures, which involve food, the scene in this painting takes place between meals and there is no food visible. Fine art promotor Mia Feigelson also makes an interesting observation: except for the hint given by the top hat on the hook at left of center, there is also no human presence. Van Gogh did not paint many restaurant scenes, but when he did they usually had food or people or both. For comparison, below are two of his other famous restaurant scenes (Interior of a Restaurant, Arles and Cafe Terrace at Night):

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61cxd11m-fl-_sx423_bo1204203200_Also unlike his other restaurant paintings, today’s painting is dominated by dots. Van Gogh was experimenting with the artistic style known as pointillism. While the dots are prominent, in their book, Van Gogh’s Table: At the Auberge Ravoux, Alexandra Leaf and Fred Leeman make the point (pun intended) that van Gogh applied the dots selectively and only on the floor and walls. The concrete objects (chairs, lamps, tables, and even the top hat hanging high up) are executed with strokes, sometimes even with drawn outlines. (Their book is nice and even has 50 French recipes! Yummy.)

Ah, recipes, food, fun. That is why I wrote about this van Gogh painting this week. I was at the The National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference yesterday and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that they just published some eBooks on good nutrition febooks_graphicor preschool and kindergarten kids. Whether you are dining in a fine French restaurant or eating at your school cafeteria, good nutrition is important. The USDA eBooks are free, kids can read the words themselves or press a button for the book to read the words to them, there is an interactive “plan your meal” page, and a maze where children have to touch the right nutritional foods to make it through to the other side. Before turning to writing, I worked for many years in the child nutrition/hunger field and some of my former colleagues created these eBooks. I’m very happy to see that they are now available. Your kids may be happy to see them too. Did I say they were free?

– Ted Macaluso

Interior of a Restaurant is the third illustration in Vincent, Theo and the Fox. The fox is hungry. He wants to eat like humans do so he goes into the restaurant. Mistakenly thinking that people must eat the flowers on the tables, he jumps up. Chaos ensues, which readers like. If you haven’t yet seen the book, it is available on BarnesAndNoble.com and Amazon.com.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided that attribution and a link to tedmacaluso.com is given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight books for kids about female pioneers in the arts

How do women become pioneers in the arts? How do they shine apart from their male colleagues? Eight delightful children’s books hold valuable lessons that make art more fun for aspiring female artists.

American ballerina, Misty Copeland, a pioneer in her own right, recently made headlines flawlessly recreating some of Edgar Degas’s famous ballet paintings. A pairing of female and male artistic giants is not unusual: Degas and painter Mary Cassatt, for example, were friends for years. Other examples include Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as painter Georgia O’Keefe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. But how do female artists come to shine apart from male colleagues and gain the spotlight for themselves?

513xtv9ozll-_sy454_bo1204203200_Copeland, of course, is already famous in her own right (see the 2015 documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale). She also wrote an award-winning picture book, Firebird, for any girl whose confidence is fragile but who also yearns to reach the heights Misty has.

Here are 7 additional children’s books about other pioneering female artists, both well-known and less well-known (note: uses affiliate links).

51tsflvev5l-_sx398_bo1204203200_Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, by Newberry honor winner Margarita Engle and illustrator Rafael Lopez, tells the fascinating story of Millo Castro Zaidarriaga. In 1932 she broke through a Cuban traditional belief that only boys should play drums. She played alongside the greats of American jazz and became a world-famous musician. The text is a poem that paints captivating word images. The illustrations capture her father’s initial disapproval, her dreams, her actions to keep her dream alive, and her father’s eventual transformation. The illustration that moved me the most was a two-page vertical spread of Millo looking up at the ceiling where a bird cage holds a trapped bongo drum with wings. Great book!

51zvardrfol-_sy452_bo1204203200_Capturing Joy – The Story of Maud Lewis, written by Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrated by Mark Lang, gives the fascinating story of a Canadian folk art painter who was born with birth defects, was poor, and lived with rheumatoid arthritis. Maud Lewis married a fish peddler. In the home where they lived there was no electricity and no indoor plumbing. The book is about her self-determination to overcome these obstacles and create images of joy. Unlike the instant fame that Hollywood portrays, the book shows that Lewis became famous slowly (a message I think valuable). Lewis eventually turned her whole house into a work of art and it is now part of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

51ykl0jup7l-_sx411_bo1204203200_Georgia O’Keefe followed a unique, sometimes controversial, path to becoming one of America’s greatest painters. Her relationship with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz is, perhaps, too complicated for young readers. Two picture books, however, do a good job of showing how Georgia saw the world and what motivated her to follow her own path. Originally published in 1998, My Name is Georgia by Jeanette Winter, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of51j0rxzxnil-_sx402_bo1204203200_ the Year and made the New York Public Library’s “100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.” Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Rodriguez and illustrated by Julie Paschkis also focuses on how Georgia saw the world. The illustrations are beautiful and the book’s goal is to convey Georgia’s “singular perspective as a woman artist in her time.”

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, sepa61pbefdi9wl-_sy481_bo1204203200_rate 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.  Estupendo!

Mary Cassatt: Family Pictures (Smart About Art) by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Jennifer Kalis is a fun read. It takes the form of a school report by “Claire” who has such wonderful observations as:

“I thought that Mary would be a shy, gentle person. Wrong again! Mary had a bad temper and an opinion on everything. During dinner parties, if her guests said something she disagreed with, she’d bang her fists on the table.”

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The book has a lot of information about Cassatt and contains paintings she did as well as paintings that influenced her. We find out that Cassatt did few paintings of men because, back then, it was not respectable for a single woman to use men as models. Despite a 40 year friendship with Edgar Degas we find that they never married. It intrigues “Claire” that, before she died, Cassatt burned all the letters Degas had written her. Overall, the book shows that even in the 1800’s women could be independent; it shows that Mary wanted nothing more than to be a great artist and, by golly, that is what she became.

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Finally, how about a book about a woman who writes and illustrates books? The Scraps Book: Notes From a Colorful Life is both 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.

These books will stick with young readers and engage their imagination. Check them out in the library, your favorite bookseller, or through the links above.

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso is the author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, an adventure story for kids based on the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, kind hearted dog, and temperamental word processor. His son is in college. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

 

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely copied provided attribution and a link to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is included.

Wheatfield With Crows

One of van Gogh’s most striking paintings, “Wheatfield with Crows,” was also one of his last. Observers have therefore analyzed and re-analyzed it for meaning. There are probably as many viewpoints as there are crows in the painting. Perhaps we should all just agree its beautiful.

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Because it was painted in the final month of his life, some wish to see Wheatfield With Crows as a lonely, suicide note. These interpretations focus on the dark sky, the allegedly ominous birds, the emptiness of the field, and the fact that the path goes nowhere. Some observers believe it matters whether the crows are flying towards the viewer or away. Still others think there is a hidden image of a severed ear in the cloud (if you rotate the picture 130 degrees). Dark interpretations are bolstered by the 1956 movie about van Gogh, Lust for Life, which, for dramatic effect, falsely portrayed the painting as van Gogh’s last. It was not.

This all strikes me as silly. What we know is that the painting is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It is a double-square canvas, which contributes to its imposing width and presence. It is dramatic. For example, the three paths could be the shadow of a giant bird. The darkness in the sky could be descending. Or, the darkness could be lifting. One can focus on the golden light of the field and the pretty, deep blue of the sky. But, then again, one could focus on the feeling of stormy darkness. Like most great art, the painting provides an infinite opportunity for viewers to draw forth their own meanings. Vincent’s letters do not clarify the issue. He wrote that he had made a point of expressing sadness, later adding “extreme loneliness” (de la solitude extrême), but also says he believes the canvases show what he considers healthy and fortifying about the countryside (and adds that he intended to take them to Paris as soon as possible).

The painting itself is in balance. The paths divide the canvas in 3 with 2 golden sections. The field occupies two-thirds of the canvass, the sky one-third. The colors–blue, golden yellow, green, brown–are complementary. Whether the viewer wishes to see the painting as “half full or half empty,” as impending darkness or impending light, the image is poised at the edge of change, at the moment just before something happens.

Personally, I see the painting as hopeful, as the sky being ready to clear for a beautiful day. In Vincent, Theo and the Fox, for this painting, I wrote:

“As the day drew to a close, the fox walked through a golden field. Crows flew out of his way, slowly circling in the sky. ‘I’m happy here. This is where a fox should be,’ he thought.”

Do you side with the pessimists or with the fox? It’s up to you. But I would love to know what you think. Leave a comment and I will read and respond with interest.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. See the book here.

And finally, if you want to have some fun, enter wheat field with crows YouTube into your browser. One poster animates the crows flying toward you, another shows how to paint a copy by numbers, several pair the painting with good (and sometimes not so good) music. If only, van Gogh had known.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

 

Starry Night in person

What happens when you see a masterpiece in person? For me, The Starry Night went from an iconic image in popular culture, to something that is real, personal, and deeply moving. It also left me with a question.

Going to museums is special. I had the good fortune to visit New York City this weekend and see The Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum allows non-flash photos, so here is my photo of it hanging on their wall.

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One does not usually see the frame in reproductions of the The Starry Night. This may sound crazy, but it was seeing the frame that made me realize the painting is, in fact, a real object, not merely a meme floating through popular culture. In my mind I always knew it was real, but seeing it in person made it feel real in a deeper way.

When I saw it “live,” the painting was smaller than I thought it would be. This is a picture I took over someone’s head (it was very crowded) that gives some sense of its size.

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One of the nice things about seeing the painting in person was that I could focus on different parts of the painting. For example, although the sky and stars dominate the image, the town is really quite beautiful.

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Looking at the town, the buildings are flat and, in comparison to the hills and sky, stable. I was struck by how the hills and trees, in comparison, were flowing like waves (very much like the light of the sky).

Focusing on the cyprus tree, it also flows. Most importantly, the tree sparkles like the stars, reaching and flowing towards them. The tree touches three stars: both the white and green ones in the image below and (if you scroll back up to the full picture), the yellow one just above the flowing cloud.

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Many interpret cyprus trees as symbolic of death. If so, the cyprus in The Starry Night seemed to represent a harmonious “death,” one that flows with passion and connects the earth and the stars. I felt peaceful seeing the painting. Everything is united.

Finally, the paanimal?inting left me with a question. Is that an animal in the very lower left of the image, above, (and blown up to the left)? It might be. At the very end of Vincent, Theo and the Fox I wrote, “Vincent smiled. In his dream, he saw the fox was happy, running through fields and hills, wild and free under the starry sky.” Could that mischievious creature have come back down into town?

What do you think? I would love to know and will read and respond to your comments with interest.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book/early reader that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings.  See it here.

 

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.