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.

61L0G3ptNjL._SX392_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

51v9oi4xsdl-_sx426_bo1204203200_

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.

case8.000x10.000.indd

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.

61L0G3ptNjL._SX392_BO1,204,203,200_

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.”

51v9oi4xsdl-_sx426_bo1204203200_

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.”

case8.000x10.000.indd

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.

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.

51xx2rfdt6l-_sx332_bo1204203200_

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!

51caeleoa3l-_sx323_bo1204203200_

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.)

51wfqb62rhl-_sx341_bo1204203200_

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!

512qzgxfdsl-_sx327_bo1204203200_

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.

51snh4eotzl-_sx385_bo1204203200_

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.

51itsvm1fbl-_sx339_bo1204203200_

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

Six Exciting Middle Grade Mysteries That Teach About Art

Fine art is beautiful but studying it can be, well, dull for too many middle grade readers. The books below grind down the dull into colorful pigments with which the authors paint gripping tales that attract readers while teaching about art.

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.

51xx2rfdt6l-_sx332_bo1204203200_

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!

51caeleoa3l-_sx323_bo1204203200_

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.)

51wfqb62rhl-_sx341_bo1204203200_

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!

512qzgxfdsl-_sx327_bo1204203200_

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.

51snh4eotzl-_sx385_bo1204203200_

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.

51itsvm1fbl-_sx339_bo1204203200_

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.

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.

Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso.

 

Picture Books With An Art Theme

Books About Famous Artists

51hlarmxwil-_sx425_bo1204203200_

Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!  by Jonah Winter (Author), Kevin Hawkes (Illustrator).  Great picture book about how Picasso stood up to harsh criticism to become one of the greatest painters of the Twentieth Century. It makes his story exciting. I wish I had written it.

61qkw4vkdal-_sx383_bo1204203200_

Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock (Author) and Mary GrandPre (Illustrator). A picture book story about the condition of synesthesia and how accepting the condition helped Kandinsky become the pioneer of abstract art.

51iuazfm6kl-_sy477_bo1204203200_

When Pigasso Met Mootisse is Nina Laden’s classic book about, well, the meeting and artistic rivalry between Picasso and Matisse. Full of puns and an absolute delight. As fresh now as when it came out in 1998.

51fxibl8epl-_sx361_bo1204203200_

Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box by David McPhail tells how Beatrix got a point box when she was young and how that inspired her.

 

Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Rodriguez (Author) and Julie Paschkis (Illustrator). Very pretty picture book about Georgia O’Keefe.

51kiimlglml-_sy427_bo1204203200_

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau written by Michelle Merkel, illustrated by Amanda Hall. A picture book that tells us its never too late to teach yourself how to paint.

51ykl0jup7l-_sx411_bo1204203200_

My Name Is Georgia by Jeanette Winter. Very nice book about Georgia O’Keefe.

 

 

 

Books About Color, Creativity or the Art Room

512brsljnqzl-_sx318_bo1204203200_Swatch: The Girl Who Loved Color by Julia Denos is–surprise–about color. Swatch lives where colors run wild. She attempts to tame them and put them in jars until the day she meets Yellowest Yellow, who does NOT want to be tamed (and is a little fierce). Author/illustrator Julia Denos has illustrated several children’s books and says the hardest question for her to answer is “What is your favorite color?” This delightful book is her answer. Preschool – Grade 2.

 

61l2brwpildl-_sy402_bo1204203200_

Vincent Paints His House by Tedd Arnold. Cute book about color. It teaches kids in a fun way that every basic color has at least four versions (e.g., red can be rose, crimson, scarlet, or vermilion).

 

513fnhqksql-_sy496_bo1204203200_

Too Much Glue by Jason Lefebvre (writer) and Zac Retz. This made me laugh! It’s not really about art; it’s about what can happen in art class. Great twist at the end.

 

 

Other Great Books

61bvof2bpqvl-_sy449_bo1204203200_

Daniel Finds a Poem by Micha Archer. Beautifully illustrated book addresses the question, “What is Poetry?” The book’s answer ties everything together in a neat way. I love that it is a boy finding poetry and that, in the next book below, a woman is navigating the high seas.

51mndvxa2il-_sx452_bo1204203200_  Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud written by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. This 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, broken masts, a woman winning by skill and 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!41mcuifyojl-_sy374_bo1204203200_

Chalk by Bill Thomson. You don’t “read” this exciting book–the pictures give the whole story. It is almost like a movie and gets just scary enough. The illustrations make me wish I could draw!

The Song of Delphine by Kenneth Kraegel. Cinderella meets Where The 613nemlcigl-_sx375_bo1204203200_Wild Things Are. Lovely book. Magical trips on giraffes.

51tsflvev5l-_sx398_bo1204203200_

 

Drum Dream Girl. How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez. Picture book about Millo Castro Zaldarriaga who, in 1932,  overturned the Cuban tradition that only boys could play drums. She became a world famous musician.

51x5ykfqg7l-_sy448_bo1204203200_

In a Village by the Sea, written by Muon Van and illustrated by April Chu features (in one part) a cricket who paints up a storm that endangers the fisherman-father. It gives young readers a sense of the risky lives of fishermen and their families. But the story has a good ending and  the illustrations are very beautiful. I really like that the book is not “saccharine:” we do not see the father come home safely, it is implied by the art. Great book to spark conversation with your child!

Math at the Art Museum is written by Group Majoongmul and illustrated by Yun-ju Kim. The book is primarily pedagogical (rather than a gripping story like the other books on this page). I include it because there are too few books that combine art and math and because I really liked the painting the book uses to illustrate symmetry: Praying Mother and Son Rock Formation by Kim Jae-hong.

61ogiyd558l-_sy375_bo1204203200_

The Hare & the Hedgehog is the classic story by the Brothers Grimm. This version was  recently published with gorgeous illustrations by Jonas Laustroer. Not directly about art, but a beautiful book.

Clowns On Vacation by Nina Laden. Hey, its Nina Laden. Do I need to say more?

Langston’s Train Ride by Robert Burleigh (Author) and Leonard Jenkins (Illustrator). A picture book that captures how creativity strikes. It is about the moment that inspired one of Hughes’ most famous early poems.

 

Bullying and Compassion: Two Views of Van Gogh

“In the beautiful countryside in southern France…I used to do an ugly thing.” So begins the confession of a childhood bully in The Artist and Me, a wonderful new book which is about both Vincent van Gogh and the causes and consequences of bullying. It complements the now classic text, Camille and the Sunflowers, which addresses the same period in van Gogh’s life from the opposite perspective: compassion.

I have a soft spot for children’s books about artists that also teach about life. So when I found this book in the gift shop at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. I bought it immediately. Having read it, I’m very glad I did.

51v9oi4xsdl-_sx426_bo1204203200_

Written by Shane Peacock and illustrated by Sophie Casson, The Artist and Me is a brand new picture book (ages 5 – 9) 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.

61048cn65vl-_sx362_bo1204203200_

Another, earlier, book, Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt, also addresses this period of van Gogh’s life, doing so from the perspective of Camille Roulin, the son of the Postman Roulin who was immortalized in several paintings by van Gogh. Anholt’s 1994 book recounts how Camille and his father 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 understand his feelings. 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.

FullSizeRender

The Artist and Me takes a very different–and more dramatic–tack, an approach to the facts of van Gogh’s life that is perhaps more relevant to the times we live in. The protagonist is fictional and nameless–one of the many children who teased van Gogh. The artwork is sometimes tough, just as bullying is painful to watch. As shown in the image detail, the acclaimed, Montreal-based illustrator, Sophie Casson brilliantly captures the ignorant meanness of which children are capable. The text by Canadian journalist and screenwriter, Shane Peacock, explains what is happening in a way that young readers will understand. The bully explains that van Gogh “was a crazy man….Everyone I knew made fun of him.” The artist’s colors “weren’t supposed to go like that.” Peacock 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.”

As the story progresses, its protagonist hears–but does not yet understand–van Gogh’s mission: “to tell the truth by painting pictures.” Then, one day, he is alone in the countryside and accidentally encounters van Gogh painting in a wheat field. The boy sees what van Gogh sees, but is terrified: “for an instant the world was bigger and brighter than it had ever been.” Van Gogh, who knows the boy is terrified, is kind; with his face glowing “like the pictures I had seen of saints in churches” the artist offers to give him the painting he just made of the wheat field. Still scared–perhaps by the artist’s kindness in the face of bullying, perhaps by the intensity of the beauty van Gogh is painting, perhaps in shame at his earlier rude treatment of van Gogh, perhaps in fear of what villagers would think if they saw he had befriended van Gogh–the boy runs away. I won’t reveal the book’s ending, but it is perfect and fitting and a valuable lesson on how wrong people can be about people who are different. The ending is a lesson about how bullies can change and grow. It is a lesson about the rewards of artistic integrity.

The Artist and Me is a Junior Library Guild selection and I highly recommend it. The illustrations capture not just the meanness of bullying (as in the example above), but also the yellow, green and gold hues of the French country side memorialized in van Gogh’s work. Casson’s paintings of the bully capture his youthful wonder and fear; she poignantly depicts the chagrin and self-reflection he later experiences as an adult. Her depiction of van Gogh in the midst of inspiration, when his face is glowing like a saint, is, by itself, worth the price of the book. 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.

Stories of real life–whether it is the dark side of bullying and fear of things that are different, on the one hand, or, on the other, the bright side 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. Such books make art more fun and relevant for children. I urge you to find The Artist and Me at your library, local bookstore, or here on Amazon.com (affiliate link).

– 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. 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 now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

Illustration © 2016 by Sophie Casson. Image detail used under “fair use” law for purposes of review.

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