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.

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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.

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Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso.

 

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.

7 Children’s Gifts To Tickle The Imagination

With the Christmas holidays fast approaching here are 4 books, a game, and 2 surprises worth checking out.

With the Christmas holidays fast approaching here are 4 books, a game, and 2 surprises worth checking out.

The Book with No Pictures Book with no pix

“This picture book with no pictures knows a thing or two about both books and kid-friendly comedy . . . Once children get the joke, they’ll want to play it on as many of their grownups as possible.”— The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

This book for 5 – 8 year olds has a 4.7 stars on Amazon.

4.7 stars on Amazon – check it out here.

Bugs in the Kitchen – Children’s Board Game 

Ths game won the ASTRA Best Toys for Kids 2015 award (Game Play 6+ Years). The suggested age range is 6-15.

Check it out here.

Vincent, Theo and the Fox

“It’s a compelling and suspenseful story that has a wonderful ending.  It makes van Gogh’s paintings even more memorable.

“This is the first book I’ve read where the illustrations are storied instead of the story being illustrated.  It’s a fun twist! It’s also one of the few stories where the illustrations are presented from a first-person perspective….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!”
The Picture Book Review (thepicturebookreview.com/)

5 stars on Amazon – Check it out here.

Fred & Friends MEALTIME MASTERPIECE Picture Frame Placemat, 48 Sheet Pad

MEALTIME MASTERPIECE Picture Frame Placemat

Who would have thought? A placemat that looks like a picture frame so you can arrange your food into a work of art. It is a 48 pad set.

4.5 stars on Amazon – check it out here.

Wonder 

This book by R. J. Palacio is a N.Y. Times and Amazon best seller for 8 – 12 year olds.

“Wonder is a rare gem of a novel–beautifully written and populated by characters who linger in your memory and heart. August Pullman is a 10-year-old boy who likes Star Wars and Xbox, ordinary except for his jarring facial anomalies. Homeschooled all his life, August heads to public school for fifth grade and he is not the only one changed by the experience–something we learn about first-hand through the narratives of those who orbit his world. August’s internal dialogue and interactions with students and family ring true, and though remarkably courageous he comes across as a sweet, funny boy who wants the same things others want: friendship, understanding, and the freedom to be himself. “It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” – Amazon “best Book” review.

5 stars on Amazon – check it out here.

US NATIONAL PARKS. Post card variety pack

I would not usually think of a box of postcards as a gift, but if you want to enhance a child’s imagination how better to have children dream and (hopefully) mark the places they have visited. And you do not have to stop with just the parks. There are sets of cards from all around America, from Europe, and UNESCO World Heritage sites.

5 stars on Amazon- see this and other postcard sets here.

 

The Phantom Tollbooth 

Norton Juster’s hilarious book illustrated by Jules Feiffer is such a classic I cannot say enough good things about it! If you’re not already familiar with it, check it out.

4.5 stars on Amazon – check it out here.

 

 

© 2015 by Ted Macaluso