“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.
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.
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.
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.