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.

 

Painting Mondays: 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 Painting Mondays 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.

Painting Mondays: View of Roofs and Backs of Houses

How did van Gogh become van Gogh? The two years, from 1886 to 1888, which he spent living with his brother among the rooftops of Paris, marked his transition from somber dark to expressive color.

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On Mondays I write about one of the 30+ Vincent van Gogh paintings that illustrate the  book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Today’s painting, of the roofs of Paris, is important because it is among this landscape of zinc and slate that van Gogh’s artistic vision was transformed. Before arriving in Paris, his paintings were dark, steeped in the tradition of Dutch painters. Two years later, when he left Paris for the south of France, he was ready to master the explosive expressions of color that we see in many of his most beloved paintings.

With no advance warning, in February 1886, Vincent showed up at the door of his brother’s apartment in Paris, asking to move in. Vincent was broke; he had arrived from  Antwerp, Belgium where he was unable to pay his rent. Not surprisingly, the next two years were one of the very few times when Vincent and his brother Theo struggled to get along. However, the move was a good one for van Gogh’s artistic development.

Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother, lived in Montmartre, the artistic center of Paris. Two years earlier, in 1884, he had been promoted to work in the Paris headquarters of Goupil & Cie, at the time the leading art dealer in France. As Nina Siegal explains in her New York Times article, Becoming Vincent Van Gogh: The Paris Years, van Gogh “was immediately thrust into a milieu of young avant-garde artists experimenting with new styles.” Siegal explains more about the Parisian art scene in those years:

“Impressionists…were busy with their explorations of light and shadows. The Pointillists…were separating out colors into individual dots dabbed on canvas to form discernable figures. The Cloisonnists, meanwhile, were painting with bold and flat forms separated by dark outlines. Vincent…tried his hand at all of [these styles].”

Exposed to these influences, Vincent re-examined his ideas of painting. He met many of the notable Parisian painters during this period too, further inspiring his artistic growth. Read more in Siegal’s excellent and knowledgable piece, here.

From the start of van Gogh’s years in Paris to its end, the transition in his art is remarkable. For me, the two self-portraits below say it all. The one on the left is from 1886, just after he moved to Paris; the one on the right is from 1888, just before he left Paris and moved to Arles.

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Wow! I like both paintings. But it is the Vincent on the right who was ready to create such masterpieces as his sunflowers, wheat fields, and Starry Night!

(Many scholars have written about van Gogh’s Paris years. If interested, check out Van Gogh: The Life, a phenomenal book, or Becoming Van Gogh, a shorter piece in the New York Review of Books that displays images of his pre-Paris sketches and his post-Paris work. Van Gogh created 224 paintings in Paris, including a number of scenes of rooftops. You can find the complete list of them on vggallery.com, here.)

Finally, back to the roofs of Paris. Many artists, not just van Gogh, have been inspired by them. The Paris City Council is now asking UNESCO to designate their “unique” roofs a world heritage site. What do you think about the roof request? About van Gogh? About books intended to inspire children’s appreciation of great art? 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.

 

 

 

Painting Mondays: Vincent’s Bedroom

Vincent van Gogh’s colorful bedroom is probably one of the most famous bedrooms in art. Did you know that there is not just one painting, but three? The Art Institute of Chicago tells us why.

Vincent, Theo and the Fox weaves a story around 31 of van Gogh’s paintings. Readers also want information about each painting. Every Monday we post about one painting in the book. Todays painting is Vincent’s bedroom in Arles.

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Vincent van Gogh loved the painting so much he actually made three versions. The Art Institute of Chicago has an upcoming exhibition that will bring all three versions together for the first time. The exhibition will run from February 14 to May 8 0f 2016. Using digital technology, it will show the subtle differences between the three paintings. The exhibition promises to explain the significance of the three paintings and how they relate to an important theme in van Gogh’s work, the idea of home.

This exhibition is the first to truly delve into the fascinating history of these three paintings. Beginning with Van Gogh’s early canvases of cottages and birds’ nests, the show explores the artist’s use of the motif of home—as haven, creative chamber, and physical reality—and follows the evolution of this theme throughout his career… Source: Art Institute Chicago: Member Magazine, January/February 2016, p. 13

You can find out more on the Art Institute’s website. The Art Institute is one of the world’s great museums. Go if you can. (A big thanks to Duke Ryan, author of Amanda’s Autobiography, for telling me about the exhibit.)

Finally, whether or not you can go to the exhibition, check out this intriguing video from mjkooopman about Vincent’s bedroom:

And why are there three paintings of his room? According to the Art Institute, water damage threatened the stability of the original painting. About a year later, therefore, van Gogh made a second full-size painting of his room so that he could ensure that the image would be perserved. A few weeks after that, he made a smaller, third painting as a gift for his mother and sister. Van Gogh’s artistic investment in the image of his room in Arles gives credence to the Art Institute’s interpretation that the three paintings exemplify van Gogh’s “relentless pursuit of home.”

The painting of Vincent’s bedroom appears about halfway through the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. If you haven’t yet read the book, you can check it out here.

text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Painting Mondays: Starry Night

The book weaves a story around van Gogh’s paintings. Readers also want information about the paintings. Every Monday we post about one painting in the book.

Kids (and parents) who read Vincent, Theo and the Fox often want to learn more about each of the 30+ paintings in it. So every Monday I’m posting interesting information about one of the book’s paintings. Here is educator Natalya St. Clair’s fascinating explanation of the math behind Starry Night. The video is animated by Avi Ofer.

Enjoy!

 

text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso

The story behind the story

Readers sometimes ask how I wrote Vincent, Theo and the Fox; how did you come up with the idea? This is the story behind the story.

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

What to do? An art catalog is not a wham, bam action tale. I opened it at random and it showed Harvest at La Crau, with Montmajour iimage001n the Background (Arles, June, 1888). I thought to myself, “OK, Vincent has to be a boy to make this interesting…but what is he doing?” I surprised myself by saying, “One day, when he was a boy, Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo, were looking at the harvest when they saw a fox sneak into the cart.” That picture and that idea became the start of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Vincent and Theo chased the fox through a bunch of van Gogh’s paintings until the nebulizer was done. At that point, the fox got away and the boys went home.

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

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

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

Thanks, Ted Macaluso

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso.