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.

 

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.

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.

51mndvxa2il-_sx452_bo1204203200_

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.

61prg55yghl-_sy451_bo1204203200_

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!”

51irkq17jnl-_sx346_bo1204203200_

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.

51wa57rkfwl-_sx330_bo1204203200_

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.

61bvof2bpqvl-_sy449_bo1204203200_

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.

51whzsgga-l-_sx385_bo1204203200_

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.

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.

51zvardrfol-_sy452_bo1204203200_

 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.

51kiimlglml-_sy427_bo1204203200_

 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.

51y4kyzmkjl-_sx372_bo1204203200_

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.