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: The Goat Herd

It’s van Gogh’s birthday in two days, which got me asking: what was his earliest drawing? What should we do to celebrate? Today, we discuss his early drawings and, yes, I’m giving away 3 free copies of Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

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Vincent van Gogh would be 163 years old on Wednesday. He was born March 30, 1853. Although Vincent did not think of himself as a painter until he turned 27, he was an artist much earlier. As far as I can tell, The Goat Herd is his earliest surviving drawing. He was not quite 10 years old when he created it in October of 1862. (It is very hard to find reliable scholarly information on van Gogh’s drawings made before 1877. WikiArt.org and David Brooks’ phenomenal vggallery.com have The Goat Herd as his first. After 10 pages deep on a Google search, nothing contradicts that. If you know of an earlier sketch, please leave a comment below.)

Here two other early drawings by van Gogh (courtesy of WikiArt.org): Corinthian Capital (from when Vincent was 10) and Two Sketches of a Man Leaning on His Spade (when he was 14).

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As David Brooks asks, “When does genius begin?” Clearly, quite early for van Gogh.

Van Gogh believed one had to learn to draw before one could paint. Although his adult drawings are not as widely appreciated as his paintings, they are still excellent. Here is a wonderful reference book: Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings (Metropolitan Museum of Art Series).

Where does today’s artwork appear in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? It is not part of the story but appears in his biography at the end of the book.

And speaking of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, to celebrate van Gogh’s birthday I’m giving away three copies of the book.

Click here to enter giveaway (administered by Amazon.com). NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Ends the earlier of Apr 4, 2016 11:59 PM PDT, or when all prizes are claimed. See Official Rules http://amzn.to/GArules.

Hope you win,

Ted Macaluso

 

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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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