fantastic jungles

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Amanda Hall

This striking picture book is a biography of the artist, Henri Rousseau.  It tells the story of this man as he started to do art at forty years old. Rousseau dreamt of being an artist because he saw so much beauty and color everywhere. He couldn’t afford lessons, so he read many books to learn techniques and structure.  At age 41, Rousseau entered an art exhibition for the first time.  The art experts said mean things about his art, but Rousseau kept painting.  Inspired by the World’s Fair in Paris, he began to draw jungles.  Rousseau kept entering exhibitions and kept getting rude things written about his art.  He kept on painting, eventually getting accepted by the younger artists in Paris, like Pablo Picasso.  By the end of his life, no one was laughing or scorning his art.  Rousseau had not just proven himself to the critics, but to the entire world.

Markel has chosen to write this book in the present tense and also to call Rousseau by his first name throughout.  Both of these make the book feel welcoming and immediate.  The prose here is never dense and at times is almost playful as Rousseau (or Henri) starts to discover his talent and inspirations.  It is like you are discovering things alongside Rousseau.

Hall’s art pays beautiful homage to Rousseau’s own work.  Reading her Illustrator’s Note, one finds that she has changed her medium for this book, using watercolor and acrylics to achieve Rousseau’s characteristic look and feel.  She also used some of his original work as direct inspiration, adding his breaking of scale and perspective rules as well.

This is a superb picture book biography of an artist who came late to finding his passion in life.  Both his life and work are inspirations for children and adults to dream big and ignore the critics.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.