brush of the gods

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look and Meilo So

This is a picture book biography of Wu Daozi from the T’ang Dynasty, who is considered China’s greatest painter.  As a child, Daozi is taught calligraphy, but his brush does not want to just create Chinese characters.  Instead, he creates the first stroke and then turns it into an animal like a fish or a horse.  Daozi began to paint on walls, painting so fast that his sleeves opened like wings, gaining him the nickname of Flying Sleeves.  He painted every day and people began to leave coins for him that he donated to feed the poor.  As time passed, his skills grew even greater until the creatures he drew and painted became alive and left the flat surface of the walls.  He was then commissioned to paint an entire wall for the emperor, a project that took him many years.  In the end though, he created an entire world on a wall, one that you could almost walk right into.

Beautifully told and illustrated, this picture book biography takes a playful tone right from the beginning.  The sense that Daozi was not in control of his own gift makes for a wonderful insight into the drive and talent of artists and the way their talents can control them.  It is also a tribute to the skills gained by doing what you love and practicing a tremendous amount.  Daozi’s work and its lifelike quality is captured through a magical transformation to life in the story, making this feel much more like folklore than a biography.

Look’s text will work best for elementary-aged children, as she tells the story of hard work and talent combined into something spectacular.  They will also be more likely to understand the juxtaposition of biography and magical realism that is in the book.  Her writing is clear and lingers in all of the right moments and moves quickly when those moments are right too.  So’s illustrations are a tribute to Chinese art.  Done with clear brushstrokes, they also have fine details and small touches that make them shine.

This is a very impressive biography of an incredible artist that few children will be aware of before reading this book, making it perfect to share with children in art classes.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House via Edelweiss.