The River by Alessandro Sanna
Travel through four seasons along the Po River in this breathtakingly beautiful book. Made almost entirely of watercolor images shown as either full-page or a series of panels, this book asks readers to pay close attention to the images and discover the story told there. Each season starts with a brief paragraph that offers clues to what is going to happen. Autumn is a season of floods. Winter is described as warm, which will surprise many young readers as will the newborn calf. Spring is music and white clouds. Summer is dry and hot. Each of those seasons is brought to life with the watercolor images with palettes that change through the seasons, purples in autumn, blues in winter, gold in summer. Each more beautiful than the last, so that you just want to begin it again when it ends.
This is the first book by Sanna to be printed in the United States, but he is well known in his native Italy. He has created a book here that is artistic and wildly lovely. Told primarily through his art, the storylines are consistently seasonal, intense and surprising. The use of the river as a symbol for the passage of time works perfectly here. The changing colors also serve to remind readers that time is passing, change is constant and the world is gorgeous.
One big question with this book is what age it is appropriate for. With its minimal words, it might be expected to be perfect for small children, but thanks to its artistic approach, I believe the audience is quite a bit older. Children who enjoy art will be able to appreciate it in elementary school. Yet the audience I see really loving this book are middle and high school teens who will delight in the watercolors, the surprises and a picture book that suits them well.
Beautiful, moving and vast, this nearly wordless picture book will be enjoyed by elementary aged children through adults.
Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.
Henri’s Scissors by Jeanette Winter
When Henri-Emile Matisse was a young boy, he longed to make art the way his mother did. So he drew as much as he could and then painted after receiving paints as a gift. But when he was on old man, he had to remain in bed or a wheelchair and didn’t have the energy or ability to paint. As he recovered, Matisse started to draw and then picked up a pair of scissors and started cutting paper. Matisse started a second phase of his art career with assistants who painted pages for him to cut from, dreams of the shapes to cut out, and surrounded by the bright colors of his art. He created a garden that he could visit right from his bed.
Winter starts with Matisse as a boy finding art and quickly moves the book to his paper cutting phase in the latter part of his life. For a picture book biography, the text is very simple yet conveys his great attachment and gift for creating art. It also speaks to the creative process and trying new things that fit with life’s limitations.
Winter fills her book with bright colors both in Matisse’s art itself but also as the backgrounds to her images. When Matisse is without art, the book becomes dark yet star-filled. As he returns to creating pieces, the book lightens and blossoms visually.
A very successful picture book biography, this book will be welcome in elementary and preschool art classes. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.
Whale Shines: An Artistic Tale by Fiona Robinson
Published November 5, 2013.
Whale is a living billboard, swimming slowly through the ocean with a poster to advertise the upcoming art show. Along the way, he passes all sorts of sea creatures creating art. The hammerhead shark is working on sculptures from sea debris. Eel is forming lines in the sand. Octopus, cuttlefish and giant squid were scaring each other to collect their ink. Whale mutters to himself that he wishes he could make something too. That’s when the plankton around him tell him to try. But whale just can’t think of anything that he’d be able to do. After all, he doesn’t squirt ink, and he can’t slither in the sand. It’s going to take a lot of creativity and some risk for whale to even try creating art.
Robinson has created a simply gorgeous book here. Her writing is lovely, slow-paced and languid just like Whale floating by displaying his advertisement. Whale is a solitary figure in the story, lone and distant from the others. As he drifts past, he is separate from everyone else. Robinson successfully manages his transformation from wallflower to fully-engaged artist in a way that rings honest and doesn’t seem rushed.
Her art is lovely, filled with the deep colors of the ocean. It is green and blue hues that shine. Popping against those are the bright colors of the creatures and the coral in reds and yellows. The result is a picture book with stunning visuals that truly evoke life underwater.
A luminous picture book with glowing underwater scenes, this book will speak to all artists, even those reluctant to reveal themselves. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Abrams Books for Young Readers.
The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein
This picture book tells the story of how drawing first started. Inspired by the the 30,000 year old paintings in caves in southern France, the story focuses on one boy who sees the world differently from everyone else. When he looks at the clouds, he sees animals. Everyone else just sees clouds. When the firelight flickers on the walls of the cave as they go to sleep, he sees herds of beasts. No one else does. So he gets the name “Child Who Sees What Isn’t There.” He tries to explain what and how he is seeing things, but it isn’t until he picks up a charcoal stick from the fire and actually draws the lines he is seeing that others can see it too.
Beautifully told, Gerstein weaves the story of these caves into an exploration of how artists see the world in a unique and powerful way. By choosing very tangible examples of how artists see, children reading the book will quickly realize that they are artists as well. It is also helped by the use of second person narrative, so that children are identified as the child who invented art. The author’s note explains more about the caves as well as why Gerstein was inspired to tell the story of a child drawing.
Gerstein’s art is bright and large. He shows large swathes of sky filled with clouds, lands filled with animals, and makes sure that readers see the inspiration for the later art. This contrasts with the tight closeness of the fire-lit cave that is all dancing flames and stone walls.
A virtuoso picture book, this is a wonderful melding of history, possibility, and art. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet and One Extraordinary Riot by Lauren Stringer
This is the story of how two Russian artists collaborated to create a revolutionary new ballet, The Rite of Spring. When the two artists met one another, each of them started to change. Stravinsky’s music changed and Nijinsky’s dance changed. They inspired one another to try something entirely new and created a ballet based on Russian folk dances and folk songs. Even at rehearsal, some of the musicians walked out, but enough stayed so that the show could go on. When the ballet was first performed, the crowd was split. Some people loved the new music and dancing, others were shocked and hated it. The crowd took to the streets to continue to express their anger and appreciation. This is a great picture book biography that captures the magic of creativity that results when two masters collaborate on something brave and new.
Stringer’s writing takes a complicated story and distills it to the most important points. Young readers will quickly understand that the two men brought new ideas out of one another, finding each other inspiring. Her art also speaks to the collaboration of these two men, using flowing lines and deep yet soft colors. She inserts elements from the art of the time, referencing movements like cubism in both her text and art. The end of the book has photographs of the two artists and dancers in the ballet. It also has a longer look at their collaboration.
A great choice for art and music classes, I’d recommend listening to The Rite of Spring with the group too. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Will & Whit by Laura Lee Gulledge
The author of Page by Paige returns with another superb graphic novel. Will has suffered a tragedy and now fear the dark, since she sees the shadows of those she has lost within them. Her hobby is to create lamps out of found objects, keeping the dark at bay. Then Hurricane Whitney roars in and takes away the electricity entirely so that Will is left in a complete blackout. Happily, she is surrounded by great friends who are just as creative as she is. There is even an arts carnival being created. Now Will just has to face her fears, in the darkness.
Done in black-and-white, this graphic novel plays nicely with light and dark. The entire background of the pages change from the bright white to pure black once the power goes out in the story. Gulledge’s story embraces creativity and also features female characters who are real and honest. Gulledge also nicely uses metaphor in the story, showing shadows coming towards Will who are human shaped. As that part of the story is resolved, readers will notice the changes in the shadows around Will, a visual harbinger of real change.
Get this into the hands of those who enjoyed Page by Paige as well as other teens who are creative and touch romantic. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from library copy.
Windblown by Édouard Manceau
Scraps of paper blow across the page, first one then several appear. But what are they and whose are they? First the chicken insists they are his since he found them. Then the fish says that he cut them from the paper. Then the bird, the snail and the frog explain that they are theirs as well. Each animal fits them to their body to demonstrate why they belong to them. Then the wind itself speaks about blowing the pieces around and offers them to the reader, “What will you do?”
Superbly simple and entirely engaging, readers will be playing along with the book before they even open the pages. Manceau has cleverly selected shapes that fit together in many different ways. He demonstrates this over and over again, then turns it all over to the reader to continue.
This is also a book that would make a great art project for little ones. Share the book, then give each child the pieces shown in the story to make their own picture. An ideal way to end a creative story time. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley
In East Turkestan, Mehrigul’s beloved brother has left the family and now her father is always angry and her mother has taken to bed. Mehrigul is forced to leave school and help out on the family farm. She also works the family market stall which is where her vine basket, created in the form of a cone rather than a more useful shape, is spotted by an American woman who offers to buy it for a very high sum. But her father just drinks and wagers away the money, leaving the family still on the brink of ruin. There are political pressures too with the Chinese pushing the Uyghur people to conform. If Mehrigul does not return to school, she could be sent to work in a Chinese factory. But there is one ray of hope and that is that the American woman asked for more baskets. It will take time and determination for Mehrigul to complete the baskets for her, especially once her father forbids her to do it.
I seriously could not believe this was a debut book. La Valley writes with such assurance and skill, building a world that makes sense to those unfamiliar with the Uyghur and East Turkestan. She also neatly explains very complicated politics in a way that children will understand thanks to the perspective of Mehrigul and her family. La Valley does not shy away from the difficult family situation she has created, clearly creating a world where there are no real villains just adults dealing with impossible situations.
Yet there are heroes. They come in the form of more than the American buyer too. Mehrigul’s grandfather is one of these, as he works impossibly hard and still supports her dreams and skills with baskets. Mehrigul herself is certainly a heroine as well, creating beauty with an incredible humility, taking on tasks far beyond someone as young as she is, and holding her family together.
La Valley never forgets to instill beauty into the world she is telling us about. We learn about the Uyghur rugs, music and art. We learn about the beauty of the desert, the sting of the sand, the wonder of the sudden rain, and the treasures of true friendship and family. It is in this mix of destitution and beauty that this book truly shines. It is a book that enters the very heart of the reader and takes up residence. Beautiful, haunting, cruel and wondrous, this is one amazing read. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Born in 1888, Horace Pippin loved to draw from the time he was a small child. He would draw on scrap paper using charcoal, he would draw for his friends, and he would even draw on his spelling tests though his teacher did not appreciate that. As he grew, he had to quit school in 8th grade. He worked hard with his hands in different ways, but continued to draw and paint. Then Horace went to war and was wounded in his right arm. Now he could no longer draw, or so he thought. He started trying again with a poker and using his other hand to steady himself. As he grew stronger, he drew more and more. Eventually, he gained the attention of people like N. C. Wyeth, who helped put together his first art show. Pippin’s life that was filled with hardships and obstacles serves as inspiration for young artists.
Bryant and Sweet collaborated before with Caldecott Honor results. This picture book biography of an important but lesser known African-American artist shows the power of art in one’s life and how it is impossible to stop seeing and communicating the world through art once you begin. Bryant writes with a solidity that is lovely. Incorporating Pippin’s own words from letters, she captures the life of this artist and how he came to be recognized for his work.
Sweet too weaves Pippin’s words into her art. Her use of collage truly builds Pippin’s world before readers’ eyes. My favorite image in the book is Pippin as a young boy sitting and drawing on piles of papers. It captures the intensity with which he created art even at such a young age. This intensity continues through his story to after he is wounded and the determination that is apparent in just his hands.
Another very successful collaboration of these two masters, this biographical picture book should serve as its own splash of red on every library’s shelves. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook by Shaun Tan
This book opens the curtain to Tan’s creative process, allowing readers to view art from stories that have not yet been full formed, art from books that have been completed, and beautiful illustrations that may not be stories at all. The courage this book took to produce is to be applauded. Allowing readers and other artists to see a process of creativity is raw and soul baring.
This book is stellar. One turns the pages slowly, lingering in worlds undreamed of, wondering at ideas, and pausing to allow a particular image to sink in more deeply. It is a journey, specially designed for a young creative to see that mistakes can be joyous, that creation is messy, and that works in progress are breathtaking.
This is a book to get in the hands of teens who enjoy art and writing, for it is a look at the unformed and the just formed. It is a book of pure creativity and the creative process. Beautiful. Haunting. Inspiring. Appropriate for ages 10-18.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.