The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art by Cynthia Levinson

Cover image for The People’s Painter.

The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Evan Turk (9781419741302)

Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania and at age four saw his father taken banished for demanding workers’ rights. From a very young age, Ben drew, even though paper was scarce in Lithuania, so he drew in the margins. When his father ends up in America, he brings Ben, his mother and his brother to join him. Ben goes to school, learning a new alphabet instead of the Hebrew one that he learned in Lithuania. He is soon identified as a promising young artist at school, but his family must send him to work in order to survive. Ben works for a lithographer, hand-lettering signs while going to art school at night. But art school isn’t what he is looking for. They teach landscapes rather than the people and stories that Ben wants to paint. Inspired by stories of injustice, Ben painted about current events, creating series of paintings that while not pretty were inspiring. He went on to document the Great Depression using photography, hired by the government several times as an artist. Ben continued to paint the people who were invisible to others.

Levinson captures the story of Shahn’s life with a focus on what drove him to create art, linking it to tragedies in his homeland and his family. Her writing is full of admiration for his hard work and insistence that he paint what he wanted to rather than what he was being told to do. His belief in sharing the stories of those less fortunate shines in her words, revealed by her stellar writing that is both clear and also evocative.

Turk’s art pays homage to Shahn’s throughout the book. Made with gouache, acrylic, pencil, chalk and linoleum block prints, the illustrations are textured and layered. They include versions of some of Shahn’s most iconic works. Turk’s use of bold color, deep shadow and light create a marvelous background for Shahn’s life story.

A great picture book biography that speaks to the intersection of art and political statement. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Abrams.

The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson

Cover image for The Fire Never Goes Out

The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson (9780062278272)

This deeply personal graphic memoir tells the author’s story of being a creative person in our modern world. Spanning from 2011 to 2019, the book explores her life as a young adult. Starting with her time in art school with its loneliness and her growing meltdowns and self harm, the book explore the darker side of her personality. Her inner flame of creativity and passion battles the hole that she sees as gaping right at her middle. Still, that darkness is offset by wonderfully mundane happy moments such as apple picking in the fall and watching TV with people she enjoys. As the years progress, that strain of darkness and depression vs. creativity and wild energy continues. Stevenson shares her huge accomplishments too such as publishing her first graphic novel to great acclaim and winning national awards for it and running a highly successful series for Netflix. Still, those never quiet the negative thoughts. After finally crashing to her lowest point, Stevenson emerges like a phoenix, a woman in love, getting married and carrying her fire with her still.

There is so much sheer honesty and vulnerability on these pages that it is breathtaking. The mix of Stevenson’s writing with her illustrations, many created at the time she is talking about, makes for a dynamic read where her skill as both writer and artist is evident on every page. Perhaps most telling is how her huge successes did not diminish her negative internal experience, instead perhaps accelerating the crash. Her honesty about self harm and struggles with mental illness is amazing.

Stevenson carefully stays away from generalizing her experience, instead keeping her memoir very personal and about her own journey through creativity and the way it can burn and destroy as well as build. Because of this, readers can see themselves in her, relate to her feelings and see a way forward that does not involve a complete loss of self or creativity. It’s a book of hope, for creative queer people in particular.

Strong, personal and empowering, this is a memoir is a courageous look at mental illness. Appropriate for ages 16-19.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Cezanne’s Parrot by Amy Guglielmo

Cezanne’s Parrot by Amy Guglielmo

Cezanne’s Parrot by Amy Guglielmo, illustrated by Brett Helquist (9780525515081)

Cezanne was a French painter who longed to be told that he’s a great artist, so he tried to train his parrot to say that to him. Cezanne’s focus on ordinary events and people as well as his unique style of thick paint and heavy lines did not speak to the professors at the famous Academie des Beaux-Arts where he longed to study. Monet advised Cezanne to head into the French countryside for inspiration. But Monet painted quickly and Cezanne painted very slowly, sometimes taking over 100 visits to a site before his painting was complete. He continued to submit his art for consideration by the Academie, but continued to be rebuffed. The Impressionists emerged as a group that broke the rules of art, but Cezanne didn’t fit in, even with them. He continued to paint the way that only he could, eventually becoming a huge success. 

Cezanne’s continued disappointments in gaining attention for his art flavor this picture book biography with rejection and sorrow. They also give readers a chance to see someone who never gave up even as people mocked him. This incredible resilience is also captured in the humor of teaching his parrot to compliment him, something that finally happens in the picture book towards the end. 

Helquist’s illustrations are saturated with color, rich and vibrant. He reproduces several of Cezanne’s masterpieces on the page while the majority of the illustrations are filled with images of Cezanne’s hard work, using speech bubbles and humor when appropriate.

A look at one of the greatest painters of all time and what it took to be a success. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Review: Birdsong by Julie Flett

Birdsong by Julie Flett

Birdsong by Julie Flett (9781771644730)

In the spring, a girl moves with her mother from their seaside home to one in a field of snowdrops. They have a nearby neighbor who the girl gradually gets to know. When they first move, the girl doesn’t want to draw anymore. She does love to draw and her neighbor also loves to create things, pottery in her case. As the two start talking, the girl starts to think about creating things again. As autumn arrives, the neighbor shows her what she is working on, and the girl shares some Cree names for phases of the moon, inspired by the pottery. Winter is harder for the elderly neighbor, even with salmon soup shared between them. When she becomes bedridden, the girl uses her art to create a space ready for inspiration and healing.

Flettis, a Cree-Metis author, has won many awards for her work. Here she creates a story of the disruption of moving and the discovery of another artist who inspires new ideas. The inter-generational friendship is lovingly depicted, offering a web of support where each of them takes turns showing the other care when they need it most. The entire book has a gorgeous quiet to it that allows space for creativity to thrive.

The illustrations are simple and rich. The landscapes are filled with gauzy, haze that softens the hillsides, the sky and the moon. Against this softness, the characters stand out clear and bold.

A beautiful and inspiring picture book about art and friendship. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greystone Kids.

Review: Paper Son by Julie Leung

Paper Son The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist by Julie Leung

Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist by Julie Leung, illustrated by Chris Sasaki (9781524771874)

Released on September 24, 2019.

Tyrus Wong entered the United States by using papers that belonged to another Chinese boy. In 1919, Chinese people entering the U.S. had to prove that they were of high status. Tyrus and his father both traveled under other people’s identities, making him a paper son. He had to memorize details of the other boy’s life and village, knowing that he would be tested to see if his identity was real. When they reached immigration, his father was let through easily but Tyrus was held for weeks until he was finally released after being interrogated about his identity. Tyrus didn’t like school much and his father was often away for work. Tyrus loved art, studying both western and eastern art styles. After he graduated from art school, he worked for Disney Studios, doing painstaking work. Then he heard of a new movie, Bambi, that the studio was working on. He began to create backgrounds for the film and Walt Disney loved them. Fired from Disney after a worker’s strike, Tyrus continued to make art throughout the rest of his life.

Leung tells Wong’s story with a lovely clarity. From his entry into the country through his career, Wong’s tale is not linear but rather a series of opportunities that he seized upon. The beginning of the book shows a family trapped in the red tape of immigration and that harrowing experience blossoms into a book about art and opportunity to express one’s self. That again narrows when Wong finds himself doing grunt work for Disney Studios and once again opportunities appear to move him forward. Throughout there is a sense of grace and resilience when faced with real obstacles.

The art work is clearly done with Wong in mind, with its ethereal backgrounds. The images are powerful, often showing things from a unique perspective from a look at a line of people on a long pier to directly gazing into Wong’s window to looking down at an image painted with a mop. The result is dramatic and beautiful.

A picture book biography that celebrates a lesser-known artist whose work we have all seen. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade.

Review: Sparky & Spike by Barbara Lowell

Sparky & Spike by Barbara Lowell

Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever by Barbara Lowell, illustrated by Dan Andreasen (9781944903589)

Sparky has a dog that is black and white. His dog knows fifty words, loves to each strange things, and only drinks from the bathroom faucet. Sparky and his father always head to the drugstore every Saturday night to pick up the Sunday comics. Sparky loves comics and also loves to draw himself. His teacher says that he may be an artist one day, but Sparky definitely wants to be a cartoonist. But drawing is hard, especially getting characters right in multiple panels. The kids at school love Sparky’s drawings, but ignore him otherwise. When Sparky realizes that his dog could make the comic for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, he sends it in along with his drawing of Spike. Eventually, his drawing and caption are published! It’s just the start for the kid whose real name is Charles Schulz.

Lowell deftly depicts the growth of a young artist as he develops his own dream, his own art and a path forward. It is a pleasure to see a young Charles Schulz and his connection to the dog who will inspire Snoopy. His connection to comics from a young age is also fascinating to see as well as his struggles with friendship. The art by Andreasen is cleverly done with a realistic touch that both pays homage to the work of Schulz but also stands on its own stylistically.

An inspiring look at the creator of Peanuts. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Cameron Kids.

Review: Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me by Susan L. Roth

Birds of a Feather Bowerbirds and Me by Susan Roth

Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me by Susan L. Roth (9780823442829)

Collage artist Roth takes a look at the amazing bowerbird and how her work and their building process compare with one another. Both she and the bowerbird are collectors of random items. They use those items to create compositions. For the bowerbird, that is a bower for their courtship process. They both like unusual objects that they use to create art, things that no one else might ever combine in that way. They both pay attention to color and both seek out praise for their work in the end.

I was really pleasantly surprised by the content and construct of this picture book. While I knew it would be about bowerbirds and humans, I didn’t expect it to be so directly related to the artistic side of both. Roth beautifully shows the fascinating correlations between her work and that of the bird. She demonstrates both in her collage illustrations and in the text of the book how similar they actually are. The text though is kept wonderfully simple, making this book about art very accessible even for young children. She completes the book with more facts about the birds and about her own work as well as a bibliography of sources.

Roth’s illustrations are fabulous. Bright and filled with objects of all kinds, they fill the page with vibrancy. Most of the pages show the bird and then Roth, each working in a similar way on their art. The result is a book about Roth’s way of making art that is also an example of the art itself. Clever stuff!

A very successful mix of nature, science and art. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Secret Kingdom by Barb Rosenstock

The Secret Kingdom by Barb Rosenstock

The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola (9780763674755)

A nonfiction picture book look at the incredible Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Chand grew up happily in a small village in the Punjab region of India. He grew up there, hearing stories and building palaces on the sand near the river. As an adult, he became a farmer but everything changed when the partition of India happened in 1947. Forced from his home and into a city, Chand struggled to find the beauty he had grown up with. He finally discovered it in the jungle along the city’s edge. There he cut back the vegetation and built himself a hut. He started gathering items and bringing them into the jungle. Then he started building a secret kingdom, one that was undiscovered by anyone else for fifteen years. When the officials wanted it destroyed, the local community rose up to protect this outsider’s art.

Rosenstock manages to keep the complicated story of the partition of India to a scale that allows young readers to understand its impact on Chand, but also not get caught in the political details. She cleverly uses repetition of themes in the book, creating a feel of a traditional tale that suits this subject perfectly. She also shows the care and attention to detail that Chand demonstrated in his quiet work. There is a sense of awe around both his skill and his dedication to his vision.

Nivola’s art is fine-lined and marvelously detailed. From the lush jungle setting to the various figures he created. It is impressive that when the pages unfold to show photographs of the actual Rock Garden, there is no jarring moving from illustration to image. It flows naturally and yet allows the full images to amaze too.

A look at an outsider artist who created a world all his own. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Mallko and Dad by Gusti

Mallko and Dad by Gusti

Mallko and Dad by Gusti (9781592702596)

This autobiographical picture book takes a raw and impassioned look at fatherhood and unconditional love. It is the story of the author and his son who was born with Down Syndrome. Mallko was not what his father was expecting, and Gusti did not accept his son at first. Steadily though, he quickly realized that Mallko was complete and fine as he was. Mallko’s mother and older brother accepted him much faster, showing Gusti the way forward. The book explores Mallko, his humor and his life. His art is shown side-by-side with his father’s on the pages. This is a book that is a clarion call for parents to realize that their children don’t need to change to be loved, they are worthy of it always.

Perhaps the most impressive part of this book is Gusti’s willingness to be this open about his hesitation of having a child who is different than he was expecting. Gusti does not try to rationalize his response or make apologies for it. It is clear he is pained by how he first reacted and is making up for those days of doubt. The rest of the book simply celebrates Mallko and exactly who he is. He is captured in a rainbow of images, cartoons capturing his activities, playing with his family, and simply being a child. It is a breathtaking display of love and feels like Gusti put his heart on every page.

An incredible book that is a picture book, but as thick as a novel thanks to the quantity of images crammed inside waiting to inspire you to love. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy provided by Enchanted Lion Books.