Review: In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van

In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van

In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van, illustrated by April Chu (InfoSoup)

In a fishing village near the sea, there is a small house high in the hills. In that house, there is a kitchen with a warm fire where a pot of noodle soup is simmering. A woman watches and waits, grinding spices in a mortar and pestle while a baby sleeps nearby. Their dog looks down into a hole in the floor and spots a cricket there. The cricket is painting on an easel, creating an image of a stormy sea with large waves. In that sea there is a small boat with a worried fisherman hoping to get out of the storm soon and dreaming of his family in a small house above the sea.

Both the author and illustrator are Vietnamese-Americans. The story was inspired by the author’s father and his ancestral village in Central Vietnam. It is the story of both the men who head onto the sea to fish and the families they leave behind. It is also a story of the cycle of life, of connections to one another. After all, the storm itself is both on the cricket’s easel but also part of the heart of the story too. It’s a book that twists a bit, so that one forgets the origin of the storm and the story, but knows that it echoes with history and truth.

The illustrations are dramatic and gorgeous. They evoke Vietnam with its stunning shoreline. They also capture the danger of the high waves and surging seas, conveying that tension clearly without making it too frightening or intense for young readers. The entire book celebrates the cozy home but also the wildness of nature, dancing from one to the other with ease and creating a strong dichotomy but also connection between the two.

Beautifully illustrated and told, this cyclical story is a journey to Vietnam and a celebration of their way of life. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Dear Mr. Washington by Lynn Cullen

dear mr washington

Dear Mr. Washington by Lynn Cullen, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

Based on a true story, this enchanting picture book will have everyone smiling.  When George Washington comes to the Stuart house to have his official portrait painted, the children must all by on their best behavior.  But it doesn’t quite work out that way.  With each visit to the house, Charlotte has to write another letter of apology.  She has to apologize for the cat racing up his shoulder, for the baby chewing on his hair ribbon, and much more.  She shares a list of how they will be better behaved the next time.  But then there are her many examples in the following letter of how very good they had been, which was not actually true.  In each and every letter though, she is cajoling Mr. Washington to smile in his picture.  Can a very serious president handle the wild and silly Stuart clan?

A large part of the joy of this book is that it’s based on a true story.  You can read the author’s note at the end to see just how much.  The interplay between Mr. Washington and the children is lovely.  He mutters under his breath, ignores them as best he can, and yet it all ends up a mess anyway.  And the children themselves are cheery and playful, undeterred by either their parents demanding they behave or the scowling Mr. Washington.

Carpenter’s art adds to the fun.  She merrily depicts the naughty children from the baby chewing on Mr. Washington’s shoe to the entire group falling asleep all together on top of him.  It’s great to see a historical book that is playful and fun.

A great read aloud, this book is funny, silly and filled with history and art.  What more could you want?  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial.

Review: Colorful Dreamer by Marjorie Blain Parker

colorful dreamer

Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse by Marjorie Blain Parker, illustrated by Holly Berry

Matisse grew up in a French town that was industrial and gray.  Despite this, he dreamed in bright colors.  He was a boy who did not do well in school, at music, or really at much of anything except dreaming.  Matisse decided to study law in Paris, but he discovered that being a law clerk was very dull, copying legal documents word for word by hand.  Due to the stress, Matisse ended up in a hospital bed for months.  It was there that he started painting to pass the time.  Now he had found exactly what he was good at.  It wasn’t easy, there were times he lacked food and money, but he worked very hard at his art.  Years later, Matisse found himself sick and in bed again in his old age.  He could no longer stand at an easel, so he turned to making cut-out collages, and those pieces turned out to be some of his most celebrated creations.

Parker vividly tells the story of a boy who grew up as a very unlikely artist.  From his colorless surroundings to the fact that he had never discovered his artistic gift, it is amazing that Matisse became what he was.  I appreciate particularly her celebration of the creative and the imaginative.  She also makes sure though that young readers know how much work it took for Matisse to reach success and that it did not come instantaneously.  It’s a book that speaks to everyone having a gift, but also the hard work it takes to achieve it.

Berry’s art plays black-and-white against brilliant color.  The gray world of Matisse’s youth is shown in intricate pencil illustrations, but pales against the radiant color of his dreams and his art.  As the pages turn, Matisse’s world becomes the same colors as the art he creates, demonstrating that he has finally found his place in the world as a whole.

Beautifully illustrated and written as an inspiration to young people looking for their own special place in the world, this is a very special look at a famous artist.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.

Review: Sky Color by Peter H. Reynolds

sky color

Sky Color by Peter H. Reynolds

This is another charmer of a picture book from Reynolds who wrote the popular Ish and The Dot.  Marisol considers herself an artist.  She paints lots of pictures, carries art supplies with her, and sees an artist in everyone.  So Marisol is thrilled when she learns that their next project will be a class mural.  Marisol wants to paint the sky.  The only problem is that there’s no blue paint.  How can she paint the sky without any blue?  Happily, the sky itself shows all of the colors possible to Marisol and she is inspired to paint the sky in many colors.

Reynolds uses simple text very successfully here, just as he has in his previous books.  This book is all about embracing the inner artist, expressing creativity, and finding inspiration in the world around you.  These are huge concepts that Reynolds makes tangible and possible even for young children to get inspired by.  A great idea would be to share the book with children and then have everyone paint the sky without using blue. 

Reynolds successfully turns just a few lines into great illustrations that capture emotions and full characters.  Many of the pages are black and white with bursts of color, but when artistic inspiration strikes, the colors bloom. 

Clever, colorful and filled with artistic inspiration for young readers.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Monet Paints a Day by Julie Danneberg

monet paints a day

Monet Paints a Day by Julie Danneberg, illustrated by Caitlin Heimerl

Told in the first person by Monet, this book explores his painting process when he was on holiday in Etretat, France.  Children waited for him when he leaves his hotel, wanting to help carry his canvasses to the seaside.  When they reached the strip of sand at the bottom of the cliffs, the canvasses were placed against the cliff.  Monet was unique in painting right in the middle of the landscape rather than sketching and then finishing the painting in his studio.  Because of his unique approach, he had many canvasses in process at the same time.  On this day, he got so involved in painting that he didn’t realize how quickly the tide was coming in.  Everything was taken out by the sea, so he had to begin again on a new day.

Danneberg manages to tell two levels of story here.  There is the day that Monet is painting which is explored in exquisite detail.  Then in small boxes that are offset from the rest of the story, there is historical context offered about how Monet differs from other artists of his time and how he was creating an entirely new style of painting.  The Author’s Note at the end offers even more detail as well as a copy of Monet’s Waves at the Manneporte so that readers can see an example of Monet’s work.

Heimerl has the challenge of doing a picture book based on a famous artist.  In her illustrations she manages to create illustrations that both are their own style and yet pay homage to impressionism.  She achieves this with small touches, daubs of watercolor, here and there, lightening and brightening the illustrations.

A very successful picture book biography of Monet, this will be enjoyed by elementary art teachers and students.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Charlesbridge.

Review: Just Behave Pablo Picasso! by Jonah Winter


Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

Pablo Picasso started out painting just like everyone else, but when he started to paint his moods in colors, things started to change.  The gallery owners wanted more pictures in just the same style, and suddenly Picasso became wealthy and well know.  But Picasso was not interested in painting the same rose colored paintings again and again.  Instead, he becomes inspired by African masks and does a new painting that breaks all of the rules.  When it is unveiled, the reaction is strongly negative and it is called “ugly” by the critics.  When the entire world starts doubting him, Picasso works even harder, coming out with another painting that is the birth of modernism.  This book displays the strength needed to stay true to yourself all through the lens of the incredible Pablo Picasso.

Winter has not written a conventional picture book biography here.  Instead, he plays with the format.  He uses comic book techniques like BLAM! and has pages that range from just a sentence or two to ones that are lengthier and provide more information and insight into Picasso.  This biography is less about the details of his life and much more about his art and its inspiration and evolving style.  We learn nothing of his family, but much about his process and his drive.

Hawkes’ illustrations carry that same playful feeling forward.  He toys with perspective, enjoys depicting the close quarters in Paris with see-through walls.  It takes a certain amount of playfulness to take on a book about Picasso and not imitate his style in the illustrations.  Hawkes’ style remains true to himself, underlining the overall message of the book by doing so.

A creative and fun picture book biography about a vibrant and rebellious artist, this book should find a place in children’s nonfiction collections.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from library copy.