A Splash of Red, or The Best Art Book Around

13642600I have an amazing, clever, wonderful friend who often sends me books. Not just ordinary books. Gorgeous, beautiful, life-altering books. This is the sort of friend that everyone should be lucky enough to have and I adore her to pieces. One of the books she sent me recently was the most surprising, delightful book I had seen in some time. A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (swoon swoon swoon) is honestly, in my humble opinion, one of, if not THE, best art books around. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Pippin, he was and remains an absolute American treasure. An artist known best for his simple and stunning paintings of American life, Mr. Pippin has quickly become one of my favorite artists. I taught my Museum Masters students about him last week and they were fascinated by this man who overcame huge obstacles in his life and yet still stayed true to his artistic soul. Wounded severely while fighting in the trenches in World War I, Mr. Pippin lost almost all mobility in his right hand – his “drawing” hand. And for many years, he figured his days of creating artwork were over. That is, until he took his right hand in his left and taught himself to paint, holding one hand in the other. Bryant’s words and Sweet’s gorgeous drawings bring this humble and extraordinary man to life for children and adults. Interspersed through the book are quotes from Mr. Pippin himself. Quotes like “If a man knows nothing but hard times, he will paint them, for her must be true to himself” and (my students’ favorite) “Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead.”  This is an inspiring, at times heartbreaking, groundbreaking book that should belong on the shelves of every child and adult the world over. Please take a moment and get to know Horace Pippin through the eyes of Bryant and Sweet. They have done him proud.

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Me…Jane

“Jane had a stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee.” So begins Patrick McDonnell’s lovely story of Dr. Jane Goodall, the woman who single-handedly and lovingly changed the way we interact with animals.  Readers might recognize McDonnell as the creator of the syndicated comic strip MUTTS and as the author of the award-winning picture book Art. He is also a strong animal welfare advocate and has channelled his love for all things fanged or furry in this beautiful book.  The elegant text (“With the wind in her hair, she read and reread the books about Tarzan of the Apes, in which another girl, also named Jane, lived in the jungles of Africa”) married with McDonnell’s inimitable drawings make for a magical journey into the mind and heart of Goodall. With her stuffed chimpanzee by her side, Jane marvels at the wonders of nature and dreams of someday visiting Africa to see the real life versions of her beloved toy. This dream, of meeting and interacting with these exotic and endearing creatures, comes true for Jane  – and readers will be left yearning to learn more about this wonderful woman. I’ll be teaching my world history students about Jane Goodall in the coming weeks and I’m so thrilled to be able to use this book as a springboard for her lovely contributions to the world. Complete with photographs of Jane as a child and an amazing cartoon drawn by the primatologist herself, Me…Jane is a wonderful introduction to not only true life stories, but to a future built of understanding, philanthropy and wonder.

Romeo and Juliet for the Drooling Set

Every summer, my older son attends a Shakespeare Camp in which he and his fellow campers spend two weeks in literature heaven. Improv, movement, Shakespearean history…why, oh, why can’t adults go to summer camp too? I’d give anything to spend two weeks learning my son’s lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor (he made a smashing Doctor Caius, by the way…) At any rate, inspired by this Bard Bonanza, I went to my favorite local bookstore on the lookout for a children’s biography of Shakespeare. I found that (a lovely member of the “Who Was…” series by Celeste Davidson Mannis) and then I found what may be the most glorious gift to children’s literature in quite some time. Are you ready for this? Author Jennifer Adams and artist Alison Oliver have teamed up to create BabyLit Board Books. Yes, now you can find not only Romeo and Juliet for your little anglophile-in-training, but Pride and Prejudice  as well. (Insert swooning here.) Not only are Oliver’s illustrations just the most adorable things you’ve ever seen, the way Adams has turned the concept of two jilted lovers and the dashing Mr Darcy into counting primers for children is nothing short of miraculous. Some purists may scoff at the “dumbing down” of great literature for children, but I give a hearty “huzzah” to the concept of introducing great literature at an early age. Will babies truly understand the difference between Capulets and Montagues? No. But isn’t it fun to try?

The Blah, or The Potato with Feet

Some days, you just feel like a blah. A big, beige blah. Like a potato with feet. And some days we can’t even explain why we feel that way. And other days, the world conspires against us to create said blahdom. It just happens. So we can all relate to the little boy in Jack Kent’s The Blah. His older brother stepped on his crayons. His mom is too busy doing mom stuff. (What? That happens?) And he feels like no one listens at all. So he creates the King of the Blahs – a drawing of a big blotch with a crown who terrorizes his fellow blahs. In this simple little story (which I first read almost 30 years ago), Jack Kent perfectly captures the frustrations of being a kid. Like when I was seven and I wanted my mom to listen to this great joke I’d made up (it involved a snowflake and a burrito if I remember correctly) and she was on the phone and couldn’t listen. Or when I’d recorded a soap opera called “As the Stomach Turns” on my hand-held tape player and wanted my grandmother to have a quick listen and she happened to be talking to her neighbor Abe, who strangely wore bathrobes all day long.  And I wanted to turn right around and draw my own King of the Blahs on the wall of my room. Published in 1970, The Blah is as relevant today as it was then – for kids and adults.  It’s a great book to bring out when the blahs are at your house for no other reason that perhaps they were bored down there in Blahville. There are just some days like that. And if, on some day in the future, I slightly resemble a potato with feet, you’ll know why.

Thursday: Ira Sleeps Over

Last night at dinner, we were talking about my son’s impending slumber party and the excitement inherent in such an adventure. Pizza! Movies! Cake with store-bought frosting! And I remembered my own delight at the prospect of slumber parties growing up – playing “light as a feather stiff as a board”, my friend Damara’s mother reading Edgar Allen Poe stories to us in our sleeping bags (the coolest mom ever!)…And my husband remembered, all those years ago, reading a book about sleeping over at someone’s house, but couldn’t quite remember the name of it, but it had a little boy and a teddy bear. Fast forward to a trip to Barnes and Noble and a walk down memory lane, and you’ve got Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber. How could I have ever forgotten this little gem of a book? In it, a little boy named Ira is excited beyond belief for an upcoming sleepover at his friend Reggie’s house. But when his older sister asksif he’ll be taking his teddy bear, Tah Tah, to Reggie’s house, Ira starts to wonder what his friend’s reaction could be to this. Will Reggie make fun of him? Will he want to be friends anymore? Ira decides to leave Tah Tah at home, only to find that Reggie has a little secret of his own…and the two friends share a wonderful, touching moment together. Written in 1975, Waber’s book not only stands the test of time for any child today – but it lingers in the memories of nostalgic grown-ups too…

Monday: Star Wars – A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy

Around our house,  Star Wars is King. And not in some sort of ineffectual, outdated Monarchy kind of way. I mean, truly Kingly – in charge, ever-present and downright overpowering. We talk about Star Wars, we dream about Star Wars, at times we dress like Star Wars, and we read every book available on the topic. So imagine my utter delight when my mom purchased Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy for my sons. I swear the Heavens opened. Angels sang. And my boys found themselves completely blissed out on every eye-popping, 3-D page. (Pssst…there’s even a light-up light saber…). This is the perfect gift for any Star Wars-oholic, young and old…made by the expert hands of pop-up author Matthew Reinhart. It’s so awesome, they even keep it in plastic wrap at the book store. I mean, how can you resist? Star Wars is King, I tell you. And long may it reign.

Tuesday: Pippi Longstocking

Despite the fact that kids in elementary school used to call me “Pippi Longstocking” because of my two long braids, I still think of Astrid Lindgren’s book very fondly. Especially when it’s coupled with Lauren Child’s (of Charlie and Lola fame) illustrations. For those of you who haven’t ever experienced the sheer delight that is a little girl named Pippi, please run to your nearest library or independent bookstore and get a copy right this very second. Pippi is, among other things, a red-haired ball of energy whose full name (for those of you interested in a proper greeting) is Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking and she lives in Villa Villekula with her pet monkey and her horse whom she lifts over her head on occasion. When her neighbors, Tommy and Annika, make her acquaintance their lives are forever changed by her charm, super strength and steadfast loyalty. Not to mention, her tendency toward great adventures, sometimes involving pirates. There are three full-length  books in the Pippi series and they are all just as delightful as the first. Lindgren’s books are classics for children of any age (even those called “Pippi” all those years ago…)