art

Shapes, Colours, Music and Mystery

One of the wonders of reading is being able to sew threads through the most unlikely of book pairings, and knit them together. Intertextuality is the relationship between texts: common links and themes, references and allusions, and working out how these make the books stand together or apart.


The Cranky Caterpillar is a new picture book from artist Richard Graham and ostensibly shows a young child, Ezra, trying to cheer up a cranky caterpillar who is stuck inside a piano. Graham utilises a great deal of humour and pathos in his tale, as Ezra tries everything from introducing fresh air to concocting beautiful meals, and buying a new hat. Graham’s artistry comes to the fore here in his depiction of a little girl employing all the schemes to cheer up the caterpillar that she would enjoy herself, and this shows on her sympathetically expressive face. But there are also clues as to where the depths of the story lie in her design – her legs, for example, are shaped like musical notes, which becomes more obvious as the book continues, and there is a growing abundance of tranquility in her face when she hears music.

Because although on one level the book is about learning to articulate emotion, showing kindness to another who is unhappy, and the importance of friendship, on another level the book introduces the world of synaesthesia – how one sensory stimulation leads to automatic secondary stimulation, such as the colour of music, or the music of colour. Here, Graham takes inspiration from Kandinsky, who believed that he could hear music when he saw colours – and the illustrations halfway through the book are a paean to Kandinsky’s abstract phase. Kandinsky, who believed that colour itself is an art form, that it isn’t always necessary to show the recognisable shape of something. The Cranky Caterpillar does have a recognisable story shape of course, with a happy ending, as with most caterpillars in storybooks – but there’s a wondrous depth and craft to this picture book too – making it work on many levels. Graham’s use of colours in geometric shapes sings through the pages of the book, at the point when Ezra gathers a band to play joyful music to the caterpillar, in a moving anticipation of his eventual flight of happiness.

In the same way in which graphic shapes work as a key component to uncovering the mystery in Robin Steven’s The Guggenheim Mystery. This new middle grade novel has, at its heart, the mystery of the theft of the Kandinsky painting, ‘In the Black Square’.

The Guggenheim Mystery tells the story of Ted, a boy with a form of autism, who is visiting his aunt and cousin in New York, when a painting mysteriously disappears from the Guggenheim art gallery, of which his aunt is the curator. When the spotlight falls firmly on her as culprit, Ted and his cousins set off on an adventure to clear her name, and by doing so learn about the value of art. (Wonderfully, the author has borrowed from an episode in her own mother’s past for this – her mother worked at the Ashmolean in Oxford when a Cezanne painting was stolen.)

The book’s sense of place is vital, as Ted and his cousins move through the subway, Times Square, Brooklyn and Central Park to follow up leads to their detective work. Having been to NY many times, and most recently last month, I can attest to the accuracy and authenticity of the settings – as well as confirm that the painting is firmly in place in the museum (and there’s a wonderful children’s audio commentary which is well worth the visit!). But reading the book, whether you have been to New York or not, certainly calls to mind the excitement and uniqueness of this incredible city.

What’s more, one gets the feeling that Steven’s protagonist, Ted, sees the world more like Kandinsky than the rest of us:

“I noticed that the tilt of the Earth and the position of the sun meant that its light was passing through more air to reach ground level in New York. Each air molecule it bumped against made it scatter more and more, so that by the time it reached our eyes it was red and yellow instead of blue.”

Of course, his autism makes his senses more acute – accentuating sounds, colours, shapes. In fact, it’s Ted’s difference in seeing things that enables him to see things that others miss, and thereby solve the mystery. He wants to find patterns and logic in what he sees, which contrasts beautifully with his absorption of the chaos and noise of New York. But it also brings into play Kandinsky and the Guggenheim itself. He transforms the chaos into a theory and finally solves the jigsaw, with much help from the shapes and patterns of the Guggenheim itself – the whorls of the ramps, the triangles of the stairs, the curvature of the exterior.

This too links back to the Kandinsky painting, which shows the order and clean shapes of the weather, as well as depicting an expressiveness of the abstract.

The power of the book is in the very fact that Stevens distils this all into logical simplicity for Ted and for the reader – each chapter fastidiously traipses through the facts of the case, eliminating the impossibles. It’s easy to follow, but intriguing to read – I didn’t guess the culprit. It also follows on from Ted and his cousins’ appearance in The London Eye Mystery, and, cleverly maintains their distinctive personalities and relationships (despite having been written by a different author, the late Siobhan Dowd).

Both The Cranky Caterpillar and The Guggenheim Mystery are stellar examples of artistic endeavours coming to fruition. Richard Graham is an upcycling artist, and took his inspiration from not only Kandinsky, but from the hammers inside a cast-off piano. Look carefully at the detail in the illustrations and you’ll see how the caterpillar is crafted, as well as the most carefully crafted illustrations – taking inspiration from great artists, but also from the visuality of music. Stevens was asked to write the mystery as a sequel to late author Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, having been left with just the title to go on. With both books there is a pattern to their work, a pattern through shapes and colours and imagination. Perfect books for exploring children’s own creative endeavours.

You can buy The Cranky Caterpillar by Richard Graham here and The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens and Siobhan Dowd here.

 

Back to School

The autumn always sees a mega haul of children’s nonfiction – the back to school collections, lists for National Non Fiction November, and of course the Christmas gift treasure troves. This year, unlike the wet harvest, has yielded a bumper crop.

We start the day with maths. Always a slog after the long summer holidays, this book aims to reverse that groan with a rather wonderful premise – from the front cover, the reader is a genius: This Book Thinks You’re a Maths Genius, by Dr Mike Goldsmith, illustrated by Harriet Russell. It aims to prove that if the reader likes patterns, colouring and puzzles, then actually they’re good at maths. Taking basic mathematical concepts, such as geometry, measurements, statistics, and number patterns, it gives the reader activities and games to enhance their knowledge. Most pages have a ‘Where’s the Math’s box’ at the bottom to explain the ‘science’ behind the activity. It feels more heavily weighted towards shapes and patterns than basic numbers, but it was certainly fun to fill in.

Geography next, with two books to explore. The first, Animazes, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon also combines the territory of activity book with non-fiction, as readers can trace the mazes on each page to learn about the migration patterns of different animals. There’s a vibrancy and exuberance to this book – set by the vivid colour palate, which lifts the knowledge from the page. Christmas Island red crabs, wildebeest of the Serengeti, Monarch butterflies, Mali elephants…There’s a wealth of phenomenal facts about these wonderful animals – for general use or project use. Maze answers are given at the back of the book.

For those wanting a more straightforward factual book, Starters: Rainforests by Nick Pierce and illustrated by Jean Claude ticks the box for little ones. Basic layouts and colourful simple illustrations lend this a modern textbook look, and it reads plainly, but overall gives information in a neat concise visual way, with glossary, and index. Great for Key Stage One, and will bring a dazzling intensity of colour to the topic.

After break, it’s biology, using Bugs by Simon Tyler for budding entomologists. With the first 32 pages devoted to dissecting insect life – from anatomy to taxonomy, life cycle to senses, and the rest given to large colourful illustrations of individual species with accompanying small details about size and habitat, this is a comprehensive look at the subject. However, it stands apart with its impressive use of blank space on the page, clean lines, and coloured backgrounds, which all give the book both a vivacity and a clinical feel. Rarely have insects looked quite so engaging, it could almost double as a coffee-table splendour. Inspirational for children, a minibeast triumph.

You can’t beat a good historical narrative for history lessons. Philip Ardagh’s new series sets out to dominate the market here with his ‘faction’ books, illustrated by Jamie Littler. The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge explores the life of a medieval knight with as much tongue-in-cheek humour as sword-in-hand fighting. Written in day-by-day diary form, with footnotes giving factual information or terminology, the next in the series is The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny, Victorian Housemaid.

The Histronauts series aims to mash activity, story and non-fiction in its first two titles, An Egyptian Adventure and A Roman Adventure by Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke. A group of children dive back in time, and through the means of a comic strip, they illuminate facets of historical life. There are activities alongside the narrative, such as learning Roman numerals and how to play merellus, as well as mazes, recipes and a host of other factual information. Packed with detail, these are fun and educational.

For a more visual look, try Unfolding Journeys: Secrets of the Nile by Stewart Ross and Vanina Starkoff. More cross-curricula than anything, this geography/history hybrid aims to explore this part of the world with a fold-out, vividly yellow map of the Nile (not to scale), highly captioned with number points, which are then extrapolated on the reverse of the fold-out. A mixture of ancient and modern facts and points of information make this a tricky landscape for a child to navigate – a few more dates might have helped, (and I’m unsure about the James Bond reference inside) but it’s certainly an intriguing way to look at a place of interest.

After lunch, younger primary school children will be delighted to get their hands on Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System by Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman. A new title in this series, but firmly aimed at a younger age group, this is another gem from publishers Flying Eye. Fantastic, familiar cartoons, accompanied by Professor Astro Cat’s chatty and informative dialogue, this would be my go-to book for teaching KS1 children about space for the first time.

With our first day at school completed, we look forward to a trip out. The National Gallery have two phenomenal companion books to touring – Get Colouring with Katie by James Mayhew, and Picture This! By Paul Thurlby. The Katie books by James Mayhew have long been favourites for introducing the youngest children to art, and this is a great companion title that picks out paintings within the gallery and gives children space on the page to colour a detail in their own way. Katie gives hints and explanations along the way. Paul Thurlby’s spiral bound book explores more of the paintings by featuring a picture of them, and then a small explanation, with occasional questions to the readers. The paintings are grouped in different ways – both historical, but also those featuring children, times of day, fashions etc. It might be frustrating without a knowledge of which room each painting is in (which the book doesn’t give). But the questions it poses are pertinent and thoughtful. You can buy all these books from good local bookshops, or click the Waterstones link on the top left of the page.

 

London Days Out and Origami


Last year there was a flurry of colouring-in books for adults, with the aim of providing relaxation and mental health benefits, (and making some money for the publishing industry). Personally I prefer to just read a book, which in itself has many mental health benefits. However, I’m also going to try my hand at origami, because publisher Nosy Crow has teamed up with The British Museum to produce a new collection of books and they’ve started with something rather special.

As part of my summer series looking at places to visit in London that are children’s book related (see also Defender of the Realm and Hetty Feather), this book inspires another trip. Currently at The British Museum there is an exhibition called Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, featuring works from Katsushika Hokusai, one of Japan’s great artists. So, to link with the exhibition, Nosy Crow have published this rather beautiful book about Japanese culture, featuring haikus, pictures and origami.

The book called Origami, Poems and Pictures, is exactly that. It gives instructions for constructing 13 origami models (with 50 sheets of paper for practice), and alongside each set of instructions is a relevant painting from the museum’s exhibition, the Japanese name for the object, and a haiku – so that different elements of Japanese tradition are explored.

I love that the first offering from Nosy Crow and the British Museum isn’t based on Ancient Egypt – which tends to be the ‘go to’ theme when children visit – but instead they have focused on a culture that children may not have been taught about in such depth.

What’s more, the quality of the book is excellent – I found the pieces of paper easy to tear from the book, and each is patterned and coloured uniquely. The instructions are clear to follow, with a difficulty level chart on each page so that you can work your way up the scale, and there is something rather calming and satisfying about achieving the shape. (And I’m certainly not very adept at these sort of things usually). That’s not it though, for then there is the haiku to read and reflect upon, and also the painting to absorb.

The book and paper are bound separately so that even when all the paper is used, this remains a useful little book, with no rips, just a slightly loose cover. There’s even a tech advanced QR code to watch instructional videos if you find that easier. I can’t fault the book – and it is a lovely introduction to a new culture. What’s more, it could entice me to the British Museum to visit the actual exhibition (which runs from May 2017 to 13 August).

I have a feeling though, that I may be doing origami longer than that. Recommended for ages 5-9 years. You can buy it here.

Think and Make Like An Artist by Claudia Boldt and Eleanor Meredith

I’m not a big fan of activity books. I find that the children lose interest quite quickly and the house becomes littered with half-filled in, half destroyed books, which I feel shameful about recycling, but loathe to keep. Most of the time, a piece of paper and junk from the recycling tends to do the job just as well.

However, I do make exceptions. This book is great, and I don’t say this lightly. It not only inspires in a quietly clever way, but it also imparts the philosophy behind the idea of art, references current contemporary award-winning artists, (who are currently exhibiting round the world), and explores a multitude of different form including photography, sculpture, and costume.

But most of all, the ideas for activities are doable (mainly with materials we already have at home), and fun.

My favourite pages are definitely those in which the authors break down in a step-by-step explanation the meaning behind each artistry – such as sculpture for example. ‘Why Make Sculptures?’ they ask, and then proceed to illustrate and explain in text what sculpture is for. Each form is treated to this questioning – and the answers are both illuminating and yet incredibly simple.

For the section ‘illustrate’, we learn that illustrations show and tell people something quite quickly, but the illustrator needs to grab attention, use surprise perhaps. We had great fun creating a space landscape on a piece of black card with different fruits to illustrate our intention, (take note of our banana rocket, strawberry shooting star, and planet Earth). The process also gave us an understanding of what it means to collaborate on a piece of art.

Each activity in the book is photographed and described step-by-step, making it easy to follow – and there is a list of necessities at the top, so that you know what you need before you start.

The example given in the ‘collaboration’ section was particularly compelling. Staring at the photograph of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘The Obliteration Room’ hurt our eyes after a while, so luckily the children didn’t want to collaborate and replicate it in my house (yet).

There is lots of white space around the very colourful activities, so that the book feels aesthetically pleasing too – and the production is of a high quality – thick pages for plenty of usage. As the authors state at the beginning – the book makes you think about art, then have fun making it. It feels as fresh and modern as the artists it highlights, and provides hours of fun, sparking new ideas along the way. Highly recommended. You can buy it here.

Let’s Find Fred: A Guest Post from Steven Lenton

Was it the roving eyes on the cover (they actually move!)? The use of the word In-Fred-ible? Or simply the cuteness of his face? I can’t be sure, but I fell in love with Fred the panda instantaneously. It was love at first read.

Let’s Find Fred is the latest offering from author/illustrator Steven Lenton, illustrator of Shifty McGifty by Tracey Corderoy, various Frank Cottrell-Boyce books, and Princess Daisy and the Nincompoop Knights.

Each night Stanley the zoo keeper tucks up his animals in their beds, but by the time he reaches Fred to read him his bedtime story, Fred has escaped – on an adventure filled with dreams of candyfloss, balloons and parties. As any parent of more than one child will know, this is a common occurrence – the little rascals often escape from their beds in search of night-time adventures.

What follows is a panda chase through the town. This is where the book turns magical, for each spread is set in a different vicinity of the town, and unfortunately for Stanley, there are panda images everywhere, or things that look suspiciously like Fred, but aren’t – from black and white dogs in a limousine, to black and white footballs in the newspaper.

But most cleverly, as Steven highlights below – are the numerous adult cultural references, more often than not with a little bit of Panda involved. I’ve had the book for weeks, and still not exhausted examining each spread. It’s the kind of book you read to your child at bedtime, but then whisk out of the room so that you can peruse it yourself later, but also so that they don’t grab a torch and read it after lights out, having their own little panda-themed night-time adventure. And without further panda-monium, here is Steven to tell you about how much fun he had writing/drawing the book:

My picture books have become known for their extra details and layers of additional humour. I think it’s important that both children and the parents who read books at bedtime have fun doing so. For example in the Shifty McGifty series there is a spider on every double spread of the picture books and twenty spiders to find in each of the fiction titles. In Princess Daisy and the Dragon and the Nincompoop Knights there is a mischievous little snail to spot and in Let’s Find Fred there’s a little white butterfly…

To date, Let’s Find Fred is certainly my busiest book!  There is a fun narrative that follows the exhausting chase of Stanley and Fred, but the most fun is the re-readability, and oodles of extra characters and little relationships to spot in all the larger ‘zoomed out’ spreads.

Because there are so many characters in the book I thought it would be great fun to base some of the characters on real people, and a few characters mums and dads might know too – extra talking points for family discussion if you like!

One of the first characters I added was Kylie – there was always going to be a carousel in the funfair spread and it instantly reminded me of the hilariously juddery Carousel in the ‘Got To Be Certain’ video – watch it on YouTube with a cuppa, it’s really (quite) funny.

Other familiar faces to find include;

  • Four Beatles (not beetles!)
  • Numerous famous paintings in the art gallery spread – The Panda with the Pearl Earring and Whistler’s Panda to name but two…
  • Truly Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the inspiration behind my twitter name @2dscrumptious!)
  • The Panda of the Opera
  • Fred Astaire
  • A grandma reading Fifty Sheds in Grey
  • And Panda Travolta

And so many more.

I was at a wedding recently and I took along a copy of Fred for the children there – the first read through went well, but then what followed was LITERALLY HOURS of Fred-based finding!  We turned the book into a game of ‘Can you find the…’ and it entertained not only the children, but also the adults, who we encouraged to look for the tiniest of details.  My tip is to start by finding Fred, then the white butterfly, and then start finding one-off things in the book such as the veeeeeeeeeery long sausage dog (somewhere in the gallery).

I really hope that everyone gains as much enjoyment from Fred, as I and the Scholastic team had when making it!

 

With huge thanks to Steven for sending across his thoughts. You can buy Let’s Find Fred here. Please do, you’ll love the text as much as I do “He’s a panda and it’s past his bedtime!”, and you can tell me where the white butterfly is hiding…

Vincent’s Starry Night and other Stories: A Children’s History of Art by Michael Bird, illustrated by Kate Evans

vincents-starry-night

Large books can be daunting for some children, and this one, at a hefty 336 pages, is certainly a doorstopper. Even the cover looks fairly adult, with its Van Gogh styled image, reflecting both the artist himself and the starry night he is painting. But every page in this volume has earned its place, and every page is worth reading, whether it is in chronological order, or simply sampled at will.

Like those huge narrative histories – A Little History of the World by Ernst Gombrich or Our Island Story by H E Marshall, this will no doubt become a history of art classic read for children.

At a time when exam boards are ditching A Level History of Art, the book is even more important for those who believe that the study and knowledge of classics in the full sense of the word is a vital component of history and an essential lesson for modern times. Classical works of art inform our ideas of history, thread storytelling through the ages, and can give one a sense of cultural identity. They are an integral part of politics (think Elgin marbles at a very base level), and a stalwart part of our current culture, which is starkly visual.

So, to the book. This is essentially a narrative guide through art history from prehistoric to modern day, comprising 68 illustrated short stories that take either an individual artist, or a particular style of painting, or architecture, and explain not only the images and artistry, but the entire background of culture or religion, using a story structure of a person or peoples.

Each story incorporates what was going on in history at the time the artist was painting, as well as the thoughts and spaces created by that artist. For example, the chapter on Giotto explains, through Bird imagining Giotto’s thoughts to himself, how he reintroduced the technique of drawing as close to nature as possible – or in Bird’s attributed thoughts to Giotto:

‘I want to tell stories in paintings, so that people will think “That’s how it would have looked if I’d been there.”.’

This imagined speech, and chapter, not only explores Giotto’s approach to painting, but also his thought process and the effect his paintings had. It also explains fresco painting, and the link between his paintings and the ancient Greek and Roman artists, as well as immortality through fame. What’s brilliant though, is that the chapter is written in such easy, modern conversational prose that it makes Giotto and his era feel relevant and real.

Bird flits between first person, third person, past tense and present tense, depending on what’s happening in the chapter and what he’s trying to explain. This is great as he has picked well – and each chapter feels fresh and illuminates in a different way.

The chapter on Vermeer even mixes the tenses to explore a revelation in Vermeer’s career, and to explain how he uses it, what he had painted before, and what he will do in the future. It explores his discovery of a new magnifying glass and the way it makes things look. He sees the laundry sheet more clearly “whiteness like sunlight on a snowy mountain,” although Bird points out that this is his imagination. “Vermeer has never seen a real mountain. All around Delft the flat Dutch countryside stretches to the horizon.”

Vermeer goes from painting historical scenes to painting domestic subjects – the life around him, which gives modern readers a sense of the artist himself but also a glimpse of social history of that time. Bird also parallels the death of Rembrandt in this chapter, giving context of the art world, as well as exploring Vermeer’s use of colour, and makes the reader think about how to look at a painting.

Of course, this is a book about the visual arts, and so equally important to the text are the illustrations. There is a mix here of reproductions, such as Vermeer’s The Love Letter, and fresh illustrations and interpretations by Kate Evans, including artists at their easels, scenes from their windows and so on.

It’s going to be a difficult selection, narrowing down the whole of the history of art – even to 336 pages, and there is definitely a focus on Western art here, but there is also broad scope beyond the lives of famous artists. From cave paintings, ceramics, stained glass, the architects of Angkor Wat to city art maps, such as Florence and New York, to the African art and thoughts of El Anatsui and his use of adinkra.

There is also a wonderful glossary and list of artworks. A really good, thought-provoking and illuminating read. You can buy it here.

 

Back to Nature

Three very different but equally intriguing books landed on my desk at the end of the summer. For three different age groups, they all demand that their readers sit up and notice what’s out the window. They may be dissimilar in their readership from each other, yet I’m grouping all three because they all share a common trait – they excite the mind about nature through their distinct illustrative styles.

lets go outside

Let’s Go Outside by Katja Spitzer
The smallest title in size, aimed at the smallest child, and designed especially to be held by the smallest hands. Although the publisher claims that this title aims to teach first words, I would add that it is useful as an inspirational tool for developing the eye – for reinforcing a toddler’s passion for ambling on a walk and looking around them, noticing things that an adult passes by with scarcely a glance. The book’s colours harp back to the 1970s with their intense vibrancy of oranges, browns, yellows and greens, and a quick flick shows that each page depicts a fairly simple word accompanied by a picture which illustrates it: flowers, insects, bird, butterfly, fruit and vegetables.

However, closer inspection – as a toddler would demand – gives a much more insightful view of what’s on display. The picture of the tree demonstrates use of pattern; the picture of the neighbour’s cat (an interesting choice – the cat belongs to someone else) shows a cat with attitude – proud and haughty – the illustrator managing this by showing the cat on tiptoes, body and head erect, eyes slightly staring up, whiskers sharp; the depiction of cherries is unexpected too – the girl is clearly eating one, although all that can be seen is the stalk poking out of her mouth. She is wearing cherries over her ears, and the buttons on her top could almost be mistaken for cherries too.

Each picture contains its own world. The positioning of the squirrel on the page following the girl on the swing suggests the same fluid motion – is swinging an exercise in being part of the landscape – soaring or leaping in the air like an animal? There is plenty to name, count and spy in the pages. The last few pages diverge off into showing seasons – a pumpkin follows leaves, which leads to a snowman – the last picture is of the garden in different seasons. You buy it here.

tree

Another book that shows the changing seasons, is Tree by Britta Teckentrup and Patricia Hegarty. This was snatched from my hands by excited children the minute it arrived. The static picture of the tree, with its die cut hole through to a picture of an owl nesting inside, stays throughout almost the entire book, with further die cuts within showing bear cubs playing, squirrels scampering, birds and insects.

However, the change from the original template of the tree is startling on each page – the slow change through the seasons represented by the number of leaves, the shape of the tree, the animals frolicking beneath and the silence of winter, and most particularly the use of different colour palates on each page from the pale frosty greens and blues and greys and whites of winter to the slow snow melting of spring, with the introduction of browns and yellow and purple as the bluebells and crocuses appear.

Britta Teckentrup portrays the subtle changes with an expert use of colour, creating an almost sensual reaction to the page. The clever layering of the die cut reflects the layering of the leaves – the increase in die cuts, with more and more animals, is in tandem with the increase in foliage as the seasons turn to summer, and then the mass of leaves before they fall in autumn. Each page contains an array of detail to spy and talk through – spring contains squirrels and fox cubs as well as many different types of flowers, leaves, insects and birds, and a changing sky, with rain or sun. The blue skies of summer change to the fading yellow light of autumn.

There is a small amount of rhyming text at the bottom of each page to explain what’s happening, with language to reflect the illustrations – the “springtime breeze” reflected in the illustration of movement in the tree – forests “abloom with flowers” reflected in the colourful flowers amassing on the page. And then of course the year begins again… “Owl sees the first new buds appear, And so begins another year…”

A simple concept, expertly executed. Both stylistically beautiful and informative. An autumnal must for every young child. You can purchase it here.

the wonder garden

Lastly The Wonder Garden, illustrated by Kristjana S Williams, written by Jenny Broom, takes illustrated books for children to a new illustrative level, with a gold embossed cover reflecting the sumptuousness of the natural world in all its glory.

Exploring five lush habitats, including the Amazon rainforest, the Chihuahuan desert and the Great Barrier Reef, Williams uses layers of vibrant colours to explore each environment – it almost feels as if one is wearing 3D glasses when reading – there is much layering in the illustrations.

On closer inspection, the illustrations are not hand-drawn and old-fashioned as they first appear, but prepared digitally, which makes sense as some of the images are repeated in the same pose, and cast over one another to simulate the variety and layering of the landscapes. The detail is exquisite, capturing the textures and patterns of different animals and birds well, although of course they are not drawn scientifically accurately, but more as drawings to ‘wonder’ at.

But it is the colours that demand attention – splashes of neon pink and oranges lending the book a magical quality. Unfortunately the text doesn’t stand up to the same scrutiny; for those children who like animal non-fiction there is nothing new here – the creatures chosen are atypical of these books, with atypical facts – a poison dart frog, a hummingbird whose heart beats 100 times a minute, the green turtle, the golden eagle with its speeds of up to 320 km an hour. There is an immediacy to the text that I liked – the author talking to the reader as if you yourself were walking through the landscape, and describing the sounds of the animals, but also including the species’ Latin names. Sadly, there are one or two typos, which I hope are corrected for the next edition.

This is definitely an inspirational piece of non-fiction – a sumptuous looking gift for curious children, which I would recommend for its ability to motivate children to be inquisitive about the world around them and then go on to explore further for more in-depth information. Click here to see the Waterstones link.

 

 

 

 

A New Term, New Knowledge

the school of art

It’s apt that as we go back to school, my first blog of the new term is about a non-fiction book that is laid out in the style of a three term learning process – a school of art. Wide Eyed Publishing have published a unique teaching tool for young readers, which explores basic principles of art in a refreshingly clean, tidy and easy to understand way. The School of Art by Teal Triggs, illustrated by Daniel Frost, isn’t like previous art titles I’ve reviewed in which a child is shown how to draw an object or character line by line. It isn’t presented, as many children’s art books are, almost recipe style, in presenting a craft idea and showing step-by-step how to create it. This is very different. It aims to teach the tools behind the art so that a reader goes away completely equipped with a skillset, and most importantly, an understanding of art. And yet it still remains incredibly child-friendly.

At first glance, the title is rather staid, The School of Art, and the contents page almost academic and rather daunting. The first few pages introduce five imaginary professors, who are going to teach throughout the book, but the bulk of the book is split into three terms of learning – each double page spread, or in some cases individual pages, assigned a different lesson. The contents page is text heavy, as is the introduction. As first impressions go, this reviewer was reluctant to plough through the book.

Yet on closer inspection, perversely the detail serves the purpose of making the lessons simpler, like a Chagall painting that tells a narrative, the details of the individual sections pull together to give a wonderfully rich overarching story. The book aims to teach the principles of art, and does so deftly, clearly and without patronising. If there was ever an advert for the kind of teacher one should have, this is it. Far from ploughing through it, I was motivated throughout reading it and have learnt more about art from this book than any other – in a refreshingly simple way.

The five professors represent the five tenets of art – ideas, form, senses, making, and the planet or environment. They are introduced in a particularly child-friendly way, exploring their appearance, their studios, and their character traits. For example, the Professor of Form is illustrated intelligently by Daniel Frost as being composed almost of shapes – a triangular beard, rectangular legs, and with an unmistakeable symmetry. The Professor of Senses is partial to ice creams in pointy sugary cones and the Professor of the Planet’s studio is a greenhouse.

The lessons are strikingly simple and yet impart great knowledge, building from complete basics up through to technical applications, but always adding in activities, which are easy to do, and demonstrate the lessons magnificently. Although this is not a history of artists, names of famous artists are dropped in when their work helps to demonstrate a lesson – which all helps to build a rounded knowledge.

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For example, one of my favourite sections in term one is about colour. The lessons stem from the colour wheel to making colours lighter and darker, to how they work in harmony, to contrast, and then fascinating lessons on seeing colours that aren’t there, when the same colour looks different, and when different colours look the same. Lesson 14 on seeing colours that aren’t there gives a stunningly simply activity – which works magnificently – creating an illusion called an ‘after-image’ by painting a circle with three wedges, red, green and blue – that meet in the middle. The reader is asked to take a long look at the centre, and then look to a white sheet of paper. Which colours do you then see?

All the activities that I tried were simple and worked, proving their lesson. The book instructs how art encompasses maths and science, and talks about using art to be useful as well as aesthetic. The illustrations are both informative and witty. The text is far from dry – it is light and entertaining. There’s a glossary of terms at the back, and space to add the reader’s artwork to the final exhibition. Once I started this book, it was utterly compelling.

Recommended for all children interested in art from age nine upwards, as well as to all teachers, and educators as a brilliant tool for demonstrating basic art principles in the classroom. The author and illustrator have dedicated the book to all art and design students everywhere. I would say for those students, it is essential reading, but the author has drawn attention to the fact that the book aims to show the ways in which art can make a difference in people’s lives – adding that it doesn’t matter what age you are for that to be relevant. I would agree – I will be loath to relinquish this book – it’s a surprising masterpiece.

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It is worth noting that the author is a Professor at the Royal College of Art. I was kindly provided a copy of this book for review from the publishers as part of a mumsnet review panel. To buy a copy of this book from Waterstones, please click here.