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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Splash of Red, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Alfred A Knopf, Random House. 2013. $21.00 ages 6 and up

"At night, he piled wood for the stove and arranged dominoes so his grandmother could play. Then, if he could find a scrap of paper and a piece of charcoal, he drew pictures of what he had seen that day. Horace loved to draw. He loved the feel of the charcoal as it slid across the floor. He loved looking at something in the room and making it come alive again in front of him."

I had never heard of Horace Pippin, or seen any of his art. That is what I truly love about the abundance of wonderful picture book biographies for young readers. They introduce us to people from all walks of life, from all cultures and from all times throughout history. They allow us to wonder at their heroism, their ingenuity, their community spirit, their courage in the face of danger, racism, and so much more.

When accomplished and curious authors like Jen Bryant bring their stories to us, we are better for having known them. I have mentioned in prior posts that if we just read one picture book biography each week to our students, no matter the grade we teach, they would have an awareness of more than 30 new heroes by the end of a school year. That's pretty heady stuff.

Now, to Horace Pippin for others who may not know his work! Born in the late nineteenth century, Horace had a love of making art. He used scrap paper and charcoal on anything he could find to make his mark. He was only able to attend school until the 8th grade when his father left the family and Horace worked to support them. He used his hands for many things:

"For several years, Horace's big hands were always busy:
        stacking grain sacks at a feed store,
        shoveling coal in a rail yard,
        mending fences on a farm,
        carrying luggage at a hotel,
        making brakes in an iron factory..."

Even as he worked so hard to help his family, Horace also used his hands for his art. His co-workers often encouraged him to draw pictures for them, and he did. The First World War almost ended this artist's ways. A wound in his right arm left him without the use of it, and Horace thought he could no longer make his art. Inspiration came in the form of a poker while he stared into wood stove. He used his left hand to support his painful and virtually immobile right hand. The poker glowed red when he began putting his marks on a piece of wood.

As his his arm grew stronger and his painting hand more stable, Horace returned to drawing the things that he loved. He planned and worked meticulously to reproduce his surroundings. He showed these paintings in a store window, traded an occasional one for a haircut, and tried to sell them. People were not buying. It wasn't until he came to the attention of N.C. Wyeth that Horace was able to put together his first showing. Forty years after winning his first real art supplies Horace found fame as the artist he had grown to be!

The writing is lovely and uplifting. Jen Bryant uses Horace Pippin's own words to allow readers a glimpse of this gentle, hardworking man whose love of art would not allow him to give up despite  many obstacles. Melissa Sweet uses watercolor, gouache and collage, rich colors and detail-filled spreads to bring Horace's world to us. There are many images that evoke the critical points and bring him to glorious life. He was an intense and determined artist and we are fully aware of his need to use his hands to bring his world to life in the works he created.

And then, there's the back matter. The author adds a historical note and a photo of Horace. Then, both author and illustrator add a personal note. These are followed by a list of further resources that might be tapped to find out more about this exceptional man. The back endpapers show all those galleries in the United States where you might see Horace Pippin's art...a perfect conclusion to a remarkable book.

Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead.  (Horace Pippin)

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