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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Brush of the Gods, written by Lenore Look and illustrated by Meilo So. Schwartz & Wade Books, Random House. 2013. $19.99 ages 8 and up

"Then, with a  flick of his wrist, a straight line dropped out like the back of a robe...then curved and squiggled and fell into a hem. "I love calligraphy!" he cried. "That's not calligraphy, " the monk sighed. Each day something new and surprising dripped out of Daozi's brush. His straight lines splintered into trees. His hooks caught fish."

You must tire of my telling you to be on the lookout for wonderful new picture book biographies. I'm sorry about that. I just can't stop! I am forever intrigued to learn about people whose life stories I have not heard.

Such is the case with this gorgeous biography that tells young readers (and artists) about a hero to the Chinese people. Wu Daozi lived in the seventh century, during the Tang dynasty and is known to be one of China's most accomplished artists. His artistic prowess was evident at a young age: while trying to learn the intricacies of calligraphy, his paint brush would often take him down a clearly different, and more imaginative, path. His teachers were persistent:

"Press gently," said their teacher as he showed the class how to draw a smooth stroke from left to right, making a glistening number in Chinese on an old tortoise shell. "Calligraphy is the highest of the arts," he continued, slowing writing more numbers in beautiful strokes. "It reveals your character. Do it well and you will bring great honor to your family."

Daozi's inspiration could not be contained. His calligraphy strokes remarkably turned into animals, without his seeming to have any control over his creations. He painted on walls with abandon, and the people were amazed. His images appeared quickly and were much admired. Coins were left to thank him for the joy he brought to those who watched. He took those gifts to feed the poor.

He loved to paint, and never stopped. As he worked, he got better. His work became legendary, and even a bit magical! His brilliance drew attention from the Emperor, who gave him a wall mural project to complete. It took many years; when it was finished, Daozi was an old man.

"When the drapery was pulled away, mountains pierced holes into the sky. Bamboo swayed. Birds flew. Horses galloped in the distance. There were nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine things to behold. The painting was as brilliant as the fresh-fallen snow.
The crowd fell silent.
The emperor bowed.
The moon wept."

Lenore Look's writing style is perfect for her young readers. The text is playful, yet often poignant. Children will quickly become aware that Doazi had little control over the art that consumed him. He lived for it, and worked at it every day of his life. The magical notes of the story will attract their attention while they learn about an important historical figure.

Meilo So is incredibly adept at bringing Ms. Look's words to glorious life. She uses watercolor, ink, gouache, and colored pencil to fashion a playful, determined boy, a lively joy that is felt by all who see his work, and a setting that is detailed and always moving.

I love the magical feel, and the author's endnote:

"Legend has it that Wu Daozi never died - he merely walked into his final painting, a landscape commissioned by Emperor Xuanzong, and disappeared. The work, painted on a palace wall, did not survive. The year of Wu's disappearance varies - sometimes it is given as 759, sometimes 762 or 792 - the uncertainty being further proof, they say, that he cheated death."

It is lovely to think so.

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