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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Noisy Paint Box, written by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary Grandpre. Alfred A Knopf, Random House. 2014. $19.99 ages 8 and up

"Vasya's well-off world was
perfectly polite...until the day
his aunt gave him a small
wooden paint box.
"Every proper Russian boy
should appreciate art," said
Auntie. She showed Vasya
the correct way to mix
colors on the paint-box

Imagine my surprise when this week's episode of Modern Family saw Cam and Mitch invite Manny and Alex to go with them to a modern art show! I had just finished reading this tribute to Vasya Kandinsky, and was intrigued by his story. Vasya's art was also the inspiration for the closing ceremonies for the Paralympic Games on Sunday afternoon from Sochi. Coincidence??? Funny how that so often happens.

I am the first to admit that I know little about art, having never taken any art course. I tell people that what I have learned about art and artists mostly comes from my abiding interest in illustrated books for children. They are a wonder! So, I was right there with Cam when he asked if the docent might point him in the direction of the Kandinsky exhibit. Deflated to find out that particular exhibit was no longer showing, he panicked (he had prepared himself to talk about it, knowing that he was attending with others who would know much more about abstract art than he would). It took him no time to bow out of the tour.

Having finished this book earlier in the week, I found myself thinking back to Kandinsky's experience as one of the pioneers of abstract art. I knew little about him, or his life. That is what I find so fascinating about the number of picture book biographies that are making their way onto publisher's lists. They introduce children, and their parents and teachers, to a stunning array of personalities who have, and continue to shape history. They impact all walks of life, and we need to know about them.

This book chronicles Vasya's life from early childhood until he won acceptance as a great artist. His childhood was spent learning to live a life that was expected of a Russian boy in the late nineteenth century. It wasn't until his aunt gifted him 'a small wooden paint box' that he heard sounds in the colors he was mixing:

"Vasya painted the sounds of the colors.
He spun a bright lemon circle onto the canvas.
It clinked like the highest notes on the keyboard.
He brushed a powerful navy rectangle that
vibrated deeply like the lowest cello strings."


He painted until he could no longer hear the colors, and then took his artwork to show his parents. They were confused, not recognizing the images that he had painted. They were not impressed and Vasya was pushed to take formal art lessons. Needless to say, now he was not happy!

Today, we might recognize synesthesia as the reason that Vasya saw the world so differently. Barb Rosenstock does an impressive job of ensuring that her readers see the world as the young Kandinsky sees it. Her ability to tell his story with warmth and understanding is what will draw readers to his work. Mary Grandpre uses acrylic paints and paper collage to help us envision the energy of Vasya's work, the brilliance of the colors he heard, and the joy he took in creating art that begged the question: "how does it make you feel?"  She deftly portrays the artist using blues and purples as he lives the dull life expected of him as a youngster, then swirls his surroundings with brightness as he listens to the colors that ultimately find their way onto his canvas. Brilliantly crafted so that readers understand the evolution of a new art form.

In the back matter, you will find an author's note, four reproductions of his work, source notes and internet resources for further study. She also includes two personal quotes from the artist.

It's wonderful!                                                                             

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