In a previous post, I discussed picture books that focus on painters. In some instances, the painter in question was a squirrel, or a dog, but all of the characters in one way or another made reference to the human artists who preceded them. None, however, attempted to deconstruct a concept. Coppernickel Goes Mondrian is both a celebration of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, and an ingenious exploration of the conceptual drive behind the modern art movement. Not an easy thing to do, but Wouter Van Reek has created a little masterpiece of art history in the guise of a children’s book.
I am currently living with a cat and a dog. I love my cat, but it’s hard to read her emotions. Her expression rarely changes, even as the claws come out. She’s an action cat. Not much of a feeler. The dog, on the other hand, registers every emotion from joy to deep existential pain. It’s true that most of her emotional life revolves around food, and the procurement thereof, but whatever she’s feeling, we know it, from the direction and flaccidity of her ears, to the raised eyebrows, ear-cracking barks, and most especially, the world-weary sigh of a wish unfufilled. As my nieces would say, she’s an EMO. All dogs are EMO, including Zorro, star of the new book by Carter Goodrich, Zorro Gets an Outfit.
In the first book of the series, Say Hello to Zorro, it was Mister Bud who suffers an indignity when a rambunctious pug named Zorro enters his life, wreaking havoc on his meticulously scheduled existence. In Zorro Gets an Outfit, the tables are reversed, and it is the pug who must learn to adapt. Of course, when your name is Zorro, it is inevitable that you will, at some point, sport a cape…
At first I was just going to write about My Dog Thinks I’m a Genius. It’s a brilliant book (with a great title), and certainly worth a stand-alone review. But then I started thinking about other books in my collection where painting is the focus, and four came to mind, although I’m sure there are many more that have escaped my memory (or awareness.) By definition, a picture book about painting double-serves the subject in that it is a work of art about the creation of art, assuming, of course, the illustrations are actually works of art, which is not always the case. However, with these five books (and the other titles listed at the end of this post), the exquisiteness of the art is indisputable, as is the quality (and sheer number) of apes, dogs, squirrels, and lizards populating the text. But then, what is a kids book, even a kids book about art, without a dog, or a lizard?
In the aforementioned, My Dog Thinks I’m a Genius, Harriet Ziefert tells the story of an eight year old boy and his dog, Louie. The boy loves to paint, and Louie loves to watch~and critique. As the story opens, the boy is working on a picture of a tall building, methodically adding each element until he believes the painting is done, but Louie’s barks suggest otherwise. Something is missing. The boy adds Louie to the painting and voilà, it is finished. (Hard to argue with Louie’s logic. Most things are improved with the addition of a dog.) However, as it turns out, Louie isn’t just a connoisseur of art, he may also be a budding canine Cézanne. Now who’s the genius?
My Dog Thinks I’m a Genius is absolute stunner. The illustrations by French artist Barroux are a mixed palette of watercolour and pencil, scrawled, splashed, and (when it comes to the characters) meticulously drawn over thick, sometimes lined pages. The boy states, “I must draw and paint everyday”, and Barroux’s exuberant illustrations express the character’s love of painting in bright candy colours, shifting perspectives, and a very inventive use of space. Not unlike Cézanne, in other words, who is given a wonderful homage at the conclusion of the book. My Dog Thinks I’m a Genius celebrates the creative process as a messy, and often collaborative effort. It also slyly hints at the reality that there is always someone better than you, even if it’s your dog, but in the end the only thing that matters is that you love what you do. Suggested sequel: My Cat Thinks I’m an Idiot.
According to three-time Caldecott winner David Wiesner, Art & Max was born out of the creative process itself, and in particular, the inherent possibilities of various mediums. If a character’s top coat of paint is ‘cracked’ to reveal a pastel drawing below, and then in succession, all of the layers are exposed, what remains of the original line drawing? What if it collapses into a single line? Can the character be restored? In yet another display of Wiesnerian logic, he dumps the early drafts of ‘cuddly creatures’ in favour of the stylistically more interesting lizard to answer these, and other, self-imposed questions. I mean, why not?