Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Other-Worldly Encounters For the Young Artist

December 8, 2013 § 4 Comments

JourneyWhen I was young, one of my favorite picture books was Harold and the Purple Crayon, where a little boy makes his own adventures with the help of a single purple crayon. As a child, I loved to draw, but I think the greater appeal for me lay in Harold’s vivid imagination—an imagination that empowers him with an inner resourcefulness, that entertains him when he can’t fall asleep, that gets him out of any sticky situation (drowning? simply draw a boat).

This same spirit echoes across Aaron Becker’s Journey (Ages 4-8), easily the most stunning picture book of 2013 and an inspiration for young artists and adventure-seekers alike. Unlike Harold, a simple visual presentation of purple and white, Journey makes use of a broad palette, although weighted emphasis is given to red, the color of the crayon with which a girl begins her escape by drawing a door (after all, what else can you do when your mom is cooking, your dad is working, and your big sister is too busy?).

The little girl finds herself in a fantastical Venetian-styled kingdom with gold domes and winding canals, as well as twinkling lights, air ships, and just the slightest foreboding of something dystopian. Nothing makes complete sense, but that’s half the fun, because Journey is entirely wordless, leaving the storytelling and interpretation up to the child reader. Propelling the plot forward is a mysterious purple bird, who dodges captivity with the help of the little girl and repays her by showing her the way out of her fantasy and into a new (and very real) friendship with a like-minded, drawing-obsessed boy. For your budding artist, this book is a work of art in itself, a hands-down masterpiece.

The First Drawing by Mordicai GersteinIf you want to blow a child’s mind, tell him that there was a time when drawing did not exist, that it had to be invented, just like electricity and toilet paper. Of course, no one knows exactly how the first drawing came to pass, but in 1994 a cave was discovered in Southern France with animal drawings that appear to be more than 30,000 years old; in that same cave, a footprint belonging to an eight year old child (and a wolf) was also found.

For author-illustrator Mordicai Gerstein, it makes complete sense that drawing would have been invented by a child. Gerstein’s newest picture book, The First Drawing (Ages 4-8), literally puts the child reader in the driver’s seat of history, painting a child-centric vision of what life was like in the Stone Age: “Imagine you live in a cave with your parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, many cousins, and your wolf, Shadow. It’s a big cave. You love to watch animals. You see them everywhere. You see them at the river where they come to drink: horses, giant elk, reindeer, wooly rhinoceroses, bears, sometimes lions, and more.”

This boy—no different than any child of any generation—wants desperately to be understood. When his family doesn’t believe that he saw a wooly mammoth, no matter how much detail he uses to describe it, he simply picks up a burnt stick and begins to project the image in his mind onto the wall of the cave. My six year old loves what comes next: upon seeing the drawing, the boy’s big bearded father grabs his spear and prepares for battle—naturally, he doesn’t recognize art for art’s sake because he has never seen it before! “And you look at what you’ve done. You have made the world’s first drawing…Now everyone can see what you see.” What would our children do without art to give us tiny windows into their puzzling, wondrous little minds?

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look & Meilo SoArtistic discovery doesn’t always have to happen at the arts and craft table. Recent years have seen the publication of fantastic biographies for kids on a range of artists (some from 2013 are listed below). But I’m especially taken with Lenore Look’s new picture book, Brush of the Gods (Ages 5-10), about the legendary life of the ancient Chinese painter, Wu Daozi. Ancient China usually gets shortchanged in children’s literature (Ruby’s Wish, by Shirin Yim, being a notable exception and a favorite message about education equality). But I have always been amazed by calligraphy—an art form so fluid, so evocative.

Wu Daozi is no ordinary calligraphy artist: in fact, he fails at traditional calligraphy and instead uses the brush style to create incredible murals of butterflies, horses, and dragons on the walls of temples and palaces. Much the same way my son’s drawings ebb and flow under his ever-changing vision (“and now the fire is shooting out of the chimney and now it’s zig-zagging back down into the house and the whole house is becoming orange…”), Daozi’s paintings allegedly took on a life of their own. His painted animals were said to move their heads, the bamboo to sway in the background. According to Chinese legend, when it came time for his death, Daozi simply disappeared into one of his landscapes.

Meilo So’s illustrations for the book, rendered in watercolor and ink with copious use of strong black brush strokes, are nothing short of magical; they infuse the story with mysticism and abound with rich details begging to be poured over. Now that’s artistic inspiration.

Other Favorite 2013 Picture Books for the Young Artist:
The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt & Oliver Jeffers (Ages 4-8)
Henri’s Scissors, by Jeanette Winter (Ages 5-10)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant & Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-10)

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