Van Gogh for children? Story and illustrations paint new book into a confusing corner: Who is the audience?

April 19, 2011

Bobz Book Reviews

Are young readers ready for the life story of a famous artist who commits suicide?

That question nagged at me upon several passes through “Vincent van Gogh and the Colors of the Wind.”

Author Chiara Lossani’s text – driven by the 19th century artist’s own letters to Theo, his brother and best friend – offers biographical information, of course, but, even better, insight into the creative mind.

It’s a troubled mind, as we know, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many young readers at the lower end of the target age (seven and up) could handle the alcoholism, the insanity, the frank description of the artist’s roommate, Paul Gauguin, waking up to find van Gogh “standing at the foot of his bed, staring at him with cold eyes, a razor in his hands.”

No less slicing off a piece of his own ear and shooting himself.

Age-appropriate for young readers?

It’s content more appropriate for older students, it would seem, but then I wondered if the children’s book size and the illustrations were such that might turn off, say, a junior high reader.

The fact that the illustrations by Octavia Monaco are full-page for the most part points to that lower-age target audience, yet Monaco’s work is hardly childish. In many instances her use of bright colors echoes van Gogh’s famous paintings, but the artistic subtleties are way above my perception of anything a second-grader would appreciate.

As an adult, I really liked the book, yet I couldn’t help but think this effort in the Eerdmans Books for Young Readers series could have benefited from better design.

First, the reproductions of 14 of van Gogh’s paintings are too small. Just from a size comparison, the art of the book’s illustrator overwhelms the art of the renowned subject of the book! Let me see: Do I want to see van Gogh’s work in a book about van Gogh, or Monaco’s?

Secondly, black type overprinted on dark-colored illustrations is simply difficult to read. Lossani packs lots of information into the 34 pages — I didn’t know van Gogh once had been in the ministry, did you? — but the design does her text no favors.

On the plus side: Giving elementary school students an introduction – any introduction – to the creative arts and the cultural heritage of a van Gogh is an admirable project. Just the lesson Vincent shares with Theo – “Painters teach us to see” – is a lesson worth learning at an early age. – bz

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About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

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