I did a little art picture book binge recently. One book would be classified as an "art book" by just about anyone. The other I'm classifying as an art book because, well, this is my blog. I can classify anything anyway I want here.
Modern Art for Kids. And Me.
I don't know how kids feel about Mousterpiece by Jane Breskin Zalben, but it sure helped me develop a better understanding of modern art. Do kids need to know about modern art? Do they need to know about art at all? Does anyone? Personally, I think art is a form of communication and being able to comprehend and enjoy it is as valuable as being able to comprehend and enjoy any other kind of communication. On top of that, like other types of communication it expresses something about the culture that produces it, so it has a place in the study of history.
Okay, enough pontificating. Mousterpiece is about a mouse name Janson who lives in a museum and stumbles upon the modern art room. She is amazed and inspired and begins painting in the style of the paintings she sees there. This is a story about appreciation. There is no push to teach artists or styles or names of paintings. All we see are Janson's paintings done in the style of Warhol, Matisse, Picasso and many more. Anyone (probably adults like myself) who wants a very quick and easy lesson on the artists Janson is inspired by can turn to a four-page spread at the back of the book. It's one of the best Notes sections in a picture book that I've ever seen.
Narrative in Art
A piece of art often expresses a narrative, even when it is abstract rather than representational, which is probably its main attraction for me. Bluebird by Bob Staake is an example of a picture book that's narrative is expressed totally through art. All the illustrations are done in shades of blue and gray and while the work could be called representational, in that it represents what it is and we can recognize it, it's not all realistic. The human figures, for instance, are cartoonish but fit in with the overall settings in which they're placed.
While I'm not particularly fond of the narrative told in these pictures (I find it a little "important" and even somewhat predictable in the way important children's books can be), it is a really fine example of art communicating story. So much so, in fact, that in the early pages I found myself going, "What? What's going on here?" It wasn't until the disturbance came to the main character's world (the bluebird's? the child's?) that I became engaged. Because disturbance is the beginning of story.
By the way, Bluebird is mentioned in one of those What Makes a Good Picture Book About articles in the most recent issue of The Horn Book. Giving you the whole title would be a bit of a spoiler for Bluebird, but the article is on-line, so those of you who don't mind spoilage can follow the link and read it.