I recently wrapped up my Picture Perfect class, a series of workshops in which we explored creative writing by taking inspiration from art history. As part of this class, we read and discussed fourteen different books. Every book had a connection to art. The students rated each book out of ten. I’ve taught them to be pretty critical in their judgments of books—they don’t throw around nines and tens too easily. In any case, here’s how our overall rankings ended up (oh, and thanks to my student Siyeon for being our accountant!) . . .
14. Noonie’s Masterpiece
Written by Lisa Railsback / Illustrated by Sarajo Frieden
Average rating: 2.65/10
This book features colourful and (in my opinion) delightful illustrations throughout, telling the story of a young artist’s attempt to find her expression. My students didn’t really like this book, and for one reason: They found the protagonist self-absorbed and selfish. But I think everyone feels that way from time to time . . . so I recommend this book for any young lovers of art.
13. Chasing Vermeer
Written by Blue Bailliet / Illustrated by Brett Helquist
Average rating: 4.25/10
This book combines an exploration of Jans Vermeer’s artwork with a mystery (fitting, since Vermeer seems to be a figure clouded in mystery himself). There are many clues and codes at work within this book, which I found hooked my immersive mind. Some of my students, however (especially the younger ones) were too frustrated by this particular aspect of the book. This book made an obvious connection to our study on the golden age of Dutch Art.
12. Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms
Written by Lissa Evans
Average rating: 5/10
I suppose this book had the weakest connection to art, as it is about a boy who searches for his great-uncle Tony, a famous magician and inventor. I taught this one in conjunction with a study of Leonardo da Vinci’s artwork and invention diagrams. The story has a lot of mystery, a bit of intrigue, and a sprinkling of wonder. I’m not sure why I didn’t rate higher with my students; it seemed to have all the ingredients that would otherwise please them.
11. The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Written and Illustrated by E.L. Konigsburg
Average rating: 5.5/10
This is a classic book, and one that I really love. It tells the story of a sister and brother who decided to run away from home and live in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. During their stay, then become immersed in a mystery about the authenticity of a statue supposedly carved by the Renaissance master Michelangelo.
10. The Hound of Rowan: Book One of The Tapestry
Written and Illustrated By Henry H. Neff
Average rating: 5.55/10
When Max happens upon a mysterious Celtic tapestry in the art museum, he sets forth a chain of events in which he finds himself invited to a secret magical school where he is given an enchanted creature to care for and must survive those who immerse themselves in the darker side of magic. Sound familiar? That’s why half my students loved it—and the other half were annoyed by it, so gave it a low rating. One of my students loved it so much, that she promptly went out and took out every book in the series from the library.
9. The Blackhope Enigma
Written by Teresa Flavin
Average rating: 5.95/10
When fourteen-year-old Sunni sees her stepbrother Dean disappear inside a painting, she follows after him, only to find herself being sucked deeper and deeper into the art’s hidden layers—and hidden worlds. This book tied in well with the Renaissance and had a great premise. I think it suffered in rating only due to its length, which some of my younger students struggled with.
8. A Mango-Shaped Space
Writing by Wendy Mass
Average rating: 5.95/10
This is a coming-of-age novel, but with a twist. Mia has synesthesia, a condition in which her perceptions are intermingled so that she can see sounds, smell colors, and taste shapes. The problem is that she has kept the condition hidden—even from her parents—for her entire life. This book was actually tied with The Blackhope Engima in terms of scores, but I remember my students verbally commending this book more than their actual scores indicated . . . so I give it the edge.
7. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting
By Hugh Brewester / Illustrated by John Singer Sargent
Average rating: 6.2/10
This book is sort of like a scrapbook, chronicling the true story of how John Singer Sargent’s famous painting, Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose, was created. It includes reproductions of the artist’s sketches and cartoons and is told from the perspective of young Kate Millet, one of the painter’s would-be models.
Written by Elise Broach / Illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Average rating: 62.5/10
A boy and a bug try to solve an art heist of miniature paintings by Albrecht Durër. I think this book would have rated higher if so many kids just didn’t hate bugs so much! Otherwise, I would say this is the perfect sort of middle-grade read, full of strong characters. It offers a great connection to making miniature portraits.
5. The Usborne Book of Famous Paintings
Written by Rosie Dickens
Average rating: 6.4/10
This is the book I used to kick-off the workshop series. It’s nonfiction, just offering an overview of art history. It was a great way to get my students to start thinking about our overall theme; and I think they enjoyed analyzing and opining on each piece that the book chose to present.
4. A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home
Written and illustrated by Henry Cole
Average rating: 6.7/10
This book challenges the assumptions that middle grade books should have minimal illustrations. It is full of black and white images by the author. Some pages have very little text and are devoted to the image, just like a picture book, whereas other are more focused on the text. The story is not a typical climax-focused tale either. It tells of the gentle journey of a mouse searching for a good home, but has a nice non-fiction component as well as the naturalist and painter John James Audubon appears as a major character in the tale.
3. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick
Written by 14 different authors / Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Average rating: 7.05/10
With a foreward by Lemony Snickett and stories crafted by many stalwarts of the children’s literature scene, there’s hard not to find something to like in this book. Many teachers use this book as a basis for creative writing activities. In this workshop, we actually didn’t, but we did discuss what illustrations we liked the best, and which ones we thought offered the most fuel for a writer.
2. Lunch Money
Written by Brian Clements / Illustrated by Brian Selznik
Average rating: 7.2
Greg has a talent for making money—and enemies, as demonstrated by his long-time feud with Maura, the annoying girl who lives next door. But when the two decide to work together to start their own comic book business, they end up with a new enemy: the school principle. This is an engaging story that covers themes of community, capitalism, and censorship.
1. Gathering Blue
Written by Lois Lowry
Average rating: 7.2
We actually had a tie between this book and Lunch Money, but I’ll put this book at the top just because I’ve had the privilege of meeting Ms. Lowery and I think it’s only right to defer to someone who has won the Newberry. Left orphaned and crippled in a dystopian future that shuns and discards the weak, Kira is faced with an uncertain future. But when her talent as a weaver is discovered, she is offered a new hope—and a frightening glimpse at the workings of her society. This book prompted many provocative discussions about the value of life, art, and community.
Well, there you have it! I have some hard reviewers, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t like (or in some cases, LOVE) these books. Of course, I encourage you to check them out.