I recently completed the latest edition of the “Picture Perfect” class I teach for CWC. Picture Perfect is a series of workshops in which we explore creative writing by taking inspiration from art history. The students ranged from age 11-14.
As part of this class, we read and discuss different books that connect, in one way or another, to art or art history. The students rated each of book out of ten. Many of these students have been in our program for a long time, so have been taught to be critical in their judments of books. That is to say, they don’t throw around nines and tens very readily!
Below are the books, ranked from lowest rating to the highest. So, keep in mind, this is NOT the order in which we read them. Special thanks to my student, Janice, for being our accountant and tabulating all the scores each week.
If you’re looking for great books connected to the theme of art that are not on the below list, then I’ve put some addition recommendations at the end of the post.
16. Noonie’s Masterpiece
Written by Lisa Railsback / Illustrated by Sarajo Frieden
Average rating: 5.5/10
This book features vibrant (and coloured) illustrations, and tells the story of a young artist’s attempt to find her expression. My students didn’t really like the protagonist, whom they found to be too arrogant and self-absorbed. Personally, I think everyone feels that way from time to time . . . so I recommend this book for any young lovers of art.
15. Under the Egg
Written by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Average rating: 6.6 /10
This book captures the intriguing legacy of art theft, drawing on the real-life Nazi plunder of art treasures during World War II. Theodora accidentally spills rubbing alcohol on her grandfather’s painting and discovers a Renaissance masterpiece underneath. I matched this book with our discussion of art theft. The students wrote a story about a modern day character finding a stolen painting.
14. Chasing Vermeer
Written by Blue Bailliet / Illustrated by Brett Helquist
Average rating: 7.0/10
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.
13. The Usborne Book of Famous Paintings
Written by Rosie Dickens
Average rating: 7.1/10
This is the book I used to kick-off the workshop series. It’s nonfiction and provides an introduction to art history. It is especially good for those students who are new to the subject. I also used this book as a springboard for an activity in which each student presented a favourite painting.
12. Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
Written by R.L. LaFevers
Average rating: 7.2/10
Taking place in the early 1900s, this book tells the story of Theodosia, an expert detector of Egyptian curses. I chose this book to match up with Egyptian art. For a writing activity, we wrote a two-part story. The first part described an Egyptian character living a normal life, and ended with that character’s death. Part Two was that character going through the embalming process and entering the after life. We also made miniature mummies!
11. Plain Kate
Written by Erin Bow
Average rating: 7.2 / 10
Kate is a master wood-carver who lives in a Medieval-era world and is left to look after herself after her father dies. Her cat, Taggle, pretty much steals the story—delightfully so. Once her shadow gets stolen, the adventure really picks up. I chose this book to match up with our exploration of Medieval Art, as it explores that era well, mixing in the idea of superstition.
10. The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere, Book 1)
Written by Jacqueline West
Average rating: 7.3 / 10
Eleven-year-old Olive moves into a dilapidated old mansion and finds a way to enter the paintings that are hanging on the walls. There are some wonderful side characters in this novel—a trio of cats, whom became class favoirites. I matched this book with a writing assignment in which a character enters a painting and visits a world on “the other side.”
9. The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Written and Illustrated by E.L. Konigsburg
Average rating: 7.5 / 10
This is a classic book, and one that I really love. It tells the story of a sister and brother who decide 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. I matched this book with our exploration of Renaissance Art. For a writing activity, the students wrote a first-person story that took place over a single day, from dawn to dusk, and was about an apprentice of a Renaissance Master. The key was that the apprentice is harbouring a significant secret from the master.
8. A Single Shard
Written by Linda Sue Park
Average rating: 7.5/10
This Newbery Medal-winning book takes place in twelth-century Korea and tells the story of Tree-Ear, a thirteen-year-old orphan who is given a quest to deliver an example of his master’s pottery to the royal court. I really loved the description of Potter Min sculpting his pottery. I chose this book as a way to broaden our discussion of Asian art (as so much of our course was focused heavily on Europe).
7. Paper House
Written by Lois Peterson
Average rating: 7.6 / 10
Ten-year-old Safiyah lives in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and brightens her life by making collages from pages of discarded magazines. This books was a good way to approach the subject of the healing power of art. I chose this book to match with one of our many discussion on Modern Art.
6. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting
By Hugh Brewester / Illustrated by John Singer Sargent
Average rating: 7.7/10
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. For an activity, we tried making our own painting and then students wrote about the experience.
5. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick
Written by 14 different authors / Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Average rating: 7.7/10
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. For our actual activity, we experimented with lucid dreaming; I induced a sleep-state in the students, then, afterwards, they free-wrote for fifteen minutes.
4. Gathering Blue
Written by Lois Lowry
Average rating: 7.9 / 10
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. We discussed this book towards the end of our program, to match with our explorations of future directions of art.
3. A Mango-Shaped Space
Written by Wendy Mass
Average rating: 8.1/10
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. We discussed this book towards the end of our workshop series. It was a good match with our explorations of Modern Art.
2. Wolf Brother
Written by Michelle Paver
Average rating: 8.2 / 10
Set 6,000 years ago, this story chronicles the journey of twelve-year-old Torak and his wolf companion as they set about to restore balance to their world after dark forces encroach. I chose this book to help put the students in the mindset of prehistoric times. For an activity, we painted on rocks with basic pigments and wrote stories in which we imagined the first person to paint on a cave wall in his or her society.
1. With Malice
Written by Eileen Cook
Average rating: 8.4 / 10
This book had the least connection to art out of our entire collection, but I included it because I knew my students would love it. Eighteen-year-old Jill visits Italy for an exploration of art and culture, only to experience a deadly accident that leaves the reader guessing the real truth behind the event. My students and I successfully identified the city that is featured on the cover (Vernazza) and had it confirmed via twitter by the author!
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.
Other books on the theme of art and art history that we didn’t read in this workshop, but which I have taught in the past:
The Hound of Rowan: Book One of The Tapestry
By Henry H. Neff
The Blackhope Enigma
Written by Teresa Flavin
Written by Brian Clements
A Nest for Celeste
Written and Illustrated by Henry Cole
Written by Elise Broach
The Medici Curse
Written by Matt Chamings