For years there’s been a trend of picture books based on important and/or misunderstood artists: Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, and Virginia Woolf are just a few who’ve gotten the kindergarten-lit treatment. The best of these rely less on telegraphing the greatness of the subject’s accomplishments and more on universalizing and humanizing some aspect of their experience. Happily, two new books, both set in France, do exactly that.
Though her writing and wordplay often had a childlike quality, Gertrude Stein isn’t a name that trips off most kids’ tongues these days (if it ever did). Yet in Happy Birthday, Alice Babette, Monica Kulling shows the American avant-garde writer is fine fodder for a day-in-the-life account.
The book begins on the morning of Alice B. Toklas’s birthday. Her “roommate,” Gertrude, appears to have forgotten. (As well as being Stein’s typist and muse, Toklas was also her lover, though she’s referred to here as simply her friend.) With barely concealed annoyance, Alice goes for a walk around Paris, taking in a puppet show and carousel ride along the way.
But Gertrude has a secret plan: she’s going to shop for and prepare Alice’s favourite dishes and then write her a poem. Alice being the cook of the pair, the first of these tasks proves more challenging; when Gertrude runs to her study to jot down an idea before it disappears, she burns the entire meal.
With help from Qin Leng’s bright but subtly coloured illustrations, Happy Birthday, Alice Babette conveys a few truisms: creating art requires talent, but also a sympathetic enabler (Alice “encouraged Gertrude, because no one else seemed to understand or appreciate her friend’s work”). Also, cooking can be more difficult than it seems.
Touched by Gertrude’s efforts, Alice forgives her and cleans up the mess. She loves the poem (hint: it’s about a rose), though Stein’s actual writing appears only in the book’s epigraph.
Less joyful, but equally lovely, is The Artist and Me – Shane Peacock’s moving story about a man’s childhood encounter with the painter Vincent Van Gogh. The citric yellow that dominates the book is germane to the story in more ways than one. The shade was key to Van Gogh’s revolutionary palette, but it’s also associated with cowardice, which presumably plays into the children of Arles’s taunting of the artist for his “awful pictures” with “bright hues that didn’t match – colours weren’t supposed to go like that.” They find other “proof” that the artist is a madman worthy of contempt: “No one ever bought his art. He was very poor. That was not to be admired.”
Peacock’s narrator, now an old man ashamed of the way he behaved, was one of the bullies. Once, when he’d come upon the artist painting alone in the shimmering heat of a wheat field, he almost grasped the truth of Van Gogh’s vision: “Everything swayed and didn’t seem exactly as it should. Or maybe it did.”
When the artist noticed the boy and offered his painting as a gift, however, the boy ran away, terrified. Business-wise it was a poor decision: the book ends with the narrator standing with his grandchild in a museum before the now-priceless painting. “I don’t laugh at him anymore,” he says regretfully.
Sophie Casson’s wonderful pastel-infused illustrations evoke Van Gogh’s work without being slavish to his style. A scene of the boy-narrator sleeping echoes Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles,” subtly suggesting there are still artists who are unappreciated, still kids being told that colours don’t go like that.
Peacock and Kulling’s books are both about respect for art and its process. Both are ultimately made more powerful by the fact that they give kids a sense of what respect looks and feels like without ever resorting to the word itself.