In Zisk’s (The Best Single Mom in the World, 2001) middle-grade novel, a 12-year-old New Jersey girl in 1965 defies sexist stereotypes—and her father—to take art lessons.
Four years ago, back in third grade, Rosella Maria Rinaldi’s art teacher dubbed her “a regular little Rembrandt,” and kids have called her “Remmy” ever since. The teacher recommended that Remmy keep “the spark of an artist” alive, so the tween resolves that her upcoming year in seventh grade will be “The Year of My Spark.” Dampening her fire, though, is her father, who insists that “No daughter of mine will ever become an artist,” with an accompanying “Great Depression Speech.” In addition, Remmy finds that her History of Art book doesn’t have a single female artist in it. Nevertheless, she finds work to pay for secret art lessons. In the months leading up to an art contest that Remmy hopes to win, her personal relationships have ups and downs. Her best friend, Debbie, a fellow Beatlemaniac, starts hanging out with another girl in the French club, often leaving Remmy (who doesn’t speak French) out of their conversations; later, Remmy draws a portrait of Debbie that causes trouble. Bill Appleton, a former childhood friend, has sexist notions (“You know, all great artists are men”), but he also suffers because of gendered expectations, as he’d rather make art than play sports. This revelation brings him and Remmy closer together. She also learns more about her father’s past and what it was that’s made him so dead-set against art as a career. Remmy’s artistic efforts bring mixed results, but she sticks to her resolution.
The book includes an author’s note that features a handful of her personal photos from the 1960s (depicting a memorable event that mirrors an episode in the book), a timeline of the women’s movement from the 1960s to the ’80s, and an appendix that lists 23 artists mentioned in the text, featuring short biographies and four photos. Zisk illustrates the story with Remmy’s lively, expressive line drawings, which show that Remmy does have some skill; at the same time, they are believably the work of a talented 12-year-old. Remmy expresses delight in color and pays attention to visuals throughout the narrative, which helps to establish her as a budding artist: “I notice everything—diamonds of dew on leaves, the changing color of twilight clouds, yellow snow in the shape of Florida.” Remmy’s painting classes, too, provide readers with an authentic sense of what the education of a young painter is like: “composition, proportion, mixing colors (or tones of gray, in my case), brush strokes, shadows, highlights.” Also authentic, and perhaps surprising to many young readers today, is the depiction of the struggle of women artists to gain recognition. H.W. Janson’s History of Art is a real book, and Zisk correctly notes that it didn’t include any women until the 1987 edition. Remmy’s amusing voice, decency, and ambition make her an appealing character, as well.
A highly entertaining and thoughtful tale.