When I was a child, my mother would play a song by Harry Chapin called “Flowers Are Red.” I suppose the hipsters of the world would roll their eyes at such a song today and perhaps deem it cheesy (or “corny,” depending on when you were born). Even today, as an adult, I can acknowledge its Inherent Cheese Factor. Sure. I’ll give it that. But, as we are wont to do with songs so dear to us in childhood, I’d defend it to my dying day.
Read last week's Seven Impossible Things on nursery rhymes in graphic novels.
The song tells the story of a young boy in an elementary classroom whose teacher fusses at him for painting flowers anything but green and red. (“Flowers are red, young man / Green leaves are green / There's no need to see flowers any other way / Than they way they always have been seen.”) But, the boy protests in the chorus, “There are so many colors in the rainbow / So many colors in the morning sun / So many colors in the flower and I see every one.” (The song, I’m sorry to say, ends sadly. The poor boy stops thinking outside the elusive box altogether, though given my love of tragic tales as a child—Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl and Ray Bradbury’s short story “All Summer in a Day” haunted me in a weirdly delightful way—I loved it all the more.)
This song would really like to marry the new picture book by Eric Carle—or, at the very least, take it to the prom in a lovely rainbow-colored dress. (Tie-dye would perhaps be the most appropriate choice.)
When the great Carle releases a book, the world sits up and pays attention. There are many well-documented reasons for this. To name just a few, as founder of Philomel Books Ann Beneduce does in the introduction to The Art of Eric Carle, there’s his approach to book-making, once innovative and now lifted by illustrators everywhere (die-cut holes and differently sized pages); his willingness to share with child readers the joys of learning; the warmth that radiates from his artwork; his ability to present abstract ideas through his narratives and characters; and his “dazzling art techniques and effects.”
This newest title from Carle is a true delight. The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, released this month by Philomel, gets right to the point on the first spread: “I am an artist and I paint…” But not what you might expect, unless you’re a fan of what Urban Dictionary calls Circumboxive Ideology. (What? Don’t judge. That site is just fun.) This artist paints not only blue horses, but also pink rabbits, black polar bears and orange elephants. Rendered with Carle’s painted tissue-paper collage, the artwork is, not surprisingly, bright, bold and textured.
A closing note in the book pays tribute to German artist Franz Marc, who painted nontraditional animals (his Blue Horse from 1911 being his most iconic piece) and who helped usher in the modern-art and expressionist movements. A note on Carle himself also states that, at the age of 12 or 13 during his boyhood in Germany during the second World War (though he was born in the United States), his art teacher pulled him aside to show him the Nazi-forbidden abstract and expressionist art of the time. Only allowed to teach realistic art, he told the young Carle, “[t]he Nazis have no idea what art is; they are charlatans!”
I’m reminded of an interview I conducted with author/illustrator Ed Young on my blog in 2009. When asked about the differences in teaching art to children in China, where he grew up, and the U.S., he responded: “In the East, the emphasis is on freeing the mind and body, and to see things deeply beyond its outer form through observation. In the West, it’s about celebrating the joy of art and one’s unique vision and expressions.” Even if it had its origins in Europe during World War II, The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse is a testament to what Young speaks of here—the expressionist joy and unique vision we celebrate in American artists like Eric Carle.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.