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October 11, 2010

New Books: Art & Max

When you pick up a new children’s book by an author who’s won three Caldecotts, you know you’re probably in for something special. Art & Max, by David Wiesner (best-known to me for two of his winners, The Three Pigs and Flotsam), is nothing less than a picture book about the creative process itself. That might sound a little daunting for a young audience, but thanks to a savvy simplicity, Wiesner is remarkably effective at getting the message across to its intended target.

It’s a story of painting dinosaurs—the brusque, confident Arthur (clearly a carnivore) and eager but inexperienced little Max, who comes upon Arthur (whom he insists on calling “Art,” to his addressee’s great annoyance) painting a portrait and wants to try his hand at, well, art. Mainly to get Max to leave him in peace, Arthur sets him up with an easel and some paints.

Right away, Max comes up against one of the artist’s first challenges: What should he paint? Stumped, he asks Arthur, who suggests arrogantly that Max paint him. The smaller dinosaur loves the idea—and immediately starts slathering colors directly onto his friend’s body. Arthur’s reaction to this, and Max’s subsequent efforts to make things right, take the body of the larger dinosaur through a variety of vivid, even trippy combinations of color and deconstructed form. In the end, Max must break “art” down to its basic building blocks in order to put his friend back together.

There’s a giant metaphor going on here, of course, but I think the direct “Art = art” personification may be mostly for literary-device-steeped parental brains. What kids see is opportunity, at least if my two-year-old is any indication. Shortly after reading Art & Max for the first time, Griffin marched off to get his older brother’s crayons and spent an extended period of time drawing, designing, creating.... I’m generally not a believer in instant inspiration, but I can’t come up with another explanation. Griff was not much of a crayonist before reading this book; now they’re part of his daily regimen. And while I don’t know if the book will have this transformational effect on all two-year-olds, I’m certain most children will be fascinated (as my already-crayon-obsessed five-year-old is as well).

So I think Wiesner already at least one family in his corner, rooting for his unprecedented fourth Caldecott!

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

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