Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau

I am still trying to catch up with blog posts for some of the titles that were nominated in the Cybils nonfiction picture book category, but didn't make the cut for one reason or another.  I have had a whole pile of books to blog about.  I've already written about Looking for Lincoln and Bambino and Mr. Twain.  I still have a few more to call your attention to, so I am going to try to finish those posts up in the next couple of weeks.  I've been working on a huge writing-intensive project at my day job for the past few weeks, and that has really sapped my desire to write anywhere else.  But the biggest part of that project is complete, so I'll turn my attention back to children's books, where it belongs.

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau was nominated for a Cybil.  It interested me because I am very aware of books for children about famous artists.  First of all, I think it is incredibly tricky to describe the artistic process in a clear, concise way for children.  I also recognize the difficulty in creating art that gives readers a strong impression of the artist's work without copying it or resorting to photographs of the artist's work.  Illustrators also should maintain their own style while showing readers the artist's way of creating.

Henri Rousseau has a fascinating life story.  He didn't start painting until he was forty.  And even then, Rousseau was self-taught.  Markel says "Not a single person has ever told him he is talented."  But he loves nature, and wants to express his love and how nature makes him feel.  Clearly, the way he sees nature is very different from the traditional way others see art and nature.  But Rousseau uses the traditional artists to educate himself about art and anatomy.  He takes his education into his own hands, going to the Louvre and looking at art wherever he can find it.

Rousseau then takes an enormous risk by exhibiting his paintings at a major competition.  He is laughed at, but Rousseau doesn't take it to heart.  He keeps on working, thinking, viewing art and submitting his creations.  He isn't disgraced once, or even twice, but multiple times.  For more than twenty years, Rousseau only hears criticism of his vision, but he continues on.  I cannot even imagine the perseverance Rousseau had, the drive and the belief in his own art that he displayed.

Finally, Rousseau's strength and creativity are rewarded.  He is around long enough to impress a whole new generation of artists, including Picasso.  At the end of the book, Markel calls him "one of the most gifted self-taught artists in history", and it is true.  For much of his life, Rousseau only had his art.  He was extremely poor.  His art is what carries him.  "Every morning", Markel writes, "he wakes up and smiles at his pictures."  It is a compelling picture of the creative impetus, how it feeds Rousseau despite the criticism.

One of the things that struck me about this picture book was Markel's writing.  There are some gorgeous descriptive passages in this book.  When Markel is describing Rousseau's love of nature, she says that "it's like the flowers open their hearts, the trees spread their arms, and the sun is a blushing ruby, all for him."  Some of these passages are so well put together, they create a word picture of Rousseau's creative spark.  She perfectly describes Rousseau's vision of the world around her.  And Markel also does a good job of relating this artist, admittedly unique, to her young, contemporary readers.  She talks about how Rousseau doesn't give up, year after year, on what he thinks is beautiful.  Markel says "Sometimes Henri is so startled what he paints that he has to open the window to let in some air."  Beautifully written, and yet it gives readers the sense that creativity can be mysterious, too.

Hall's paintings are just as compelling and mysterious.  As I said previously, I recognize the challenge of creating pictures that give a sense of the artist's unique style without totally mimicking the artist.  And in any book that depicts an artist's life, not every illustration should be in that artist's style anyway - some illustrations usually show their actual life, if that makes sense.  Not every part of their life needs to be seen through the filter of their art.  But Hall does a great job of combining Rousseau's style with other, more realistic visions of his life.  There are paintings where Rousseau's artistic vision literally comes to life.  The jungle he creates includes a tiger leaping off the easel, tropical birds soaring around his room.  Art experts perch incongruously on a sharply pointed mountain range.  Hall's paintings are richly imaginative, giving readers a taste of Rousseau's work.

There is very little back matter in this book.  There is a column-long author's note with a few additional facts about Rousseau.  The only dates of Rousseau's life are included here (Markel mentions the 1889 World Fair, but there is no context of Rousseau's life in that date either).  There is a short description of some of Hall's choices when creating the paintings.  There is also a key to two paintings that include other famous historical figures.  This key only lists their names, though, which might make any connection for young readers more challenging.  I am not sure how many young readers are familiar with Gertrude Stein, for instance.  

But while the back matter is a little lacking, I think this is a thoughtful look at one man's desire to create art, no matter what anyone else says.

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau.  Written by Michelle Markel; illustrated by Amanda Hall.  Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2012.

sent by the publisher for Cybils consideration

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.

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