Middle Grade Gallery: Liar, Spy, and Seurat

Georges, the liar (or is he the spy?) of Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy (Wendy Lamb, 2012), is named after the French artist Georges Seurat ("Here's a piece of advice you will probably never use: If you want to name your son after Georges Seurat, you could call him George, without the S. Just to make his life easier"). The first thing Georges's dad does when his family has to sell their house in Brooklyn and move to an apartment a couple of blocks away (still in Brooklyn; this is a very Brooklyn sort of book, actually) is hang a poster of Seurat's A Sunday on the Grand Jatte on the wall above the couch in the living room. Here's Georges's description of it:

Two summers ago we went to Chicago, where the real painting takes up one entire wall of the Art Institute. What you can't tell from the poster is that the picture is painted entirely with dots. Tiny little dots. Close up, they just look like blobs of paint. But if you stand back, you see that they make this whole nice park scene, with people walking around in old-fashioned clothes. There's even a monkey on a leash. Mom says that our Seurat poster reminds her to look at the big picture. Like when it hurts to think about selling the house, she tells herself how that bad feeling is just one dot in the giant Seurat painting of our lives. (11)

His mom's pointillism analogy informs Georges's (and his dad's) attitude towards the bad feelings--brought on by the move, his mom's absence, bullying at school--that come up in the first half of Liar and Spy, but eventually (on page 90 of 180--the exact midpoint the book) Georges comes to a realization of his own:

And then I think of all those thousands of dots Seurat used to paint the picture. I think about how if you stand back from the painting, you can see the people, the green grass and that cute monkey on a leash, but if you get closer, the monkey kind of dissolves right in front of your eyes, Like Mom says, life is a million different dots making one gigantic picture. And maybe the big picture is nice, maybe it's amazing, but if you're standing with your face pressed up against a bunch of black dots, it's really hard to tell. (90)

These two passages mirror each other: standing back, getting closer. In the second half of the book, Stead continues to explore the tension between the big picture and the dots or details, between what we see and what we think we see and what is really there; and the Seurat painting serves as a reference point for Georges and for the reader, as well as a source of inspiration in the final scenes (although Seurat didn't use a blue Sharpie). It's a masterful piece of work, for all that it's so understated. I'm still not sure I loved it, certainly not as much as Stead's Newbery Award-winning When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb, 2009), but the more I read and think about it, the richer it reveals itself it be.

Princess Academy of Art

Anticipating the August release of Princess Academy: Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2012), I recently read the first Princess Academy, a 2006 Newbery Honor book. I wonder why I hadn't read it before, because it's just the sort of book I like, and probably would have loved as a ten-year-old girl: it has a classic feel and an ordinary-girl heroine in Miri Larendaughter, it's set in a village on a snowy mountaintop--beautifully evoked throughout the book as well as on the original cover, shown here--and there's a boarding school. Where you have to study to be a princess. After learning to read (no one in Mount Eskel knew how before the princess academy), the girls study Danlander History, Commerce, Geography, and Kings and Queens. And then there are the "princess-forming" subjects: Diplomacy (which proves useful on more than occasion), Conversation, and Poise. I want to go to princess academy!

I also want to add Princess Academy to the Middle Grade Gallery (where I think about how paintings work in fiction), even though Art isn't one of the subjects the girls have to study. But one winter morning, their tutor Olana shows the girls a painting; like the silver princess dress they've already seen, it's meant to make them work harder at their studies, to remind them of their goal:

Olana removed the cloth and held up a colorful painting much more detailed than the chapel's carved doors. It illustrated a house with a carved wooden door, six glass windows facing front, and a garden of tall trees and bushes bursting with red and yellow flowers.
"This house stands in Asland, the capital, not a long carriage ride from the palace...It will be given to the family of the girl chosen as princess." [87]

And the painting does its job: Miri, for one, spends hours imagining her family inside the house and garden, so different from their mountain home.

At the end of the book, Olana reveals the truth about the painting, and gives it to Miri. Spoiler alert (after seven years, I don't think I'm spoiling anything, but just in case): the house never existed. And Miri doesn't marry the prince (although she is academy princess). It's not until Palace of Stone that she goes to the capital at all. I wonder if she will remember the painting when she gets there?

Middle Grade Gallery 11

The main character in this recently-released middle grade fantasy novel is obsessed with art history.  In addition to memorizing art historical facts, she likes to imitate (in the privacy of her bedroom, of course) Venus in Front of the Mirror, as seen in Peter Paul Rubens's famous painting of the Goddess of Love looking pleasingly plump (c. 1613/1614; Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna).  It helps that she's got the plump part going for her, too--even if it's not always pleasing outside of a Rubens painting anymore.

This book merits a special exhibition in the Middle Grade Gallery, there are so many references to major artists--from Watteau to Degas to Picasso, and lots more--as well as to specific works in it.  It's also absolutely delightful.  Review forthcoming, I promise.

In the meantime, there's a clue to the title of the book in this very painting: it's Cupid, otherwise known as (ahem) the small person with wings holding the mirror.  For the reverse angle, compare Titian's Venus with a Mirror (c. 1555; NGA).  Which do you prefer?

Middle Grade Gallery 10

The Middle Grade Gallery is back with a three-part question about this compelling portrait, now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Here is a written description of the portrait sitting, from a Newbery Medal-winning middle grade novel:

Master said I was to wear my everday clothes, only he gave me a large white collar with deep points, lace-edged (one of his own), to set off the somber darkness of my dress and my dusky complexion.

He placed me before him, told me to look directly at him, and to clasp my cloak so that it should fall over at my left shoulder.

And of the finished portrait, from the same source:

There I stood, looking at myself, as if in a mirror.  All apart from the likeness, which was startling (Master had no peer at that), the composition was harmonious and impressive in typical Spanish fashion, and yet there was an unusual glow of golden light around my head and on my skin, and an inner content which I can scarcely describe,  It was as if Master had painted what you see on the outside, and also, just as clearly, what was there in the inside...the thoughts inside my head.

This portrait also plays an important role in a 2011 ALA Award-winning picture book (I'm not saying which award, or which book, obviously!).  Can you name

  • the artist and subject of this portrait,
  • the title and author of the Newbery Medal winner quoted, and
  • the title and author of this year's relevant ALA Award winner?

Bonus points for the adjective that best describes the expression on his face.  You don't even have to answer the other questions!