Book Review: The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse

A simple book with a profound message, Eric Carle’s latest masterpiece  The Artist Who Painted Blue Horses is a book that everyone will benefit from reading.

Sometimes I get worried about authors who have been in the business for decades, especially someone like Eric Carle who’s design is practically a brand. When I see them come out with another book I usually roll my eyes and keep walking. Not that I discount them as authors. I’m aware that some of there stuff is fantastic. You can’t sneeze at books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  or The Very Hungary Caterpillar. But I get worried they get caught up in the politics of publishing books for the name on the cover instead of the content or quality of the book. When I first saw The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse I thought this, rolled my eyes, and kept on looking around the bookstore. But when I heard about the book getting some Caldecott buzz I knew I was going to have to crack it open. And I’m glad I did.

The book is very short, it’s only about 50 words long. It begins with the introduction of a boy who says he’s an artist. Then the artist makes a list of the things he paints: a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, etc. And then it ends with the boy saying “I am a good artist.” Seems pretty simple right? But then Carle adds a bit more in the back of the book that makes you realize how important a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, and other nonsense is. He includes this image:

It is a painting entitled Blue Horse I which was painted in 1911 by Franz Marc. Carle then includes a paragraph about Marc and a paragraph about himself. He explains that Franz Marc was a German artist during the turn of the century who painted unconventional paintings that were often unrealistic in color. Many critics objected to his ideas but others did not, and eventually he was very influential in the modern and expressionist movements. Carle then explains that he also spent his childhood in Germany; Nazi Germany. He explained that the Nazis forbade modern and expressionistic art. However an art teacher secretly showed him some of Marc’s paintings, which changed the way Carle thought about art for the rest of his life.

Carle’s book encourages kids to think outside of the box. He’s telling them that it’s okay to be different. He’s saying that the way we express ourselves is important and is special, no matter how unconventional it is. Everyone can benefit from this message. As parents and educators, it’s important for us to celebrate the individuality of the children that are around us, no matter how far out it is. I once had a boy in my class who was the definition of unconventional. Not only did he love purple, hum the songs from “Hairspray” while he worked, and pranced around singing “I’m a little girl”, but he also flapped his hands when he was excited, would look around the room with one eye closed and one eye opened, and would start writing a sentence with his left hand and then switch to his right hand half way across the paper. The kid was strange.

But then one day, during morning meeting, I showed that class a stick. I said, “today we’re going to pretend. This stick is no longer a stick, it’s whatever your imagination says it is.” So I pretended to brush my teeth with it and said, “see? It’s a toothbrush.” Then I handed it to the boy sitting next to me. He stared at it. “Well?” I said. “What is it?” He looked up at me. “It’s a stick.” After some pulling of teeth he finally mumbled “it’s a pencil.” The next few kids did pretty much the same thing. I was astounded at how second graders could be so unoriginal, so boring! But then my little oddball got hold of that stick.

“It’s a rainbow maker.”

“A what?”

“A rainbow maker. See?” He put the stick on it’s side and turned it in the air in the shape of an arc. “See the rainbow?” Then he got up and walked around the room making rainbows with his rainbow maker.”

He’s the kind of kid that’s going to do something special with his life. We need people to think like him, otherwise we wouldn’t have things like ipods, yo-yos, airplanes, pogosticks, computers, shape-ups, mousetraps, microwaves, cupcakes, sparklers, saddles, or  picturebooks.

Think what would happen if I said “no kid, you’re a boy so you can’t make rainbows with that stick.” Then he might be afraid to speak openly about his ideas forever. And that awesome thing he was going to do in the future would never happen. He’s a kid that needs a book like The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse. And so are the kids who said the stick was a stick. And so did I for reminding me that weird kids are special. Get a copy of the book and share it. Share it with your kids, share it with your friends, and share it with yourself.

I give the book five huge rainbow makers.

Watch Eric Carle talk about the book here:


Book Review: Balloons Over Broadway

One of the best nonfiction picturebooks I’ve seen! There are so many brilliant aspects to this book. With sparse text, Melissa Sweet xplains how Tony Sarg went from playing with marionettes as a child to designing the giant balloons that float over New York City annually on Thanksgiving. Sweet then uses design, collage, and watercolor illustrations to underscore what she writes. She shows readers that “every little movement has a meaning of its own” by manipulating the shape and size of the font she uses to write that statement with. She uses scrap paper, wood, wire, cloth, string, and buttons in her collage to invite the reader to feel as though they are tinkering and creating right along with Sarg. She uses silhouettes to emphasize when Sarg has a brilliant thought. She uses the height of the book when its turned horizontally to emphasize the height of the balloons. Her back matter verifies the information in her book, acknowledges those who helped her, and gives the reader a bit more information, such as that one of his apprentices was Jim Henson and that he responded to every letter he received. In other words, every aspect of his book was designed to give the reader a rich, aesthetic, and telling experience.

The only negative comment I can make about this book actually has to do with the online acitivity kit that accompanies it. The kit includes three different types of puppets to make (paddle, stick, and finger), a box to store the finger puppets in, a maze, a design-your-own-puppet sheet, and a picture of an elephant balloon that is to be turned into a hat. As an educator, I feel as though authors and publishers should design activities that will enhance or extend the reading experience. Most of the activities Sweet includes would be considered busy work in my classroom. For instance, the book is not about all types of puppets, it’s about marionettes. Why include paddle and finger puppets? I think the stick puppet is fine since it’s mentioned in the book, but I think she should also have included a marionette for readers to make. I found great directions for making a marionette here: This activity could be done one-on-one with a child in one sitting or with a whole class over a couple of days. I think the maze could be a good idea, because it echoes the route the parade uses. However, the start and finish of the maze are labeled “parade starts here” and “parade ends here”. I think it would have been more effective if the maze started in Harlem and ended on 34th street, like she says the real parade does. I also just don’t understand why there’s a hat.

Overall I recommend this book to everyone!

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet