The art of the children’s biography is not for the faint of heart. If you think it consists of merely shuffling a few facts on a page you may as well just go home now. True children’s biographies of individuals (particularly complex individuals) must straddle the line between storytelling and fact. Here in America, fact often wins out over storytelling. Get too creative and folks will start to doubt how much of what you say is verifiable and true. In Europe, the storytelling inclination burns long and strong. I was thinking this as I read the recent translation of Chiara Lossani’s Vincent van Gogh and the Colors of the Wind. Here we have a book that eschews a Bibliography or any kind of backmatter that would justify its method of telling its subject’s life. Under normal circumstances I’d get a bit huffy about this, but there’s something infinitely entrancing about Lossani’s book. Taking the essential facts about the great artist’s work, Lossani and artist Octavia Monaco together present a compelling look not just into van Gogh’s life as an artist, but also a peek into the mind of the man himself. And children’s bio or no children’s bio, it ain’t always pretty.
He was born in 1853 in Holland. His brother Theo came four years after that. Even from the start, though, Vincent van Gogh was a difficult guy to get along with. While Theo is good at making friends, Vincent is off-putting. This tendency doesn’t lessen any as they grow older, and Vincent has a way of getting fired from various occupations (gallery employee, preacher, etc.). When at last he turns to painting, Vincent finally finds what he needs. Even so, nothing’s ever easy. In Holland he paints too dark, in Paris he makes Theo’s life difficult. In Arles he finds the colors he needs but grows depressed, and back in Paris nothing’s quite right. Finally, in Auvers Vincent shoots himself and dies at home at the age of thirty-seven. Six months later, Theo joins his brother in death.
Going into the book I knew from the outset that it was written in Italy, but I wonder if someone coming across it by accident would instantly pick up on its origins? Indeed, there are elements to this book that strike you as particularly unique. For one thing, children’s books published in America may mention that van Gogh shot himself and died of the wound soon thereafter, but you don’t usually get to sit in on the scene. Then there is the role of the wind. Throughout this book the wind speaks to Vincent. It advises him, warns him, berates him, and taunts him. After a while, it seems clear that from a very young age Vincent has heard this wind, and though the book never goes so far as to say it, it could easily be a manifestation of his own madness. Lossani is purposefully vague on that point, which serves the story well. She shows moments when van Gogh seemed particularly dangerous (awaking Gauguin by standing over him, staring, holding a razor) or crazy (cutting off his own ear) but while she’s willing to extrapolate his thoughts as they pertain to the big moments in his life (culled from his letters to Theo, which are still in existence) she does not speculate about his problems. That he had them is evident. What their cause was is elusive.
One pet peeve I’ve always harbored when it comes to biographies of great painters is that often you’ll run across an illustrator who seems almost afraid to include any of that artist’s actual paintings into the images. For this reason the paint and mixed-media style of this book fits it particularly well. Octavia Monaco suffers no such intimidation from the great master, and indeed her personal style fits the subject matter perfectly. She even allows herself a little fun here and there. Look on the cover of the book and you will find an image of van Gogh painting The Yellow House, the final image of which will appear later in the book. Monaco also works elements of famous van Gogh paintings into the story, even if the original images never appear. You won’t see the official Vincent van Gogh sunflower paintings here, but you will see sunflowers cropping up all over the story in the background. Look! There’s even one on the cover!
Is it nonfiction? I almost think so. The facts are there, albeit it buried amongst the story. When you first open the book you see a listing of Vincent’s paintings in the order they appear on one page, and a couple facts about Vincent (where he was born, what year, etc.) on the other. You won’t find any timelines in this book, though. No Bibliography. No Afterword. And if you were to turn this book into a play (stranger fish have been fried) you really would only need four actors or so. One to play Vincent, one to play Theo, one to play the wind, and one to play supporting roles like Gauguin or the salesman Pere Tanguy. Lossani limits her characters as needed, allowing the heart of the book to center on Vincent and Theo. This is their tale. What it says is true, even if we’re unclear on how much. Making the wind a character is a bit of artistic license, but it serves a purpose. As a children’s librarian I’ve a lot of people seeking out van Gogh biographies for kids. This isn’t the usual fare, which is precisely why I like it. It may not fulfill all the requirements of a homework assignment, but for a story that delves deeply into the very brain of its subject without going too far, there are few titles to compete. A beautiful, odd book.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
- Get a closer look at some of the pages here.
- This is hardly the first artist that Octavia Monaco has illustrated. Over in Italy one Berenice Capatti wrote Gauguin e i colori dei tropici and Monaco did the pictures. Take a gander at it here, if you’re interested.
- Happy Nonfiction Monday! Apple with Many Seeds has the round-up.