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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers

Before we get into Vincent and Theo, I want to acknowledge that the National Book Awards were announced on Wednesday evening and the winner for Young People’s Literature was Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree. I’ll be covering that one later in the season and I’ve been intrigued since before it was longlisted for the NBA. I’m adopted and periodically grumble about the lack of contemporary YA fiction with adopted protagonists. While I’m excited for the representation I’m also cautiously optimistic, as one usually is when faced with your identity as written by someone else. If you’ve already read Far From the Tree and have thoughts about its NBA win, let us know in the comments!

Okay, now back to those Van Gogh boys. I’ll confess that I can’t think about Vincent Van Gogh without hearing Don McLean sing “starry, starry niiiight…” or seeing Tony Curran’s eyes well up with tears in his brilliant portrayal of Van Gogh on Doctor Who. He is one of the most famous painters of all time and we all think we know who he was; brilliant, depressed, and unappreciated in his time. Deborah Heiligman challenges the conventional wisdom and offers a thesis of her own about Vincent: the story of Vincent is incomplete without the story of his brother, Theo.

Vincent and TheoVincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers, Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt and Co., April 2017
Reviewed from final copy; 6 stars

Heiligman’s nonfiction account of the brothers Van Gogh has earned six stars. Of all the YA books with five or six stars, it’s the only nonfiction title which means, of course, absolutely nothing. But I point it out to show that in general, it seems that it’s harder for nonfiction to leave a dazzling impression on reviewers. So how has Heiligman done it?

First, the prose stands out from other nonfiction narratives because it’s in present tense. It takes a few chapters to realize that the entire book is going to continue in this fashion and I still haven’t decided if I enjoyed that particular choice. I admire it, for sure; using present tense makes the story feel intimate and timely, a handy shortcut to empathy for readers. Present tense also works because we need to be equally invested in each brother and the voice, when speaking in the present, reads more like it’s organically produced narration; these are scenes I happen to be observing rather than third person past tense, which feels more like someone telling you a story.

From the sentence-level, the writing is staccato. Short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters, and short sections are the building blocks for the book that is structured as though it were a gallery exhibition of the Van Gogh brothers’ lives. The attention to detail with this framework is exquisite, but again, while I admire the craft, I’m not sure that it works for me as a reader. It makes for a tidy and somewhat zippy read but on reflection I wonder if this device is less of a unifying concept and more of a contrivance. Reading the author’s note in the backmatter leads me to believe that Heiligman was genuinely thoughtful in planning out the journey she wanted to take readers on so I’m more inclined to believe that it’s a clever detail that wasn’t always to my taste.

In terms of the story and characters–always a tricky thing to assess when we’re talking about real people’s lives–Heiligman doesn’t need to do anything fancy to generate narrative interest in the story of Vincent and Theo. Vincent’s struggle with mental illness is heartbreaking and Theo’s lifelong effort to support his brother is relatable even if a reader can’t personally relate to that situation. Their romantic and professional lives are given equal attention and the result is a complete portrait of two bright young men who died far too young. One surprising aspect of their lives (to me, anyway) was that Vincent did, in fact, receive praise and sold some of his work during his lifetime. He wasn’t popular, and he was deeply uncomfortable with the praise, but he wasn’t the completely misunderstood genius he’s often thought to be. At least one critic recognized that his work would go unappreciated by most for it’s simplicity and subtlety. The other astonishing information that Heiligman reveals is that the preservation and advancement of Vincent’s work is entirely due to Theo’s wife, Jo. Theo also worked to have Vincent’s work recognized  but he died shortly after Vincent. It was Jo who ensured that Vincent’s work would be seen. In this ending I was reminded of Hamilton‘s moving finale, where we shift focus on the woman who made this story possible. Sure, the fact that I thought of another work could mean that the ending is a tad derivative but no less impactful.

I would love to hear from any art scholars or historians with their take on Vincent and Theo. As you could probably guess, I’m not blown away to the point of squeeing but I’m highly, highly impressed. And I think the RealCommittee will have some interesting conversations about the craft of this one; it certainly merits at least that much. There’s still a ton that I haven’t even mentioned yet (the design is meticulously executed, for example). What do you think?

About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.


  1. I think Vincent and Theo has an excellent shot at winning the YALSA Nonfiction award, but I’m not sure how it will measure up against other YA titles for the Printz. Heiligman nailed all the right notes for me – mood, tone, characterization, pacing. I loved the choice of present tense for the story, too, as well as dividing the book into Galleries. I was not a fan of Charles & Emma, so all this was a pleasant surprise for me.

    V&T is one of my favorites this year (and, unlike in precious years, I don’t have too many of those), and I’d love to see a nonfiction book nab the Printz. I’m just not sure that it’ll get the recognition it deserves.

    • Joy Piedmont says

      Agreed; this definitely has an excellent shot at the YALSA Nonfic award. I would love for Printz to recognize it; especially since there’s so much craft on display here but I would have preferred for something like THE FAMILY ROMANOV to get that honor. Comparing books in different years isn’t fair though so of course, I’d be thrilled to see VINCENT AND THEO go all the way.

      • Joy, I agree with you about FAMILY ROMANOV. That book was robbed, I tell ya! Robbed! Of the Newbery and the Printz and the National Book Award and hundreds of others. That is the nonfiction book to which I hold all other nonfiction books. A total gem, that.

  2. Joe said, ” Heiligman nailed all the right notes for me – mood, tone, characterization, pacing,” and I completely agree. I was completely swept up in the story…not one single part flagged for me. I loved the samples of his work provided in the color inserts. They helped round out my understanding of Vincent’s art and his growth as an artist. I, too, was surprised (pleased) to learn how the sister-in-law took on the task of promoting the art and information about the artist after his death.

    Several of my friends said that that first person narrative really bugged them. i don’t even remember it, let alone think it was a problem. (I read the book many months ago and don’t have a copy so I can’t even look back to see what I think about it now.)

    Writing narrative nonfiction must be a real trick. You can’t change the facts, yet you want to make things interesting and compelling. Heligman did a great job, in my opinion. I sure hope the RealCommittee really considers it and I think it deserves a Printz honor.

  3. This one didn’t work for me. I find it more in the Printz age range than the Newbery – but I don’t think it’s good enough for either. In fact, I find people’s appreciation pretty boggling!

    I found this very simply written, with almost obvious prose and word choices, and very speculative in tone. I also threw up my hands when the many names of the paintings swirl across two pages as opposed to being incorporated into the written narrative – it felt like a cheap shortcut to me, and has stayed with me since (probably out of proportion, but…) I also found that I was being told about their loving relationship, but I didn’t get a good sense of it until the very end of the book; mostly I read the relationship as strained (in contrast to what I was being told) and that undermined the book to me.

    I thought the financial struggles and sicknesses mostly excellently depicted, but the lack of stigma around mental illness didn’t feel true to me. I want it to be true, but I didn’t trust it was. That’s another way in which the book was undermined.

    I guess my ultimate conclusion is that I didn’t trust the telling of this story very much. Which seems to make me very much the minority among people who have read this!

  4. I truly loved Far From the Tree, and look forward to your discussion. As a person mostly without ties to the adoption community, I thought it did a beautiful job with those aspects, but will eagerly wait to hear what people with experience think.

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