The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story – Allison and Wayne Marks and Annie Wilkinson, Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017
The Art Lesson – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989
This Sunday and Monday (May 20th and 21st) is the holiday of Shavout, which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. Children’s books about Shavout often focus on the religious importance of this central event in Jewish history, so I was interested to find one that does not. While The Art Lesson does explain the meaning of the holiday, its central theme is the importance of creativity and of traditions within families. As I began to think about this story, I realized that I just could not write about it without paying tribute to the other Art Lesson, Tomie dePaola’s autobiographical picture book, which is also about creativity and the importance of a family’s support to a child. The books are not so alike, but they have the same title! Tomie dePaola’s book was a favorite of my own children, and no wonder. How will Tomie survive school if he is forbidden to use his box of sixty-four Crayola crayons, and only has access to one piece of paper? How will Shoshana, the heroine of the other Art Lesson, be able to have the confidence to create the magical paper cutouts that are a traditional decoration for Shavout? I recommend reading these books together, but, don’t worry, they work as stand-alone experiences.
Shoshana’s grandmother is a beret-wearing artist who keeps her supplies in a kind of cabinet of curiosities and encourages her granddaughter in every way. One way is by affectionately calling her by the name of a great Jewish artist: Chagall, Modigliani, Pissarro. Grandma’s cat is named Krasner, after abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner, who was married to another great Jewish American artist, Jackson Pollock. At the end of the book Shoshana is herself a grandmother, passing on the family’s artistic tradition to her own granddaughter. If you are now hearing songs from Fiddler on the Roof going through your mind, that’s o.k. There is sentiment in this story, but also a strong push for originality and independence. An afterword gives some minimal information about the holiday, and brief biographies of the artists mentioned. Some of Wilkinson’s pictures mimic the artistic style of these influential painters, but she does not follow this idea consistently throughout the book.
Tomie dePaola was a gifted child who knew he was different. Rather than forcing him to color inside the lines, his family encouraged him. We see pictures of Tomie’s father hanging his artwork in the barbershop where he works, and his mother posting them “all around the house.” It is interesting that in both these pictures we see Tomie’s parents from the back. His father is cutting a customer’s hair and his mother is kneeling and reverently putting up one of her son’s medieval-inspired images. Other pictures show his grandparents’ faces, and his parents’, as well. Perhaps the view from the back makes Tomie’s images central to the picture; his parents are so impressed that they themselves stand back and admire.
When Tomie’s first-grade teacher is appalled that Tomie has had the chutzpah to bring his box of sixty-four crayons to school, Tomie cannot seem to believe her incomprehension. His mother is so committed to nurturing his talent that, even when he draws on the sheets, she just gently reminds him not to do so again. The art teacher, Mrs. Bowers, proves to have Solomonic wisdom. She tells Tomie that he needs to draw a Thanksgiving pilgrim and turkey like all the other students, but that he may then draw whatever he wishes, using his own crayons. Tomie never stops drawing. The final picture in The Art Lesson is an autobiography in itself, presenting Tomie, from the back, seated as his artist’s table engaged in his life’s calling. Pictures of Strega Nona, Bill the crocodile, and other images from folklore and his imagination, are pinned to the wall above him. Using his own crayons paid off, but not as much as having adults who respected his gift.
Whether your children, grandchildren, or students have been granted the glorious and precocious talents of Tomie dePaola, Amedeo Modigliani, or Grandma Jacobs, or just enjoy making things, both Art Lessons will validate their creations.