Barb Rosenstock's The Noisy Paint Box
illustrated by Mary GrandPré
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
When I Google the father of abstract art, the first name that comes up is that of Vasily Kandinsky.
In this fictionalized biography of this very real character, author Barb Rosenstock pieces together historical facts to put us inside Kandinsky's mind from childhood on to give a sense of what drove the artist to blaze the trail he blazed.
We're introduced first to a young Vasya (a nickname for Vasily) Kandinsky, a child of wealth in 19th century Russia.
Vasya is bored - proper, but bored.
All that changes one day when his aunt gives him a box of paints. (The paint box is historical fact.) As Vasya mixes the paints, he hears them.
Everyone tells him to stop being crazy/silly/foolish, but we know now that Kandinsky likely had a mental condition - or, perhaps more accurately, talent - called synesthesia.
Synesthesia is when one sense triggers a different sense. Kandinsky could hear the colors, and they drove him to paint in a fashion that sight alone wouldn't.
(Synesthesia, while rare, is more common among great talents in the arts. Duke Ellington had it; you can read more in his picture book biography.)
The Noisy Paint Box depicts a society whose expectations drive Vasya again and again toward what is expected of him, rather than what he himself feels driven to do. Young Vasya is sent to a "proper" art class. An older Vasya studies to be a lawyer. But...
...As he walks the streets of Moscow, he hears the bright colors he sees, and when he attends the opera he sees the music in colors.
Adult Vasya decides to stop doing what others are expecting of him.
Rosenstock's Kandinsky holds the interest of young readers thanks to the author's choice to begin his story with a somewhat conjectured childhood.
Even as Vasaly grows to adulthood, it is that thing that made him different as a child that drives him - and our interest in him - in this be-true-to-yourself, trust-your-instincts narrative.
Embrace that which makes you different.
As good as Rosenstock's work is, illustrator GrandPré is the collaborator who really makes this book special - in fact, she won a Caldecott Honor for her efforts.
(You're likely familiar with Ms. GrandPré's talents. She did the artwork for all the American editions of the Harry Potter books.)
She eschews the abstract, except in her depictions of Kandinsky's work, but that by no means is to say that she leans too heavily on the realistic.
Her colors are subdued when Vasya is bored and vibrant when he's doing what he should be doing. Vasya's studies float in pictures above his head, and even his favorite stuffed animal (and his dinner) roll their eyes in boredom when he does.
GrandPré is a master of mood.
The last words of the book are spoken by an adult Kandinsky, being asked what his art is supposed to depict. "It's my art," he answers. "How does it make you FEEL?" The Noisy Paint Box made me feel like I understood something (abstract art) that I'd never understood before.
More Caldecott reviews.
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