About the Holiday
On this day in 1763 James Boswell walked into a London bookshop and met Samuel Johnson—poet, critic, journalist, and writer of the first dictionary. They became friends, and 30 years later Boswell wrote a spirited biography of his companion that fully described Johnson’s feelings, quirks, opinions, and details of his life in a warm, conversational, unstinting way. The Life of Samuel Johnson changed forever the way biographies were written and is still popularly read today. Why not spend some time today with that fascinating biography or one on a favorite personality—or start writing the story of your own life!
The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art
Written by Barb Rosenstock | Illustrated by Mary Grandpré
As a Russian child Vasya Kandinsky spends his days absorbed in learning math, science, and history. He takes piano lessons and attends formal dinners where the adults drone on and on. His life is polite, stiff, and colorless until the day his aunt gives him a small wooden paint box. “Every proper Russian boy should appreciate art,” Vasya’s aunt tells him while explaining how to mix colors.
Vasya takes up the brush and combines red with yellow then red with blue. As the colors change to orange and purple, Vasya hears a whisper that grows into a noisy hiss. “‘What is that sound?’” he asks, but no one else hears anything. “The swirling colors trilled like an orchestra tuning up for a magical symphony,” and “Vasya painted the sound of the colors.” A lemon yellow “clinked like the highest notes on the keyboard; a navy blue “vibrated deeply like the lowest cello strings.” Crimsons “blared” and greens “burbled.”
Vasya runs downstairs to show his family what he has created. His mother, father, and Auntie look at the canvas with its swoops, shapes, and angles. “What is it supposed to be?” they ask, and send him off to art school to learn how “to draw houses and flowers—just like everyone else.” Vasya finishes school and becomes a lawyer. He leaves his paint box untouched and lives the way he is expected, but the sounds of the colors are always with him.
One evening as he listens to an opera, the music surrounds him with color—“stomping lines of vermilion and coral; caroling triangles in pistachio and garnet; thundering arches of aqua and ebony…” Vasya can hear the colors and see the music. He knows then what he must do. He quits his job teaching law and moves to Germany to be a painter. He surrounds himself with artists and takes classes with famous teachers, and yet people still look at his canvases and asked, “What is it supposed to be?”
Once again he paints what is expected. His teachers love his houses and flowers, but Vasya does not. His friends understand. They too want to expand the meaning of art. They agree with Vasya when he says, “‘Art should make you feel.’” In his studio Vasya continues to paint the sounds he hears, to give music color and color sound. Bravely, he invites the public to view his paintings, which are named after musical terms—Composition, Accompaniment, Fugue, and more.
This is a new kind of art—abstract art—and it takes a long time before people understand. They look and still ask, “What is it supposed to be?” “It is my art,” Kandinsky replies “How does it make you feel?”
An author’s note telling more about Kandinsky’s life and synesthesia, a genetic condition in which one sense triggers another, follows the story.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Kandinsky is one of my favorite artists, so I was excited to read this biography—I was not disappointed! With so many great artists, their work speaks for itself, but viewers wonder, “How did it come about?” “What influenced the artist?” Barb Rosenstock, with lyrical language and beautifully chosen descriptions, reveals the emotions and passion that fueled Kandinsky’s art from his earliest ages: as he walks through Moscow he can’t ignore “the canary-colored mailbox whistling as he rode to work. The scarlet sunset haze ringing above the ancient Kremlin walls.” Rosenstock’s inclusion of the conflicts and opposition Kandinsky faced and overcame will inspire children to listen to their inner voice and makes readers and lovers of his abstract art glad he never gave up.
Mary Grandpré’s unique style brilliantly depicts Kandinsky’s singular vision, allowing readers to experience the way he wielded his paint brush like a conductor’s baton. Vasya’s early life is painted in muted blues and grays, and the boredom on his face as he studies his schoolwork is obvious. Kids will appreciate his one-finger plinking at the piano and the rolled-eyed drowsiness of the formal dinner. Once Vasya is introduced to the paint box, however, Grandpré’s illustrations become vibrant, with swirling colors overlaid with the musical notes that Kandinsky associated with them. His uninhibited painting is gloriously shown as the young boy’s shirt comes untucked and the colors burst from the canvas upon his first painting.
As the adults look at his work, the room is again swathed in somber colors. The text revealing that Vasya attended regular art classes to learn to draw houses and flowers is set above a single wilting flower in a vase. The personal tug-of-war Kandinsky experienced even into adulthood is wonderfully rendered: Colors flow into his ears at the opera; he studies his own landscape and still life paintings with misgiving in a hazy studio, and the joy and freedom of his abstract art is demonstrated with wild abandon while a dove escapes its cage. The final image of a child sitting in front of a Kandinsky painting reinforces the idea that his art lives for all and for all time.
Ages 4 – 9
Alfred Knopf, Random House Children’s Books, 2014 | ISBN 978-0307978486
National Biographer’s Day Activity
Recipe Box Label and Recipe Cards
People’s stories are written in all different ways: in the objects they surround themselves with, their activities, and the talents they exhibit. Today’s activity will help you tell your stories in the foods you bake! Or try this Recipe Card Writing Idea: Create a very short story and write it on one of the recipe cards! Read it to your family or teacher.
- Glue the My Family’s Recipes label to the box you made
- Print out the recipe cards. Use them for your favorite dish and prepare for tomorrow’s treat to bake!
Picture Book Review