A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin

A Splash of Red:  The Life and Art of Horace Pippin

"I marched to the battle of the German trench In a war that was bound to end all wars" -- Phil Ochs "I can never forget suffering and I will never forget sunset. I came home with all of it in my mind." -- Horace Pippin

Do you know who I suddenly now have even more respect for? Walt Disney. Why? "...Because we like you! ...M-O-U-S-E" No. Seriously. Because Disney was so far ahead of his time in a way that I've just now realized: In sitting here thinking about information literacy in relation to what Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet have done with A SPLASH OF RED, I suddenly recalled how, back in the sixties, Disney would periodically give us a behind-the-scenes lesson on how the studio crafted an animated film. That was such an eye opening experience for me, to see the process behind the work.

A SPLASH OF RED is a thoroughly-engaging nonfiction tale about a man named Horace Pippin -- the grandson of slaves -- who grew up with great artistic talent, got his writing arm permanently trashed in WWI when he was wounded by the Germans, and thereafter painfully utilized the act of painting to both restore some use to the relatively-useless arm, and to restore his soul. "Every day, and late into the night, Horace worked on his painting. He used gray, black, and white, the somber colors of war. Here and there, he added a splash of red."

When done right, the picture book biography is such a great vehicle for narrative nonfiction. The reader invests a relatively short amount of time reading a book about a person who he or she has very possibly never heard of before. (When I first looked at the cover and saw "Horace Pippin," my first thought was of Horace Grant and Scottie Pippin.) With a good picture book biography, you get to read a fascinating story and learn about someone new, while picking up some tasty bits of history in the process.

Through their detailing the process by which they have crafted A SPLASH OF RED, the author and illustrator provide readers a key to understanding why this book turns out to be such a great read. To carefully read the back matter here is to understand why this work is representative of the cutting edge in twenty-first century children's nonfiction. No, (as we need to be pointing out again and again to young student researchers), Bryant and Sweet's research for this book did not begin and end on the Internet. There were road trips to see the actual paintings of Horace Pippin, interviews and correspondence with experts in the field who know these paintings intimately, and even a trip to their subject's grave site. This is the stuff that leads to insight and to being able to convey a story that readers will be excited to have spent their time reading.

And when it comes to this story about an artist, that conveyance does not begin and end with the text. Given the degree of collaboration here, the author has provided plenty of room for the illustrator to participate. This begins early in the story when an old-fashioned holiday referred to in the text is made perfectly clear in the accompanying illustration. It was fun for my seven year-old niece to combine the visual clues and text I was reading to her to get the meaning. (It is so weird to think about the generation and a half that has grown up knowing the generic "President's Day" rather than seeing the birthdays of Lincoln, the Aquarian, and Washington, the Piscean, on the calendar -- dates which we, the generation of the Mickey Mouse Club, well knew.)

I really enjoy how Melissa Sweet turns words into art, placing some of Horace’s choicest utterances amidst the illustrations. Horace's arm never did return to working properly after the war. But eventually his paintings made him worthy of a top-notch twenty-first century picture book biography. "His paintings hung in big-city galleries. Museums displayed them. Collectors admired them. Movie stars bought them. Once again, Horace's big hands were always busy." It's just too bad that I have to drive to and fly out of Houston tomorrow at the crack of dawn. The map at the back of the book shows that there is a Horace Pippin painting exhibited somewhere in the city and now I'd kinda like to see one.  

40 pages   978-0-375-86712-5  Ages  7-10

Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, Librarian, California USA

See more of his recommendations at: Richie's Picks _http://richiespicks.com_

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Sometimes I think biographies make our famous people seem larger than life.  They come through the pages as though they are part of a separate branch of the human family tree that we don't personally belong to.  Their achievements belong to those "other" people rather than connecting to what we ourselves can do.

This cheerful, hopeful and lively sharing of the life of Horace Pippin heads off in a direction with whom we can readily connect.  Growing up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Horace lived with his parents and his grandmother, a former slave, in the late 1800's.  He had overly large hands but his wise grandmother told him, "the biggest part of you… is inside, where no one can see."

We are instantly invited in to Horace's home, looking out his window to see the world, and sitting down on the floor to draw with charcoal.  Horace fetched the flour, held the horse, played with his baby brother and drew pictures.  In the eighth grade his father left the family so Horace stacked grain sacks and mended fences.

What sort of obstacles did his life hold?  How did he overcome them?  How quickly was his talent respected and honored?  Using warm, friendly narrative, we feel as though we have been drawn into the world of Horace Pippin and we wait to see what life will deal him.  His artwork soars page after page celebrating his life, his spirit and the world around us.

A terrific biography filled with reassurance and inspiration.  Now, it's up to you to discover your own bigness deep inside.

Recommended by:  Barb 

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