Month: June 2011

Life of a Masterpiece

Who Stole Mona Lisa?
By Ruthie Knapp
Illustrated by Jill McElmurry
(Bloomsbury,New York, 2010, $17.99)

A work of art’s history blends several narratives. First, there is the story of its creator, then, the tale behind the work’s conception. If the piece achieves popularity or critical acclaim, it will outlive the artist and touch other people, who, in turn, become part of the work-in-progress. In Who Stole Mona Lisa?, Ruthie Knapp introduces readers to the world’s most famous painting and some of the people who have sought to possess her.

Knapp and illustrator Jill McElmurry transport readers from the Louvre, Mona’s present home, to sixteenth-century Italy, where Leonardo DaVinci first painted the young woman with the enigmatic smile. During the journey, they meet the kings, emperors, and thieves who succumbed to her charms. At times, Mona Lisa herself narrates; occasionally, a museum guide lectures about the painting’s power.

Mona Lisa’s distinct voice and McElmurry’s whimsical illustrations add both humor and pathos to the painting’s biography. In a touch reminiscent of JK Rowling, Mona Lisa looks bored and annoyed in the clutches of an art theief and jubilant when she returns to her rightful place in the museum. Art, Knapp and McElmurry suggest, has a life of its own. It is not a commodity to be possessed, but a reality to be experienced.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Every Day is Earth Day

Our Earth: How Kids are Saving the Planet
Written and Illustrated by Janet Wilson
(Second Story Press, 2010,Ontario, $18.95)

In 1991, 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth introduced greener living to countless American families. Twenty years later, Canadian author-illustrator Janet Wilson has produced a collective biography of ten young environmental activists who have made changes in their communities, countries, and planet. Titled Our Earth: How Kids are Saving the Planet, the book celebrates their creativity and dedication.

The featured environmentalists represent different countries, personalities, and focuses. An Indian magician and a Japanese comic book artist use their talents to educate other children about ecological issues. InMalawi, a boy builds a windmill for his village; an American student starts an organic garden at his school. Other activists plant trees, clean beaches, raise money for wells, and protect poaching and rainforest devastation. The children’s stories are hopeful, inspiring, and, in one case, poignant. A portrait accompanies each profile, highlighting the child’s special connection to the planet.

Throughout the book, Wilsonwalks a tightrope between eco-mysticism and practicality and rarely wobbles. Our Earth begins with “The Rainbow Warriors”, a poem adapted from an Aboriginal story that urges young people to rebuild the earth. While the poem’s message is admirable, its New Age language may alienate some kids and their parents. Occasionally,Wilson introduces concepts, such as e-waste, that may be unfamiliar with kids who are new to green issues. A glossary would have been a welcome addition. Also, some of the activists Wilson profiles are now adults, but she does not mention their later careers even briefly. Even a short summary of their adult lives would have put their earlier achievements in context.

One of Wilson’s most stunning portraits depicts Chinese activist Fang Minghe against a backdrop of a world map. The faces of endangered species rise out of the continents and the oceans. Fang is just one boy on a big planet,Wilsonsuggests. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be effective. Fang’s tale and those of his fellow visionaries should inspire other kids – and adults – to make some changes of their own.

Dorothy A. Dahm