One of my favorite quotes of all time is, “Writing about music is like dancing about art,” pithily describing the inadequacy of one medium to fully capture the nuances of another.
But what of writing about art? Here, in the middle-grade world, we have no shortage of books truly inspired by works of art and the artistic process. Certainly we need look no further than our own namesake, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where two runaways at Metropolitan Museum of Art must determine whether Michelangelo himself sculpted a statue named Angel.
Writing about art requires, at a basic level, being able to describe the art itself as well the effect of the artwork on the viewer. Consider this short excerpt from Mixed-Up Files:
Claudia was lost in remembrance of the beautiful angel she had seen. Why did she seem so important; and why was she so special? Of course she was beautiful. Graceful. Polished. But so were many other things at the museum.
The effect of the statue is so dazzling that Claudia is lost in remembrance. The statue is graceful and polished, but also has a quality that elevates it above even other pieces in the museum.
Novels about art present a wonderful opportunity to study description and emotion. Here are some ideas for writing exercises to use with students:
- Use art to build vocabulary. What texture words help enhance description – smooth, rough, choppy, prickly? What words will convey whether the exact colors used in a painting? Robin’s egg blue, navy blue or periwinkle?
- Ask your students to think about how the artwork makes them feel or the mood they think the artist is trying to convey. Is the artwork playful or serious? Is there a sense of joy or sadness? Ask them to find two or three words that best describes their feelings, or challenge them to come up with a unique metaphor.
- After the students describe a chosen work of art, challenge them to a mix-and-match gallery of words and art, where they must pair other descriptions with the correct work of art. There may even be an opportunity for re-writing, where the author can see where his or her work can be strengthened, based on the feedback received from other students.
• Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett: Two friends must solve a series clues to recover a stolen Vermeer before it’s too late. This book is the first in a trilogy of art-based mysteries. Follow this link to the National Gallery of Art for a kid-friendly lesson about Vermeer.
• Masterpiece, by Elsie Broach: A beetle with a knack for fine pen-and-ink sketches finds himself and a human friend embroiled in a scandal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Can they solve the mystery and keep their unusual friendship intact? The website makingartfun.com has this informative page about Albrecht Dürer, the artist whose work is central to the story.
• Noonie’s Masterpiece, by Lisa Railsback: Noonie copes with her mother’s death and father’s frequent absences through her art and her imagined relationships with famous artists. When she creates her own masterpiece, she discovers new truths about herself and her new family. A special National Gallery of Art page also allows kids to create their own works of art and explore art.
• The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate: In this book, the artist in question is Ivan, asilverback gorilla who lives in a cage at the mall who draws with paper and crayons for his owner to sell. While he has convinced himself that his life is not so bad, when he feels obligated to help a fellow animal, he will draw upon all his talents to save her.
Do you have a favorite work of art, or book that features art? Share it in the comments below!
Wendy Shang is the author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu.