February 22, 2018
(++++) THE ART OF JOY
Anywhere Artist. By Nikki Slade Robinson. Clarion. $16.99.
Grandma’s Purse. By Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Knopf. $17.99.
It would be hard in real life to match the sheer exuberance of the girl at the heart of Nikki Slade Robinson’s Anywhere Artist, but Robinson makes it seems just barely possible to do so – since, after all, the girl uses anything, anything, to make artistic creations. Most tellingly, she uses her own mind, and that in one sense is what art is all about. In joyful poses that practically leap off the page (as does the girl herself), the first-person narrator asserts, “I can make art anywhere. My imagination is all I need.” And Robinson’s own imagination works overtime here, not only in the words and illustrations but also in the lettering, which expands and contracts, leans this way and that, and seems to be straining to keep up with all the enthusiasm that barely fits within the book’s covers. There really is such a thing as “found art,” but Anywhere Artist goes beyond that: the girl finds different things in different places and uses them in different, always highly creative ways. And although she is a cartoon character, the “art objects” with which she interacts – or rather the objects that she turns into art – look completely real, giving the book itself a very attractive balance between reality and make-believe (which, in a second sense, is exactly what art is). So we see the girl marching along after finding, in the forest, “fluffy lichen, twisted sticks, and smooth stones,” plus “lacy leaf skeletons,” and then we see the hyper-excited, smiling and running beast-of-some-sort that she makes from what she has picked up. We see her as a beach artist using shells, sand, seaweed and driftwood, then as a “rain artist” making puddle patterns and sculpting “oozy mud into silly shapes.” And finally she is a “sky artist,” making “art inside my head” from the clouds and saying, “My imagination is my brush.” That is the heart and soul of Anywhere Artist, and a wonderful central concept it is – and when, at the end, the girl asks young readers what they will make today, it is easy to think that real-world kids will soon be coming up with all sorts of remarkable and delightful imagination-generated art of their own.
Imagination is at the service of family closeness rather than anything officially artistic in Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s Grandma’s Purse, but there is nevertheless something artistic in the way the little girl who narrates the book transforms herself into a replica of her grandma Mimi by using “found objects” from inside grandma’s purse. The sheer wonder on the girl’s face when she contemplates the purse “full of some magical things” is delightful to see. So is the hopefulness of the girl as she asks her grandma to show her what is inside the purse. And grandma Mimi does just that, showing the “mirror to see myself before you see me,” the “smell-good so you know I was here even after I go home,” the extra earrings “in case I want to feel extra-fancy,” a coin purse that not only holds coins but “also holds memories,” and much more. The little girl looks with wonder and delight at each and every item, eventually concluding that “this is how Mimi gets to be Mimi. With everything in her purse, I can be Mimi, too!” And so the granddaughter turns herself more or less into the grandma, with earrings and lipstick and sunglasses and others odd and ends. And then she sees toward the bottom of the purse a picture of Mimi as a child, and the little girl says, “She looks like me! Only without all of Mimi’s accessories.” Yet the purse holds one final surprise even after this: a smaller purse for the little girl to start her own collection of must-have-it items. The girl, accompanied throughout the book by her curious and cooperative cat, really does make the exploring of the purse and trying-on of different items into a kind of work of art. And at the very end, when she has already started decorating her purse in her very own way – and when she makes sure that the very first thing she puts into it is a picture of herself and her grandma – this particular intergenerational artistic collaboration comes to a warm, happy and heartfelt conclusion.