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Vincent's Starry Night and Other Stories Review by Brittney Rutherford

A Children’s History of Art
Michael Bird
Laurence King Publishing Ltd.
+44 (0)20 7841 6900
361-373 City Road
London EC1V 1LR
United Kingdom

Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories: A Children’s History of Art, is a well written and engaging book that covers from early cave art to Beijing in 2014. Written by art historian and educator Michael Bird, and illustrated by Kate Evans, the book is written through a series of stories. It is a beautiful hardback book with 336 pages and 200 lovely illustrations.

The book is divided into eight sections, with each section focusing on a general time period. These sections are Caves to Civilizations, Sacred Places, Great Ambitions, Life Stories, Revolution!, Seeing it Differently, War and Peace, and Where It’s At.  Following the stories are a Map of the World, Timeline, Glossary and List of Artworks.  The book does start with a timeframe of 40,000 years ago and references evolution, so some families may want to preview and be prepared to discuss according to their own beliefs.

A Children’s History of Art covers art chronologically, but I also noticed that each time period also reflected a general theme. The first section, Caves to Civilizations, focuses on the story that art tells and how it gives us a glimpse into the lives of the earliest civilizations. Sacred Places discusses the religious influence on art in the Middle Ages. Great Ambitions looks at The Renaissance and the stories of artists who now saw themselves as great creators and thinkers. Life Stories shows the transition of artists focusing on the real lives of people, while Revolution! speaks of artists who now see their art traveling and being appreciated around the world due to the Industrial Revolution. In Seeing It Differently, as photography was capturing the details, impressionists were figuring out how to capture the moment. War and Peace discusses artists who aimed for unique and groundbreaking, as well as those who wanted to contribute to a better society after the horrors of war. Finally, the section Where it’s At brings us to modern times, and tells stories of artists joining their art with ideas from around the world to tell today’s story.

Within each section, there is a two-page illustration representing an influential city during that time period, such as ancient Athens, Amsterdam in the 17th century, or New York City during modern times. The side text gives interesting tidbits about the city and its contribution to the art movement. I really thought this was a neat component.

There are 68 stories included. The first few focus more on the artwork itself, but most stories focus on individual artists. These are more of a snapshot in time than biographical sketches, but they give us a glimpse at the life and influences of the artist, including a little about the art movements of their time. Each story is brief, just a few pages, which is just enough to create interest. There is typically one picture of a piece of art that is discussed in the story, as well as original illustrations to enhance the story, but you won’t find a comprehensive gallery of an artist’s work. The storytelling jumps around in viewpoint. Sometimes it is a third person narrator, other times it is told by the artist, or a friend or spouse. It is not always clear at first who is speaking to the reader, but since each story stands alone, I can overlook it. That being said, the writing style is still engaging. It seems to take some creative liberties with the conversations, but I would certainly call this a living book. It captures your attention, draws you into their world, and makes you want more!

Having said this, I don’t think this is a book you want to hand a child to read cover to cover, but instead it is something you read slowly together and savor.  There are some big ideas, and a few mature topics (such as Van Gogh’s depression) that might need to be discussed, depending on the child’s age and inquisitiveness.  As a homeschooler, I can see using this a few different ways. You may choose to read through a little each year, aligning it to your history studies. A Charlotte Mason homeschooler may choose to just pull out the story about the artist of focus for their picture study, though it can’t possibly cover every artist one might study in this way. You could also use it as a supplement to an art curriculum. For summer break, it is a fun reference to read through the stories of artists we have already studied. You could even just put it in a morning basket and read through a little each week, without purposely connecting it to any other studies, and let connections happen naturally.

Not having yet read the entire book to my children, I’ll speak a little to the diversity that I noticed while reading select pieces and previewing the rest. The type of art ranged from sculptures and carvings to paintings, mosaics and stained-glass, to calligraphy and temples. I like that it shows how art doesn’t just have to be drawings and paintings, but that it is everywhere around us. There are about half a dozen women represented. The majority of the art and artists are definitely European. Asia was the only non-European region that had a decent amount of representation outside of perhaps a few Ancient civilizations. I don’t want to say that it is incredibly unbalanced, but if you are wanting a more comprehensive look at art from around the world, you will need to supplement. This however, is an excellent start at giving an overview of art and how it was influenced by changes in society.

Overall, the book is well-written and beautiful, and gives a solid chronological walk through the history of art in a child-friendly format. I would recommend it for parents to read with their children, or classroom teachers to use as a reference, and I am thrilled to have this as a resource for my elementary and middle school aged kids.

-Product review by Brittney Rutherford, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, August, 2018