The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: Vasily Kandinsky was a proper Russian boy. “He studied bookfuls of math, science and history.” The opening illustrations of The Noisy Paint Box: the Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art (Random/Knopf Feb. 2014) are grey and square, reflecting the routines of Kandinsky’s privileged but boring childhood. One day, Vasya’s aunt gave him a small wooden paintbox and his world changed. The boy was amazed to discover that he could hear the colors. They burbled and clanged, tinkled and hissed. But even with this amazing discovery, Vasya tried hard to be a proper Russian boy. He put away his noisy paint box and studied for the law. One night he attended the opera and there he realized he could see the music being performed. Vasya quit his job teaching law and studied painting and in time became one of the the originators of the abstract art movement, creating some of the most well known abstract paintings today and teaching at the Bauhaus.
Kandinsky was a remarkable artist and that story alone would be important but he probably had the genetic condition called synesthesia, making his experiences even more fascinating. I’ve always been a bit hazy on what it means to have synesthesia but Rosenstock and illustrator Mary Grandpre combine to give readers a simple but remarkable clear demonstration of one of its forms. I think I get it and I think kids will get it too. I love Grandpre’s illustrations of Kandinsky in the act of painting. His arms are raised as if he is conducting music and the colors soar off into the air. Both the text and illustrations are outstanding and work together to create a delightful symphony of a book.
On a personal note, I have long been a huge fan of Kandinsky’s work and have gotten to see some of it in museums around the world. I was amazed to learn of his synesthesia and fascinated by how it benefited his view of the world and the art he created for all of us.
Cindy: I have a print of Kandinsky’s “Squares with Concentric Circles” hanging in my library office and now I’m looking at it in a new way. I didn’t know that Kandinsky may have had synesthesia but I learned about the sensory condition a decade ago from Wendy Mass’s middle grade novel, A Mango-Shaped Space and have since learned more about the many ways it can affect people. It makes sense that someone would struggle with math if they saw 3 as yellow and 5 as red but when they added them together in a math problem 8 was green instead of the expected orange. Kandinsky’s perception of music as color and color as music is another fascinating manifestation, portrayed beautifully in this telling.
Lynn and I are a little confused about just how to categorize this book. Is it nonfiction? The CIP data says so, cataloguing it in the 759.7 Dewey range, or as Biography. In the author’s note, though, Rosenstock identifies it as historical fiction with imagined dialogue but true events. The author’s note contains additional biographical details and a small selection of some of his abstract paintings.
KidsArtists blog recommends a Concentric Circle project in the style of Kandinsky and suggests that students listen to classical music while they paint, as Kandinsky did. Given the number of similar projects on Pinterest and on other websites, this book is going to be a popular resource for elementary art teachers to use as an introduction to this artist.
Don’t forget to check out the Nonfiction Monday Blog every week for new nonfiction reviews and posts from youth bloggers.