About twenty-five years or so ago, I became enamored of the work of the surrealist painter René Magritte. One of the main reasons that I left art school for a traditional college was that I really missed books and people who read and talked about books. Also, one of my instructors told me that I was too literal and needed to learn to express myself in a more abstract way. Copying Magritte's surreailst style was as close as I got to painting abstract. And, looking at Magritte's paintings has always felt a bit like reading a book. I have never lost my taste for his work and am delighted to see that DB Johnson, author and artist of the invaluable Henry Hikes to Fitchburg series of books is serving up Magritte the way he (miraculously) managed to translate the philosophy and practices of Henry David Thoreau into beautifully illustrated picture books that are, above all else, entertaining but also educational. With Magritte's Marvelous Hat, Johnson has fun with the surrealist's iconic images, tells a very entertaining story and paves the way for a little art lesson, if you are so inclined. Which I am.
As Julie Danielson at Seven Impossible Things, THE website for excellence in illustration, says of Johnson, he "always gets me excited about the picture book form, given his vibrant (and often kaleidoscopic) art work and his refusal to condescend to child readers, giving them smart, captivating books." My seven year old son definitely was captivated by Magritte's Marvelous Hat, especially when, after finishing the book, I pulled out my books on Magritte, Escher and Dalí and we explored the paintings. In fact, as I write this review he is sitting next to me drawing a picture that he says "has something hidden in it like Magritte's." Definitely sparked by Johnson's magnificent book, I think that his interest is also fueled just a bit by his (and most kids') love of Where's Waldo and I Spy books as well. But, if it draws him to the artist, as Johnson's book does, then that's what matters to me. Making connections. And Magritte's Marvelous Hat makes connections!
Magritte's Marvelous Hat begins, playfully, completely in the spirit of Magritte, and referencing one of my favorite of his paintings, The Empire of Light, "One bright day in the dark of night." We see the painter as he observes a marvelous hart in a store window. When he tries on the hat, it pops up and floats just above his head, which Magritte finds quite nice since it does not "pinch his ears or muss his hair." The hat proves to be an inspiration, a muse even, and Magritte finds that "for the first time, painting was easy. His brush danced and the colors sang. Magritte painted his best picture ever." To add to the effect, there are two points in the book when the story becomes animated, in a sense, by transparent pages that alter the illustration when flipped. Very cool! (If you click on the picture you can see the effect.)
Soon, though, Magritte's hat grows tired of watching him paint and flies out the window on a gust of air that also splatters paint all over Magritte's face while at the same time creating one of Magritte's surreal images. A chase ensues. While I had fun reading the book and searching out the echos of Magritte's work, my son had fun looking for the oddities. In the end, Magritte returns home without his hat, but the hat comes sailing through the window and lands on Magritte's head, lifting him up in the air! Johnson writes, "Of course the hat pinched his ears and mussed his hair, but Magritte's brush danced and the colors sang."
Johnson ends Magritte's Marvelous Hat with an author's note that does a wonderful job of explaining surrealism to young readers in the first paragraph while sharing a bit of Magritte's biography in the second. Johnson notes that, unlike other surrealists such as Dalí, Magritte's paintings do not "shock the viewer by appearing random, unearthly, or disturbing. Rather, he painted everyday objects (a hat, an egg, an apple, a pipe) and combined them in ways that are mysterious and surprising - the more ordinarty they are, the greater the spark to the imagination." Well said, Mr Johnson, and thank you for yet another marvelous picture book!
Take a minute to watch the delightful book trailer for Magritte's Marvelous Hat. It is a great way to see more of the magical, moving art from the book!