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Picture Book Biographies of Artists: Marceau and Matisse

In this week’s entry, we feature two recent picture book biographies of artists:

Monsieur Marceau: Actor without Words

Written by Leda Schubert and Illustrated by Gerard Dubois
Published in 2012 by Roaring Brook Press
ISBN: 978-1-59643-592-2
Grades 1 and up.
Book Review:
Look at this man…. He is the superstar of silence, the maestro of mime…” He is Marcel Marceau. Leda Schubert’s Orbis Pictus award winning picture book biography employs spare prose to relay the famous mime’s childhood interest in entertaining, his role in Nazi resistance movements during World War II, and his creation of the beloved character, Bip. An afterword offers further dimension to Marceau’s life story, along with an invitation to the reader to try the art of mime. Gerard Dubois’s illustrations capture both spirited and somber aspects of Marcel’s narrative, and they provide remarkable embodiment of the very physical nature of this art form. This compelling picture book is an inspired introduction to Marceau and mime.
Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse
Written by Marjorie Blain Parker and Illustrated by Holly Berry
Published in 2012 by Dial Books
ISBN 978-0-8037-3758-7
Grades 1 and up
Book Review:
In an industrial town in France “choked with factories, clanking looms, and smoking chimneys,” a young boy gazed out his window and dreamed of color. Marjorie Blain Parker’s picture book biography of Henri Matisse describes the famous artist as an anxious child who aspired to a life of flourish, color, and excitement rather than to fulfill his parents’ dreams of stewardship for the family store. The narrative continues, describing Matisse’s boredom with law school, hospitalization for illness, and subsequent discovery of the joys in painting. At this point in the storytelling, Holly Berry’s illustrations shift from gray palette to vibrant hues, reflecting the transformation undergone by the artist. In the second half of the book, Parker describes the ups and downs of Matisse’s artistic career, while Berry’s illustrations pay tribute to the innovations in style that he achieved. An author’s note provides additional detail about the artist’s life story. This glorious picture book biography is a tribute to the liberating power of the arts.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Comparing Picture Book Biographies of Marceau. Pair a reading of Monsieur Marceau with Marcel Marceau: Master of Mine by Gloria Spielman (Kar-Ben, 2011). Compare Schubert’s and Spielman’s narrations of Marceau’s life story. Which events and aspects of his life are highlighted by each author? How does the author convey a sense of Marceau’s character? What role do the illustrations in each book play in conveying Marceau’s character and story? What sources were used by the authors?
Watching Marceau and Chaplin: Exploring the Concept of Mentoring.  A search of YouTube brings up dozens of video clips of Marceau performing. Preview and choose several clips that are appropriate for your students. Then, do the same with clips of Charlie Chaplin. Discuss the influence that Chaplin had on Marceau and see if you can find evidence of this influence in Marceau’s performances. Extend this discussion by introducing the concept of a mentor. Ask students to identify other mentor / mentee partnerships that they are aware of. Then ask students to write about a mentor in their own lives.
Miming. The back matter of Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words includes an invitation from Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin to the reader to try out the practice of mime. Develop several other similar scenarios that you feel your students could mime and assign small groups the task of performing the mime for fellow group members and receiving feedback on their expressiveness. As an extension, students could write skits as a challenge for fellow groups to perform. Work with students to develop a rubric to assess the effectiveness and aesthetics of the skits.
Text Set Exploration. Monsieur Marceau could be read as part of a text set – a grouping of topically or thematically related resources representing a variety genres (see our Teaching with Text Sets blog entry). Work with your school or public librarian to gather a text set that includes Monsieur Marceau. Three text set options are: (1) A collection of biographies about entertainers; (2) Texts that tell the life story of Holocaust survivors / resistors and describe the impact these experiences had on their life trajectory; or (3) Texts, including videos, and articles about Marcel Marceau. With options one and two, students could compare and contrast the life stories, motivations, and achievements of the subjects of the biographies. Working with the Marceau text set, students could compare the varying perspectives on Marceau’s life story.
Understanding Matisse’s Style. Provide small groups of students with a collection of Matisse’s paintings and collages. Ask students to study the images and to put them into different groups, categorizing them by different traits (color, shapes, content, etc.). Challenge the groups to think of as many possible ways to group them as possible within small groups. Convene as a whole group to share and discuss different ways of categorizing the images. Then, help students to place the images on a large timeline posted on a classroom wall. Discuss changes in Matisse’s style over time. Return to Colorful Dreamer for a close examination of Holly Berry’s representations of Matisse’s work and stylistic changes over time.
Matisse as Muse. Use a document camera or LCD projector to display large images of Matisse’s paintings and collages from different time periods in his life. Invite your students to draw inspiration from Matisse’s art, choosing to create either a written or visual response. Collaborate with your art teacher to provide students with materials to experiment with Matisse’s style. Alternatively (or conjointly) use Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth Century American Art edited by Jan Greenberg (Abrams, 2001) as a mentor text for student composed poems in response to Matisse’s paintings.
Comparing Picture Book Biographies of Matisse. Read Colorful Dreamer along with two other picture book biographies of Henri Matisse: A Bird or Two: A Story About Henri Matisse by Bijou Le Tord (Eerdmans, 1999) and Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors by Jane O’Connor (Grosset & Dunlap, 2002). Compare the information found in the texts (including author’s notes). You may want to construct a timeline of Matisse’s life using key events drawn from the books, color-coding the text to identify the source book. Next, discuss the illustrations in each text. What techniques have the illustrators used to represent the art of Matisse, his life story, and themes emphasized in each book? As an extension of this activity, you might have students identify further questions that they have about Matisse and his art or you might begin a broader study of artists and their representation in picture book biographies. The Classroom Bookshelf blog features several titles ideally suited to this activity: Diego Rivera: His World and Ours, Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased, and Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.
Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. Matisse’s artistic style has been described as Fauvism, Post-Impressionism, and Expressionism. Invite your students to learn more about these artistic styles and their place in history by exploring some of the online resources below and Bob Raczka’s book, Name that Style : All About Isms in Art(Millbrook, 2009).

Further Explorations:

Online Resources

Leda Schubert’s Website

Gerard DuBois Website
Search YouTube videos for “Marcel Marceau” and “Charlie Chaplin”
“Silence Falls on Marcel Marceau, Master of the Mime”
The World of Mime Theater
The Wallenberg Medal and Lecture: Marcel Marceau
Times Topics: Articles About Marcel Marceau
Marcel Marceau Photo Essay: Time Magazine
The Guardian: Marcel Marceau
Circus Smirkus
Holly Berry’s Website
Marjorie Blain Parker
Times Topics, Henri Matisse, The New York Times 
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Henri Matisse Tour, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Matisse Museum, Nice, France
The Tate Gallery, London
A Tale of Two Sisters and a Serious Eye for Art, NPR 
A War Time Matisse Full of Pain and Beauty, NPR 
Avi. Silent movie. Ill. by C.B. Mordan. New York: Atheneum.
Lust, A. (2003). From the Greek mines to Marcel Marceau and beyond. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. (adult title)
Marceau, M. (1976). The story of Bip. New York: Harper & Row.
Spielman, G. (2011). Marcel Marceau: Master of mime. Ill. by M. Gauthier. Minneapolis, MN: Kar-Ben.
Grenberg, J., Ed.  (2001). Heart to heart: New poems Inspired by twentieth century American art  New York: Abrams.
LeTord, B. (1999). Henri Matisse: A Bird or Two: A Story About Henri Matisse. Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans.
O’Connor, J. 2002). Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors. Ill. by J. Hartland. New York. Grossett & Dunlap.
Razcka, B. Name that style : all about isms in art. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press.
Winter, J. (2012). Just behave, Pablo Picasso! Ill. by K. Hawkes. New York: Arthur A. Levine.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.