I’m thrilled to highlight a gorgeous book today, THE PEOPLE’S PAINTER, by Cynthia Levinson with illustrations by Evan Turk. This lovely and important picture book biography shares the story of Jewish artist and activist, Ben Shahn. It released just last month and has earned four starred reviews!
As a boy growing up in Lithuania, Ben was an avid artist who loved to draw. His family later moved to America, where he began using his artistic talents to fight for justice. Ben’s conviction, passion, and perseverance, and how his artwork brought about change, is truly inspiring!
Of course, I wanted to find out the story behind the story, so I invited award-winning author Cynthia Levinson to answer a few questions about this book. Welcome Cynthia!
First I must ask about this colorful, stunning book cover. How does it reflect or describe the story inside?
Didn’t Evan Turk do an amazing job?! The cover is breathtaking. What pops out first for me is the sweet figure of Ben as a little boy with big child-like eyes and hands. He’s wearing a bright cerulean-blue shirt and holding a paint brush. Then, I notice what he’s painting—a bevy of doves. And above it all is Evan’s precise but slightly cockeyed lettering for the title. Every bit here represents Shahn and the story we tell. Here is what Evan explained to me about his decisions for the cover design.
The book opens, “’The first thing I can remember,’ Ben said, ‘I drew.’” So he started doing art—in the margins of a book of Bible stories!—when he was small. Later, he featured blue, which is a very important and spiritual color in Jewish art, in his professional work. The doves represent his anti-war activities—as well as Evan’s grandmother, Lenore Dove Klein. Evan said, “They felt like a perfect illustration of the hope through protest and action that he wanted to express with much of his work.” And the lettering is perfect because Ben was a calligrapher and lithographer.
The back of the jacket is adorable! It shows a child’s drawing of little Ben with his parents, baby brother, and zayde, the grandfather—all of them waving at the reader.
What inspired you to write The People’s Painter?
I’ve been aware of Shahn for a long time. As a child, I knew about his Passover Haggadah. I remember seeing his drawing of Dr. King on Time magazine’s cover in 1965. And Shahn’s peace dove became the iconic symbol of Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war presidential campaign, which I worked on in 1968. Then, I met his second wife, Bernarda, at a high school reunion in 1993, though we attended the school in Columbus, Ohio about four decades apart. However, I wasn’t writing for young readers then. The idea started percolating in 2012 when my first book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham’s Children’s March, was published. Since I write about social justice and I’m Jewish—both of which are themes in his work—Ben Shahn seemed to be a natural fit.
The research for this book is extremely thorough. What types of sources and experts did you consult?
Apparently, I’m incapable of researching efficiently. But you just never know where you’ll find that fun anecdote (like the fact that Ben threw up the first time he ate a tomato!)
Or the perfect culminating incident (like, when he was a zayde, advising children to draw in the margins of books).
I always begin research on a project by reading the secondary literature. Books by Shahn scholars helped me grasp the scope of his life and art, the teachers who influenced him, and the events that motivated him. My conversations with a number of these scholars helped clarify details. There are also a number of interviews with Shahn and reviews of his exhibits online.
Then, there’s the primary research. There is no substitute for “being there.” So, going to his home and studio in Roosevelt (formerly Jersey Homesteads), New Jersey, where I talked with his son and several neighbors, to the Whitney Museum, which holds part of the Sacco & Vanzetti series, and to installations of his work in public buildings, where I could see his work in situ as he intended, were invaluable.
Fortunately, Shahn was highly prolific, not only as a painter but also as a photographer, commercial artist, stage designer, lithographer, and writer. His series of lectures called The Shape of Content helped me understand why he focused on story-telling and how he composed those stories as an artist. The book he illustrated for children called Ounce, Dice, Trice is just joyful and gave me insight into his sense of humor. I also read the FBI report against him, which shows his sheer courage.
What do you hope readers take away from this story?
There’s so much for kids to like about Shahn. His art is accessible because it’s representational, rather than abstract, and, as we say in the book, it tells stories. His work is also emotional—touching, haunting, angry—because, like kids, he cared about fairness.
Although the book is about a Jewish artist who immigrated to this country in 1906 and died in 1969, it’s amazingly relevant because Shahn’s art focused on many of the same issues we’re dealing with today—immigration, civil rights, voting rights, workers’ rights, income inequality, protests, political extremism, the role of government. The only issue he missed was the 1918-1919 pandemic but he was learning lithography then.
So, above all, I hope young readers realize that art can be an eloquent and persuasive form of protest. They can illustrate injustice and fairness just as Ben Shahn did.
Find out more about THE PEOPLE’S PAINTER on Abrams website!
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On a personal note, I’ve made the difficult decision to step down from this fantastic blog. I’ve loved being a part of PBB, and have truly enjoyed discussing new picture books with you. It’s been wonderful to meet new book creators/lovers and to hear your thoughts and ideas. Yet, it’s time for me to reconfigure my work life a bit and create more space for friends, family, and reading! It’s been great getting to know all of you fellow picture book lovers!