A Splash of Red by Jen Bryant

  • Title: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin
  • Author: Jen Bryant
  • Illustrator: Melissa Sweet
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN:0375867120
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 40
  • Age Range: 5-8
  • Genre: biography
  • Award(s): Sibert Honor book; more here.

Author information: Jen Bryant has written more than a dozen books for children. Her website includes a photographic biography, a list of her published works, events at which she will be appearing, contests for giveaways, a link to her blog, information for teachers, a description of her writing process, and contact information. In an interview on her website, Bryant says she did not think about becoming a writer until she was 30 years old. She had just had a baby and wanted a career that would give her flexibility and allow her to spend more time with her family. Her number one tip to young people who aspire to be writers is to read: “read what you like, but also try to read books and magazines that challenge your intellect and your imagination”.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus. All of these reviews mention the mixed media illustrations that Sweet has created for this book, and how they give the title a “folksy” and “refreshing” feeling. Kirkus also mentions that “Bryant’s text is understated, letting Pippin’s frequent quotations glimmer along with the art”. Booklist calls this book “a well-structured narrative with recurring themes and a highly accessible style”.

Readers annotation: In spite of the obstacles, Horace Pippin knew he was meant to be an artist.

Summary: Horace Pippin drew pictures from a young age. He gave his artwork to friends and family members, who loved his pictures. Horace joined the army during World War I and kept drawing, but he was shot and lost the functionality in his right arm, which was the arm he used to draw. Although this could have stopped his art career forever, Horace slowly taught himself to paint by using his left hand to hold his right arm up, and he was able to make art once again. Slowly his artwork started being noticed, and his paintings were displayed in museums and galleries around the United States.

Evaluation: This book is fun to read and has a wonderful message. Bryant tells the story in an accessible and simple style that really allows the artwork and the Pippin quotes to be the main focus of the work. She highlights his determination and his perseverance in overcoming the obstacles that would prevent him from pursuing his passion. The quotes from Horace Pippin are peppered throughout the text and give the reader more insight into Pippin’s creative process and his character. The true delight of this book is the artwork. The illustrations are busy and crammed with different colors and textures, giving the reader the feeling that they are getting a glimpse directly into Pippin’s imagination. His creativity is at the heart of this story and the illustrations really highlight this fact. The book concludes with a brief historical note that gives the readers a more fact-based look at Horace Pippin’s life, and both the author and illustrator discuss their experiences creating this book. This gives the reader a stronger understanding of Pippin as well as adds a personal touch.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  4/5  The artwork and narrative are great, and the inclusion of Pippin’s quotes enhances the story. The colorful illustrations reflect the imaginative and creative personality of Horace Pippin.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Readers will be astounded by Pippin’s dedication to his craft and his desire to be an artist, even when it becomes difficult. They will also enjoy the fun illustrations, which will spark their own imaginations.
  • Appeal factors: biography, artists, African American protagonists, overcoming adversity.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport would be a great fit for readers who want to read another biography of an African American who triumphed over adversity. This book also includes quotes from MLK interspersed with the text, much as Bryant does in this title.
  2. Readers who want another biography about a famous artist may enjoy Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse by Marjorie Blain Parker. This book uses similar colorful and busy illustrations to represent the imagination of Henri Matisse.

Book talk ideas: This book is mostly about overcoming obstacles and the power of passion and imagination over difficulties. I would ask potential readers to think about a time in their lives when they ran into an obstacle and think about how they handled that. I would then ask them to imagine that they are a painter, but they hurt the hand they use to draw, and ask them how they would overcome that. This discussion would lead segue into talking about Horace Pippin and the fact that he still became a famous artist even though he had to overcome many difficulties along the way.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. How do the illustrations of the book contribute to the tone of the book?
  2. Which of the Horace Pippin quotes is your favorite? Why?
  3. What qualities did Horace Pippin have that made him successful?

Reason for reading: I read this book after I had already finalized my list of picture books that I was going to review for this class. I’ve been very interested in reading biographies lately, and I’ve also been trying to be more conscious of the imbalance between children’s books with white protagonists and those with main characters of color, so this title jumped out at me as a great read to satisfy both of these requirements. I was so captivated that I bumped one of the titles off my review list (sorry, David Weisner’s Tuesday) to make room to talk about this book.

Additional relevant information: This book has its own website which includes some great resources for teachers and parents. These include a discussion guide, links to websites with more information about Pippin, and photographs of pages of Horace Pippin’s WWI notebook, complete with illustrations. This would be a great resource for those who want to delve deeper into Horace Pippin’s life.

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