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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
Gertrude Is Gertude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude
by Jonah Winter; illustrated by Calef Brown

Modern art may be pretty mature in years by now, what with its approaching its centenary, but it’s still a shocking break from the artistic tradition that preceded it.  Children often have a great respect for seriousness and adult achievement, and it can be tough to explain to them why when Duchamp puts a mustache on the Mona Lisa it’s art, but if they did it it would be goofing around—or epic vandalism. Amid all that, what’s often overlooked in child-aimed discussions of modern art is one of its most appealing qualities—it can be about having fun. Jonah Winter’s Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude puts the fun front and center, both in the lives of the artists it describes, and in its emulation of its titular writer’s style.  

That’s Gertrude as in Gertrude Stein, of course, the high priestess of a circle of modernists in early twentieth century France. Biographer Winter (Dizzy, BCCB 11/06, 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven BCCB 11/06) describes the parties in Stein and Toklas’ Paris flat, their famous acquaintances, such as Picasso, Matisse, and Hemingway, and their artistic achievements. The book also chronicles Stein’s writing and Toklas’ work as amanuensis, plus aspects of their daily life in town and at their summer house in the country. This is a quirky slice of life rather than an orthodox biography (audiences will have to look to the compact closing note, “Who Is Who Is Who Is Who,” or beyond for information about Stein’s vital statistics and literary contributions), but it’s an effective one. Winter takes a creative and impressionistic approach that draws strongly on the repetitive structure of Stein’s famous “a rose is a rose is a rose” and employs much playful repetition as well as rhyme and other wordplay. The text also nimbly tackles some of the basic questions about modern and representational art (“Those crazy pictures sure are crazy. Who cares? A picture is a picture. It can be whatever it wants to be”) and offers a portrait of an enviable life of art and frolic. The tone is an entertaining blend of whimsy and gravity that resembles that of Allan Ahlberg; it’s well pitched to the story of a strange and offbeat life filled with strange and offbeat people, and it’s genuinely funny, allowing young audiences to laugh both at and with these bold and humorous pioneers of art.

The book’s look is appropriate to the joyous absurdity of its subject. Text appears in small bite-sized pieces with variable emphases provided by carefully employed boldface and enlarged font, the words interlaced into the art for a cohesive page design. Open planes of color keep the collection of disparate elements in Brown’s acrylic illustrations balanced and intriguing rather than chaotic, with the visuals echoing the text in their disinclination for orthodox organization. Figures are flat and often truncated, with random tints of blue and green in skintones, yet
round Gertrude and narrow Alice remain easily identifiable; spreads often have a cheerful profusion of elements such as flowers or fruit (or random components of Stein’s life) scattered gaily about the page to add a festive note that slyly contrasts with the poker-faced draftsmanship.

While kids aren’t likely to be piling into Stein’s Tender Buttons anytime soon, this could partner with dePaola’s kitty story Bonjour, Mr. Satie (BCCB 3/91), a fictional exploration of the Stein salon, for a merry yet evocative introduction to the artistic milieu or with Stein’s The World Is Round for a broader introduction to Stein herself. However it’s introduced, it will encourage kids to appreciate the playfulness in adult art, to resist overthinking the random and the absurd, and to celebrate “having fun when you write.” (See p. 223 for publication information.)

Deborah Stevenson, Editor


Cover image by Calef Brown from  Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude ©2009. Used by permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on January 1, 2009.