Art and Letters in Middle-Grade Fiction

One of my favorite quotes of all time is, “Writing about music is like dancing about art,” pithily describing the inadequacy of one medium to fully capture the nuances of another.

Try dancing to this!

But what of writing about art? Here, in the middle-grade world, we have no shortage of books truly inspired by works of art and the artistic process. Certainly we need look no further than our own namesake, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where two runaways at Metropolitan Museum of Art must determine whether Michelangelo himself sculpted a statue named Angel.

Writing about art requires, at a basic level, being able to describe the art itself as well the effect of the artwork on the viewer. Consider this short excerpt from Mixed-Up Files:

Claudia was lost in remembrance of the beautiful angel she had seen. Why did she seem so important; and why was she so special? Of course she was beautiful. Graceful. Polished. But so were many other things at the museum.

The effect of the statue is so dazzling that Claudia is lost in remembrance. The statue is graceful and polished, but also has a quality that elevates it above even other pieces in the museum.
Novels about art present a wonderful opportunity to study description and emotion. Here are some ideas for writing exercises to use with students:

  • Use art to build vocabulary. What texture words help enhance description – smooth, rough, choppy, prickly? What words will convey whether the exact colors used in a painting? Robin’s egg blue, navy blue or periwinkle?

  • Ask your students to think about how the artwork makes them feel or the mood they think the artist is trying to convey. Is the artwork playful or serious? Is there a sense of joy or sadness? Ask them to find two or three words that best describes their feelings, or challenge them to come up with a unique metaphor.
  • After the students describe a chosen work of art, challenge them to a mix-and-match gallery of words and art, where they must pair other descriptions with the correct work of art. There may even be an opportunity for re-writing, where the author can see where his or her work can be strengthened, based on the feedback received from other students.

In addition to the Mixed-Up Files, here are other middle-grade books that feature art, along with some related links:

• Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett: Two friends must solve a series clues to recover a stolen Vermeer before it’s too late. This book is the first in a trilogy of art-based mysteries. Follow this link to the National Gallery of Art for a kid-friendly lesson about Vermeer.

• Masterpiece, by Elsie Broach: A beetle with a knack for fine pen-and-ink sketches finds himself and a human friend embroiled in a scandal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Can they solve the mystery and keep their unusual friendship intact? The website has this informative page about Albrecht Dürer, the artist whose work is central to the story.

• Noonie’s Masterpiece, by Lisa Railsback: Noonie copes with her mother’s death and father’s frequent absences through her art and her imagined relationships with famous artists. When she creates her own masterpiece, she discovers new truths about herself and her new family. A special National Gallery of Art page also allows kids to create their own works of art and explore art.

• The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate: In this book, the artist in question is Ivan, asilverback gorilla who lives in a cage at the mall who draws with paper and crayons for his owner to sell. While he has convinced himself that his life is not so bad, when he feels obligated to help a fellow animal, he will draw upon all his talents to save her.


Do you have a favorite work of art, or book that features art?  Share it in the comments below!

Wendy Shang is the author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu.

  1. I’m a children’s book illustrator who became an MG author and my trilogy (published by Candlewick Press in the US) is all about a Renaissance painting in a Scottish castle, its mysterious creator and the kids who stumble upon the painting’s secrets. The first book, The Blackhope Enigma, was released in the US in paperback yesterday and the sequel, The Crimson Shard, is out on Sept. 11. I hope it’s okay to mention them here (shameless plug!) as they fit the topic so well. Many thanks!

  2. The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwan–not MG but a great read and inspired by Rembrandt’s painting.

    • @Linda Andersen, It’s funny that you mention this, because I debated whether to have adult read-alongs on this list. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro at ALA, and I was mesmerized by the author’s descriptions of art. That book contributed to the inspiration for this post!

  3. Definitely OKAY FOR NOW. Schmidt’s great voice and characters are reasons alone to pick it up. The way MC Doug applies Audubon’s compositions to his own life is fascinating.

  4. Thanks for the list, Wendy (you, too Shelley). Great topic! I would add Gary D. Schmidt’s 2011 book, OKAY FOR NOW. I love the way main character Doug Swieteck’s accidental encounter and ultimate obsession with the art of Audubon expands his view of the possibilities in the world and himself. I know we’re talking about middle grade here, but I can’t resist mentioning a delightful picture book: Jon Agee’s THE INCREDIBLE PAINTING OF FELIX CLOUSSEAU. It’s not so much about the beauty of art, but about the power of imagination.

    • @Sue Cowing, We are huge Jon Agee fans in this house, but I hadn’t heard of THE INCREDIBLE PAINTING OF FELIX CLOUSSEAU and will have to go look it up. While this is a MG blog, picture books often make great jumping off points for young writers. (And YES to OKAY FOR NOW! I can’t believe I forgot to include that one!)

  5. For an ischool project I created a summer reading list called Art of the Book a couple of the above titles were on it. I had so much fun rereading or discovering these books. Here are other wonderful MG fiction books that touch on art:

    The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle

    Bettina Valentino and the Picasso Club by Niki Daly

    Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine

    Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce MY FAV BOOK. AUDIO VERSION IS PERFECT

    From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

    The Gawgon and the Boy by Lloyd Alexander

    Heist Society by Ally Carter (older MG)

    Matisse on the Loose by Georgia Bragg

    Pieces of Georgia by Jen Bryant (Older MG)

    The Poison Place by Mary E. Lyons

    Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay

    Secrets of the Cirque Medrano by Elaine Scott

    Silk Umbrellas by Carolyn Mardsen

    • @Shelley Borysiewicz, Wow – this is great! Thanks for sharing your list!

  6. Here is an oldie (1994) but one I still remember: The Boy Who Drew Cats by Arthur A. Levine. It is is short but with beautiful drawings throughout. Probably intended more for the 7-10 age group,though I first came across a 7th grade art teacher using this title with her class to inspire them to draw.

  7. I would add Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin.

    • @Ali B, Breaking Stalin’s Nose is on my nightstand! Can’t wait to read it.

  8. Absolutely! And I loved Selznick’s allusions to the Mixed-Up Files!

  9. How about Brian Selznick’s WONDERSTRUCK?