[Review Copy Courtesy of Prestel Publishing]
What if there was more to Vermeer’s paintings? What if there were stories that we didn’t know about the people he painted? What if there were secrets? Connections? Incredible events and coincidences that we never imagined? Wouldn’t that make an interesting story? Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine?
In Anna and Johanna, Géraldine Elschner has written such a book about the women in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid and in The Lacemaker, and the way she has created a fictional story from the “What ifs?” of these two paintings is absorbing, surprising and uplifting all at once. Florence Kœnig’s illustrations elegantly mirror, mimic, and capture the tone and essence of Vermeer’s works and with such attention to the colors and moods of Vermeer’s paintings, she’s created her own distinct work of art. Together, Elschner and Kœnig have created a picture book that is both simple and richly layered, that is a fictional but also rooted in facts. It’s wonderful.
This is a unique picture book that makes Vermeer’s work accessible and memorable for children and adults alike. I am so glad that it has been translated into English.
The story is about two girls in Delft, a Dutch city, on October 12th, 1666. One young woman is wealthy and the other is not, but despite their economic and social differences, that are very good friends and share the same birthday. On their 12th birthday they receive a letter that explains to them that they have more than just a shared birthday. That on that that day 12 years earlier there was a terrible explosion and it was a painter’s easel that saved the crib from being destroyed. They learn that that they are more connected than they ever realized.
The story is very richly told and is so dramatic that my children were mesmerized. My eldest kept asking me if this story was true and I had to spend awhile explaining to him that parts are based on facts, but that the story itself wasn’t. It was a great way to talk about what historical fiction is and isn’t.
The end of the book has a great Q&A section that answers such questions as Who was Jan Vermeer? What do we really know about the women in the paintings? What inspired the author to focus on these paintings and how the artist went about illustrating this book. It’s excellent and helpful for readers.
I love the subtle details in the story that include Carel Fabritius and there’s even a reference to The Goldfinch in the story. I’m impressed with how skillfully this book was written and illustrated. The more I read Anna and Johanna and research about the historical events in the book, Vermeer, and the explosion at Delft, the more layered and nuanced this picture book becomes.
There are a few phrases of Dutch interspersed through the book – which is fantastic and I enjoyed looking up how to pronounce some of the phrases and saying them with the kids. It gave a nice pacing and added another layer to the story.
The storytelling is for children but does not pander to them. The language is elaborate at times, there are long descriptive phrases, and many of the sentence structures are complex – but it all works well. It makes for an elevated reading experience that is refined but still very much written for children. Universal themes of friendship, love, and life’s surprises are interwoven seamlessly into this story and give the book a magical and uplifting quality to it that makes for an excellent and magical reading experience with my family.
The Cat and the Bird: A Children’s Book Inspired by Paul Klee, Where is the Frog?: A Children’s Book Inspired by Claude Monet, and The Little Hippo: A Children’s Book Inspired by Egyptian Art are also written by Elschner and are inspired and illustrated by different artists. It looks like an elegant and imaginative series and a wonderful way to give context to different artists.
Recommended Ages 4 to 8. Prestel Junior. April 2018. 32 pages. ISBN: 978-3791373454 Historical Fiction/Art.
Where to Get it:
Author and Artist Websites:
- Ricochet Jeunes (Review is in French, but the magic of the internet translates it pretty well.)
- l’elan vert (Also in French)
- Sincerely Staci (English)
Where Obtained: I received a review copy from the publisher. No other compensation was received. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
FTC Disclosures: Some of the links in the post above are Amazon affiliate links and others are IndieBound affiliate links. If you click on the link and purchase something, I will receive an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you. Which goes to fund my family’s picture book habit. It’s a vicious cycle, but we manage. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”