Thursday, July 22, 2010

Noonie's Masterpiece

By Lisa Railsback
Art by Sarajo Frieden
$18.99, ages 9-12, 208 pages.

Noonie may only be in fourth grade but she already knows she's a brilliant artist, even if no one else seems to notice. So why aren't her powers as an artist enough to get her dad to come back home?

Ever since her mom died four years ago, Noonie's been living with her quirky relatives and her sad dad's been half-way around the world on archeological digs, when what Noonie really needed was for him to come back for her pronto.

In this whimsical, lovely book, Noonie writes her life story as only a fourth grade artist can, explaining each of the artistic periods that followed her mother's death, and how her art got her through that loss and her dad's absence.

Noonie endears from the first page with her defiance toward all the misfortune life has thrown at her, and along the way, empowers us to grab hold of life and express whoever we are, even if no one else gets what we have to say.

With doodles bending and dancing around the text, Noonie sets out to set the record straight about her early artistic influences, speaking to any author who might someday write about her, so that one day when she's plucked from obscurity to join the ranks of great artists like Frida and Van Gogh she isn't misunderstood.

She begins with the horrible event that launched her Blue Period, the death of her mother while she was in kindergarten, then explains how she rose out of her gloom to paint a masterpiece, then nearly destroyed it, before realizing that no matter what happens, an artist must try to be brave.

The Blue Period, as she recalls, was a lousy, rotten time full of blue scribbles. When other 6-year-olds were painting themselves smiling yellow in class, she was painting herself in dark stormy blue as adults fretted over what was to become of her.

That's also when Noonie's archealogist dad left her with perky Aunt Sylvia, actor-postman Uncle Ralph and crazy super dork cousin Junior, and she began sending her dad urgent letters and scary self-portraits so he'd rescue her from being part of a family that wasn't her own.

Every picture was meant to show her dad that the two of them were better off together than apart. She'd paint her face riddled with a horrible blue disease that only he could cure, hoping he'd rush home and sweep her away with him to Timbuktu or some far-off land -- anywhere but where she was.

Though her dad always wrote back to comfort her, he never seemed to get that he was the cure. Even when her portraits startled him enough to race home, he'd conclude that Noonie was better off staying with her relatives than following him to remote places.

Then one day, Noonie's dad responded to one of her dire pictures with a surprise from China, a purple hat with a napkin pinned inside. At the center of the napkin was a self-portrait of Noonie's artist mom, painted in purple swirls many years before.

That's when Noonie decided right there and then that she couldn't be blue forever and launched into her Purple Period, more determined than ever to be discovered. Soon after, she decided to win an art contest at her school that she was convinced would turn her sad life around.

Her plan was to make an artistic statement so important that even her dad would hear about it all the way in China. But when she discovered she had to create artwork of her family, Noonie got artist block and wondered how she'd ever make art out of something she didn't have.

After floundering over what kind of family she could create, Noonie was struck with a brilliant idea, and with the help of her nerdy best friend, Reno, and her quirky art teacher Ms. Lilly, discovered that art can change her world, but maybe not in the way she expected.

Readers will love how bound and determined Noonie is to make everyone see what she sees in herself and to make sure she's not left behind by her dad, even if her temporary family isn't so bad after all.

The book, truly a sparkling debut, is also filled with great messages of being open to others and not judging anyone too soon. Noonie discovers that family can be defined in more than one way and sometimes the people you think have a perfect life aren't so different than you are.

Best Parts: Next to Reno, Noonie's closest buddies are the dead artists she reads about in Masterpieces of Art, a school library book that's been overdue for four years. Every time, Noonie gets into a funk, she sees her life reflected in one of theirs and doesn't feel so alone.

During her Purple Period, Noonie decides to plop down in a parking lot to sketch a tiny purple flower growing through weeds in a crack, and even though a man is shouting at her from his car to get out of the way and a woman thinks she's a sad homeless girl, Noonie doesn't stop drawing.

It isn't until a dog pees on the napkin she's drawing on, turning it "soggy doggy shades of yellow," and Reno accidentally drops his school books on the flower that Noonie finally decides to call it quits and head off to school.

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