Monday, October 14, 2013

Picture That! The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerson

Some of the oldest drawings ever found were made more than 30,000 years ago in a cave in southern France.

In that same cave there was a footprint of an eight-year-old child.
The juxtaposition of that child's footprint and that paleolithic drawing is the jumping-off point for Mordicai Gerstein's elegant picture book which imagines that first human artist picking up a burnt stick from the edge of the fire and creating the first human art.

But before there is art, there must be an artist, someone who could see what is real in his mind and imagine reproducing it as a painting, and  in Gerstein's telling of it, he is a young boy who loves to watch animals, with his wolf dog at his heels,  looking at a distant woolly mammoth and seeing the shape of that beast in the changing clouds above him.

No one else "sees" what he sees in the clouds and in the shapes of the rocks around him.

"Papa! That cloud looks like a woolly mammoth!"
"It looks like a cloud to me," says his father. "Like a cloud."
"Why can't they see what I see?" the boy wonders.
At night the shadows of the dancing flames from the fire circle looks like running horses to the boy, but although no one else sees  the galloping herd, the boy picks up a charcoal stick and following the curves of the rocky wall, begins to sketch out the shape of one, and then many running horses. The family look at each other and chuckle at the play of this curious child, but then, as he fills in his drawing with a husky, tusky mammoth, someone sees something familiar there.  It is a mammoth.
"This.... is magic!"
"No, Papa. I'm just showing you...."
Caldecott Medalist Mordecai Gerstein (for The Man Who Walked Between the Towers) captures that moment in time which someone, perhaps a child, made the enormous intellectual leap from something visualized in the mind to a concrete, created thing that others can see  and someone can use.  All human creation comes from a personal mental image that is reproduced in the material world, from a carefully shaped spear point to the internet, and Gerstein uses his immense artistic talent as a visual storyteller to take the young reader along to witness such an event.  Using parallel characters, a modern boy with his dog trailing behind and his drawing pencils in his back pocket and the cave boy with his shaggy wolf-pup and his burnt stick, Gerstein takes the modern reader back into a distant historic time, but the same place in the modern mind from which a child artist takes up a crayon to draw a car or an airplane.
"And it's still MAGIC!" says the author.

Gerstein's  latest, The First Drawing (Little, Brown, 2013), displays the artist's skill with word and art, his fine draftsmanship and his skillful use of media, blackline and acrylics, to give a feeling of movement, light and shadows, to the dusky depths of the cave and its walls which provide a canvass for the beginnings of art itself. "Artists see the world differently, but Gerstein suggests their true gift lies in allowing others to share in their visions," says Publishers Weekly. "Solid storytelling, satisfying narrative circularity, and masterful, creative illustrations make this an inspiring story for young artists," adds Kirkus Reviews, and Children's Literature calls it , "another must buy for real library and pre-school and lower grades use."

Gerstein's illustrated author's note provides more of the story of the discovery of  stone age cave art  in those caves of France, making this book a good one to pair with another Caldecott winner's, Emily Arnold McCully's The Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux.

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