Author: Shane Peacock
Illustrator: Sophie Casson
Publisher/Year: Owlkids Books Inc., 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
In The Artist and Me, an elderly French grandfather writes in a diary about “an ugly thing” he is ashamed of doing as a child: tormenting a starving artist (Vincent van Gogh) for his “awful pictures” and strange style (p. 3, 9). Admitting himself to be a coward and a bully, the aged man recounts how when alone he actually enjoyed looking at the artist’s paintings and admired Vincent van Gogh’s mission. On a trip to a famous art museum with his grandson, the old man finds one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings—the same painting he had refused so coldly as a boy—and realizes how horrible he had been towards a man of extraordinary and priceless talent.
The Artist and Me validates any young reader who has felt underappreciated or misunderstood. Readers who have ever missed out on an interesting friendship because they bullied someone can relate to the regret felt by the aged young boy. The Artist and Me also provides a window to the experiences of those who bully and those who have been bullied. One explored idea is how people sometimes bully others in public (to protect image), when, deep down they secretly admire and are curious about their victims. Through the old man’s criticism of his cruel close-mindedness as a boy, Peacock teaches readers to not mock or belittle those who are misunderstood for it not only blinds them from the talent of others, but also ruins their chances at forming valuable relationships. Peacock highlights how although Vincent van Gogh started poor he nonetheless completed his “mission” of telling the truth through art. Peacock gives no evidence, textual or otherwise, that the old man, having wasted his energy bullying, ever completed a mission of his own. The Artist and Me celebrates the culture of artists of all kinds. Individuals who doubt, fear, or mock misunderstood and unconventional artists are depicted as the crazy fools.
Deep shame is evident through the old man’s criticism and mockery of his own behavior as a child. Although everything about Vincent van Gogh—personality, appearance, and artistic style—made him an eccentric “fool,” the text also conveys the boy’s hidden wonder in and admiration for the artist. Both text and images communicate the idea that oppression dehumanizes and isolates those who are misunderstood. In his narrative account, the old man never refers to Vincent van Gogh by his name, and only by a “him” or a “someone.” Such a nameless identity symbolizes how the boy did not stick around long enough to know the man as Vincent van Gogh, the artist. Readers never see the front of Van Gogh or his face until he kindly offers the young boy a painting. Casson’s choice to hide the artist’s face emphasizes the isolation felt by the misunderstood and how their oppressors believe them to be feeling-less humans. Unframed, two-page spread illustrations invite readers into the lives of the boy and bullied artist, while warm and electric colors raise sympathy for the misunderstood Vincent van Gogh. The Artist and Me shows the relationship between ignorance, close-mindedness, peer pressure, and oppression, and highlights the effect of bullying on the life of the oppressor.