Nature is very noisy. Our imaginations are also full of noise and activity. For an artist, corralling all the unexpected ideas and interruptions that come out of nowhere can be a daunting task. It takes a master to find the best way to represent what is happening before him or her.
Van Dog is such an artist! The beret-topped pooch in the eponymously-named book by Polish children’s author Mikolaj Pa does much of what his namesake, Vincent Van Gogh, did. He goes out into nature and, without interacting or influencing it, records his impressions of what is before him.
The result is a piece of art - a pleasant, smile-inducing look-and-find book that will engage very young book and art lovers for considerable periods of time. Van Dog sets out on a beautiful day with his easel, oil paints and canvas to record the simplicity of the landscape.
As the day passes, he discovers the complexity of what’s in front of him, ticking and clicking insects, buzzing bees, talkative worms and spiders who check in on his progress and offer opinions. Words and sounds pop up everywhere, giving early readers opportunities to practice their syllables and simple words.
If Van Dog was looking for peace, he doesn’t get it. As the day progresses, humans and talking animals invade the meadow, strumming guitars and double basses, tooting on saxophones, zinging on violins. Ice-cream vendors satisfy the desires of picnickers. Day-trippers sneak peeks at the painting and question Van Dog’s interpretations. They’re followed by aliens, vampires and an assortment of figures. It’s an active, crowded scene. Despite attempts to goad and interrupt him, Van Dog says nothing. He doggedly (pun intended) attends to his canvas.
A heavy downpour gives them all a good soaking, but it doesn’t dampen any of their spirits,. When the skies clear, King Kong and Godzilla (wearing sandals and looking for directions to Tokyo) make an appearance, stepping on people and scaring them away. King Kong, a sentimental sort, is moved by the beauty of the sunset while he licks an ice cream cone.
At the end of the day, Van Dog packs up his painting and materials and cycles home, delivering his masterpiece to the museum first. He’s accompanied by the worm that befriended him in the meadow; the two of them chatter over dinner late into the night.
What did Van Dog paint? What he saw, of course, a collage of nature, people, supernatural and unreal beings. There is nothing bucolic in this painting. It’s a riot of colour and busy-ness. The bug family and the alien on roller skates touring the gallery applaud it.
Van Dog can be a useful book to inspire creativity in children, to free them from conventional representations and provide an example to create look-and-find drawings themselves. Teachers can use Van Dog to instruct students about Van Gogh and the Impressionists as well as other genres of art.
Mikolaj Pa (Pasinsky) is also a prolific book writer and designer who has imagined an entertaining and interesting graphic picture book. The art, realized by equally polished and productive artist Gosia Herba, (also from Wroclaw, Poland), is brimming with slightly realistic, slightly curious, eye-catching figures that will keep kids searching.
Harriet Zaidman is a children’s writer and reviewer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her young adult novel, Second Chances, won the 2022 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People.