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Review: Art & Max by David Wiesner

Art & Max
By David Wiesner
Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
ISBN: 9780618756636
Grades K-4
In Stores

His first book in four years, David Wiesner’s Art & Max brings to mind Chris Van Allsburg’s Bad Day at Riverbend in the way it deconstructs the concept of illustration. Like that book, it also manages to have a little fun along the way.

There are actually two narratives going on here – the first is the story of Max learning to become an artist, the second is an unspoken evolution of artistic media and styles. The eager Max wants to learn how to paint, and approaches an accomplished artist (the horned, hulking Arthur) to learn how. But Max takes Art’s instruction literally, using Arthur as his canvas and covering him in paint.

Max’s attempts to fix the problem only make things worse, as Art transitions from acrylic to pastel to watercolor depictions. When all that is left is a kinked black line piled on the ground, Max must use his artistic talent to put his mentor back together.

If we’re looking at artistic merit, this book has it in Caldecott level spades. Using acrylic, pastel, watercolor, and india ink (all of which figure into the story itself), Wiesner has concocted one of the more uniquely beautiful books of the year. The flat desert setting is inhabited by gangly lizards with some very human expressions and characteristics.

My qualms. As the book begins it isn’t clear which character is speaking. It takes a moment to realize that Max’s words are represented in a sans serif font, while Art speaks in a more traditional typeset. Also, some of the transitions that Art goes through might leave kids with questions that require some informed support (Does oil paint create a powdery pastel residue when removed? How can Max’s climactic blast of paint result in a Seurat-esque stipple dot image, and not a Jackson Pollack splatterfest?). These small hitches may throw off a few readers.

A wonderful pick for introducing artistic media, styles, technique, and freedom in a classroom setting, the success of this book hinges on how well the deconstruction element goes over with readers. It will be in my school library collections, however, I can’t help but feel like Art & Max won’t connect with as many readers as Wiesner’s past efforts.

Review copy from publisher

Watch David Wiesner discuss the evolution of Art & Max:

Also reviewed by A Fuse #8 Production, Kids Lit.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Great review, Travis. A lot of reviewers agree with your reservations about kid appeal. My own grandsons, age 7, have responded enthusiastically to the book and it is one we have been rereading together often at their request. I’m sure they don’t get all the artistic references – I’m not sure I get them all either – but they love the story and are certainly getting enough to keep them asking to read it again. I’ve not assisted them with hints or comments and I’ve been interested in the things they are noticing – some of them quite subtle. I’d love to hear what you learn with your students. I’m taking in to read to a class of 2nd graders in another week or so and I’m looking forward to seeing how that group reacts.

    • I’m interested to hear how the book goes over with the 2nd grade crowd – I haven’t had the opportunity to read this aloud myself yet. Cool to hear that your focus group enjoy the book!

  2. I attended a session at last spring’s NJLA Conference and heard David Wiesner describing his then “work-in-progress.” It’s exciting to finally see it on the shelves. I love it (but like you, haven’t tried it out with kids yet)! I do think that this book and Suzy Lee’s new, Shadow, should be an art teacher’s dream.

  3. Great review. I’m mom to a 5yo who LOVES books (yeah!). When I saw this in the bookstore, I actually laughed out loud while reading it (to myself). It didn’t occur to me until I was reading it aloud that it really is difficult to know who’s speaking, and this was made most clear when I was asked “wait Mama, who said that?” Even with that, it’s in fairly short rotation right now, so there’s clearly something that appeals about the process of deconstruction and reconstruction.


  1. […] by Clarion in October, is a marvel. One of my favorite bloggers, Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes, described it as “one of the more uniquely beautiful books of the year” and a “wonderful pick […]