When we first meet Vasya Kandinsky in The Noisy Paint Box, he is dutifully studying math and history like “a proper Russian boy.” But when his aunt gives him a box of paints, the book’s color scheme shifts from dull blues and grays to bright reds and yellows. As a boy and later as a young man, Vasya can hear colors in a way that will later become known as synesthesia. Unlike his contemporaries, he’s not interested in painting houses or flowers or people; he wants to create works of art that aren’t supposed to be anything.

Illustrator Mary GrandPré, best known for her covers and illustrations for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, joins author Barb Rosenstock to demonstrate how words and pictures can work together to tell a story—in particular a story about words, pictures and sounds. Vibrant colors match equally vibrant, sonorous descriptions (“burbling green, clanging orange, and tinkling violet”), and the judicious use of a sans-serif font for emphasis adds typographical interest without being overwhelming. Sometimes sound-related words become pictures, as when Vasya’s clicking metronome seems to march down a staircase; other times sound-related pictures become words, as waves of color hiss out of Vasya’s paint box.

Attentive readers will also notice references to Kandinsky’s real paintings in the illustrations—especially on the final page, where a child carrying a stuffed toy similar to young Vasya’s completes the cycle of viewing and creating. An author’s note, bibliography, quotations and thumbnails of Kadinsky’s work will inspire young artists to learn more about this pioneer of abstract art.

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