While Marc Chagall has deservedly been the subject of more than one excellent picture book for children, other Jewish artists have been virtually ignored. Cynthia Levinson and Evan Turk’s new book for young readers chronicles the life of artist and social activist Ben Shahn (1898−1969), a Jewish immigrant to America from Lithuania. Shahn’s name and work have become synonymous with the vision of art as a medium for social justice. Levinson carefully details the most important events and influences in the artist’s life in an accessible, yet deeply serious, tone. Turk’s powerful illustrations accomplish the difficult task of paying homage to his subject without merely imitating the artist’s unique style. Readers in search of a long-awaited tribute to this outstanding Jewish figure in American history, or simply interested in broadening children’s knowledge of Jewish visual artists, will not be disappointed by this outstanding book.
From early childhood, Ben Shahn’s urgent desire to draw was intertwined with his anger at unfairness. His earliest memories were of drawing, and, as “paper was a luxury in the shtetl,” he even drew in the margins of books. Levinson has chosen neither to explain nor italicize Yiddish words in the text, instead including a short glossary at the beginning of the book, giving the narrative a more authentic and uninterrupted quality. Violence against Jews and opponents of the Czar infuriated the young artist, promoting the development of a strong social and political consciousness. Emigration to America eventually meant freedom for the family but also a wrenching separation from his beloved grandfather, an experience visualized as the old man and the young boys’ hands gripped together one last time.
Ben’s new life in America is a series of contradictions: “America bewildered the new immigrant.” Turk’s pictures capture the whole range of this experience: crowded tenements, rapid transit, free public education, and economic insecurity. Ben learns that antisemitism was not exclusive to the Russian Empire, but he also finds mentors who encourage him to pursue his dream of becoming a professional artist. Levinson carefully narrates his winding path forward, including training in lithography and conflicts with instructors who demand idealized imagery that Ben would not produce in his work. The author also records Ben’s doubts about his vocation instead of offering the more uplifting message of a genius invulnerable to criticism.
When the murder trial of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti grips the nation, Shahn’s artistic commitment crystallizes in a series of pictures decrying the prejudice that tainted their trial. (In the interests of simplification, the author states that the accused “were poor immigrants and they opposed democracy,” when they were actually anarchists). Shahn’s rewarding experience working with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs employing artists enlightens readers about a time in American history, when offering the dignity of a paid job extended to painters, photographers, and journalists. Yet, when the political environment later changes, the FBI targets Shahn for alleged subversive activities. He remains unbowed when confronted by government agents who are depicted as grimacing monsters, their black suits and shiny badges boasting an authority that Shahn quietly rejects. He continues to speak out and to create works of art supporting civil rights, labor, and antiwar movements, earning the unofficial title of “the people’s painter.”
Evan Turk’s pictures are truly outstanding — subtle and dramatic at the same time. Readers unfamiliar with Shahn’s work will find them a point of entry, not a substitute for encounters with his paintings, murals, and posters. Those already acquainted with Shahn’s art, including adults sharing this book with children, will be amazed at Turk’s ability to synthesize two styles, Shahn’s and his own, in perfect balance. This picture book biography offers the opportunity to introduce a Jewish visual artist whose fidelity to principles of art and social justice gave the world works of great beauty and enduring relevance.
This highly recommended book includes informative notes by the author and illustrator, a timeline, and a detailed list of sources.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.