The Magic Paintbrush by Julia Donaldson

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The Magic Paintbrush by Julia Donaldson

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Category: For Sharing
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: This book offers rhymed retelling of a traditional Chinese folk story perfect for reading aloud, with beautiful illustrations and strong message about greed and artistic responsibilities. Highly recommended for children aged 4 to about 9, and parents should enjoy it too.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 32 Date: February 2004
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books
ISBN: 0333964438

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If you have a child of pre-school or early school age it's likely you would have at least heard of Julia Donaldson, who, in her partnership with the illustrator Axel Scheffler has created several best-selling books for young children, including the most popular Gruffalo which spawned a true cult. Magic Paintbrush is also a Julia Donaldson's book, and it's also written in rhyme as most of her others, but it's not illustrated by Axel Scheffler and it's a different kind of book.

It is, however, a wonderful one and to be honest, I personally like it better than the other ones, though there isn't really much comparison to be made as their intentions and styles are different.

Magic Paintbrush retells an old folk story and does it well indeed. Shen, a girl from a poor Chinese village, draws pictures in the sand when send by her family to gather oysters for supper. A mysterious man gives her a magic paintbrush: everything painted with the brush will come to life. But the brush comes with a warning: she is never to paint for wealthy folk, and only for the poor. And so she does, painting first the supper for her family, and then things of necessity for the villagers. Eventually, the Emperor hears of her and her magic brush and orders her to paint him a tree growing coins. Shen refuses and is thrown into jail. Will she get out? Will she defend her village from the Emperor's wrath?

The story is told in rhyme, but it's not the couplet type of rhyme with slightly alternating repetitions encountered in Donaldson/Scheffler books; the Magic Paintbrush offers an altogether more epic story told in a more grown-up way.

I loved the rhyme, it felt very easy but not simplistic or childish; with fantastic rhythm and almost musical (singing?) quality to it. There is descriptive statements as well as rhetorical questions and answers, a bit of dialogue too, and all of it gets incorporated into the text without any straining, with the lightest touch. The illustrations are by Joel Stewart (he also illustrated Carol Ann Duffy's books for children Moon Zoo and Underwater Farmyard) and they are a perfect complement to the text: done in subtle but evocative watercolour and Indian Ink, finished on computer (no, I couldn't tell that, I looked it up on, with a definite Chinese touch. I really liked the illustrations, and though they don't have the cartoonish character and humour of the Scheffler ones, they have magical quality that is able to evoke the far-away and the long-ago as all proper fairy tale illustrations should. There is, however, enough detail and descriptiveness in the pictures to make them engaging even for a small child. The emotional expressions of most characters are variable and rendered very well, while Shen maintains a serene, semi-smiling countenance throughout. I loved the Emperor, the horses and the dragon!

I also like the attention paid to other aspects of the graphics: Chinese-looking pictographs in place of page numbers, simple, modern and very appealing font used to print the text, the lining of the covers made in brownish-red paper looking like the texture of the hand made paper might possibly look.

We bought this book when Katie was 2 years old and I think she was too young for it then, she would listen to it and look at pictures, but I don't think she had much of an understanding of the story. I would say that you could start around 3 years old and that pretty much every 5 year old would understand it well, while it would remain attractive to children up to at least 8-9 years old, maybe older? In fact, I liked it a lot myself!

It's not a book that will be read once or more every day for a period of short fascination, I think, it's more a book that will be read every so often when the child feels in the mood for it, but I think it has good lasting power - we have had it for three years now and it gets read regularly while not obsessively.

As most Donaldson's efforts, this one, despite being of a different style, also reads very well aloud. It's certainly one of the books I really like reading to Katie - one of the few I would read when most others seem too difficult, too boring, too repetitive or too well known. I think it should be read aloud, even to older children who can read themselves, as should be a lot (if not all) of good verse. It requires attention, though: you need to follow the rhythm which is always there, but not always that obvious. After a few lines you will fall in line with it, though, and after a few readings you will get the whole text right.

For a taster, just read out the below:

She paints a melon for a boy, A ladder for a man, A basket for a woman, And for a girl, a fan.

And soon the news spread far and wide And people stand in queues For blankets, boats and buffaloes, For hats and coats and shoes.

The story gives a lot to talk about: first, of course is the magic of the brush - what would you paint, and for whom? But there are also the moral messages: the simple ones regarding keeping one's promise (Shen does, even in the face of powerful and very scary emperor) and greed being a Bad Thing; but also higher-level ones, about artistic integrity perhaps and not selling out or being scared by the powerful. Artists' creative power comes with responsibilities, too.

All in all, excellent book, in fact my favourite Donaldson (though recent 'Snail and Whale' from the Scheffler/Donaldson partnership comes close second).

I can't find anything to fault in this book, though I would say that people who simply love the Scheffler illustrations and who generally prefer the pictures in their (their children's picture books) to be very colourful, not at all moody, very clear, cartoonish, funny and with a clear back story might not like them as much as I did. Have a look at at this picture and the following pictures to see if they are to your taste.

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Grooveecar said:

I went to see Julia Donaldson with my daughter's class last year and she read this book using a male teacher and children as characters out of the book. It really brought this book to life and I just love it and share it with all the nurseries I work in now.