Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Splash of Red: the life and art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant

A Splash of Red: the life and art of Horace Pippin

Written by Jen Bryant; Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Knopf. 2013
ISBN: 9780375867125
All ages
I used a copy checked out from my local public library for this review.

It's snowing, again, here in Maine. Everywhere I look it is white…white…white. 

How perfect, then, to read A Splash of Red. The team that gave us A River of Words: the story of William Carlos Williams (Caldecott honor, 2009) has again paired up to write this beautiful and inspiring story about a man who had lost the use of his right arm, his drawing arm, but through sheer determination he overcomes his injury to draw and paint again.

Horace Pippin, a self-taught American artist, was born on February 22, 1888, in the town of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Horace grew fast -- so fast that his mother could barely keep up with the mending. "He’ll be a giant someday,” the neighbors would say. Grandma Pippin smiled at Horace’s long legs and big hands. She figured the neighbors were right. 

Though Horace had to work hard helping his family by fetching flour for his mother, sorting laundry, holding the milk delivery horse, or playing with his baby brother, in the evenings Horace always took time to sketch out what he’d seen that day. Using scrapes of paper and charcoal, Horace loved to draw. He loved the feel of the charcoal as it slid across the floor. He loved looking at something in the room and making it come alive again in front of him. He loved thinking about a friend or a pet, then drawing them from the picture in his mind.

The book traces the major turning points in Pippin’s life. Though he worked, he continued to draw until, while fighting in World War I, a bullet badly damaged his right arm. When it healed, he couldn’t lift or move it the way he used to. Now, when someone said, “Make a picture for us, Horace!”...Horace could not. Yet, he continued to make picture in his head. And then one evening, With his left hand, he grasped his right wrist. He thrust the poker into the flames until it glowed red-hot. Using his good arm to move the hurt one, he scorched lines into wood. Horace, with much patience and determination, began to draw again.  

The magnificent Maine artist Melissa Sweet, using her signature style of mixing illustration rendered in watercolor, gouache, with collage art are perfect companions for Bryant’s text. Together, they create a tone of light and joy. In her illustrator’s note, Sweet explains how she made the art supplies Pippin won in the contest, I re-created the brushes and pencils, which I carved from basswood and painted to look as realistic as the ones Horace might have received. I learned, too, that once he got those art supplies, Pippin used them to make small oval paintings on muslin of Bible scenes. I’ve imagined one of those paintings on the title page.

A Splash of Red is a wonderful example of quality nonfiction. The text is accessible, factual, and lists resources for more information: books, films, and websites for further reading. Sprinkled throughout the book are quotes from Pippin and Sweet lists her sources.

This is a beautiful, inspiring book; an introduction to an important American artist. Perfect for all libraries.

Visit the website set up for this book that has a lots of great stuff, including a book trailer. 

Also visit Sweet’s website...Don’t you love the quote! and Jen Bryant’s website.


  1. I'll be looking for this one at my library...

  2. Hey guys! Louise, this is a great review of a wonderful book... but I don't think it's the best book Melissa Sweet has illustrated this year. That would be Brave Girl, which I believe is perhaps the strongest picture book/bio so far this year. Any chance of a review?