Review of The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art

The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art
by Cynthia Levinson; illus. by Evan Turk
Primary, Intermediate    Abrams    48 pp.    g
4/21    978-1-4197-4130-2    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-64700-320-3    $15.54

Ben Shahn (1898–1969) was known as “the people’s painter” because his art told real stories about real people. Levinson and Turk here team up to tell Shahn’s own story, from his Jewish family’s emigration from Lithuania to the U.S. when he was a child, to his teenage years (lithographer by day, art student by night), to his fame as an artist who would “portray stories of people clamoring for their rights. Civil rights activists. Workers demanding fair pay. Political protesters. Advocates for peace.” From an early age Ben was passionate about calling out injustice — after his father was imprisoned for speaking out in favor of worker’s rights, Ben “marched up to the sentry at the end of the street and shouted, ‘Down with the Czar!’” He also loved to create art and used his work to tell stories, despite his teachers’ insistence that “pictures should be beautiful — not real life.” Through the years, Ben ignored this dictum and made a name for himself with his social realist art, which brought him a wide audience. Levinson skillfully shows the artist’s relatable qualities, such as when young Ben refuses to name names after a classroom prank (“I’m not going to tell who did it…and I’m not going to pay for something I didn’t do”). Her celebratory text is well complemented by Turk’s strong and distinctively bold, colorful mixed-media art. Turk uses forced perspective to show Ben standing up to injustice despite his diminutive size, while hands feature in nearly every spread — fists raised in resistance, palms opened upwards in plea, fingers clasped together in farewell — further heightening emotional impact. A Yiddish glossary and pronunciation guide, author and illustrator notes, a timeline, a selected bibliography, and source notes round out this excellent picture-book biography.

From the July/August 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Sam Bloom

Sam Bloom is a programming librarian at the Covington Branch of the Kenton County Public Library in northern Kentucky.

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