I love reading books with my kids, a bedtime story is part of my life in their world and I discover so much more than I would reading adult’s books. I expect anyone who has watched the BBC’s Horrible Histories series will know what I mean about the entertaining and informative world our children live in. In the last few months we’ve read some great Roald Dahl books – Matilda being my favourite, and also some Frank Cottrell-Boyce books. We’re towards the end of Cosmic at the moment and have Millions lined up to read, but I’m going to write about the previous book we read of his, called Framed.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger

I realize I’m not exactly at the forefront of the new releases here seeing as this one was published back in 2005, but I only just found this one in the library recently as it fits the kind of books my 10-year-old son likes to read/listen to. For me, it is a great discovery and my 6-year-old was also mesmerized by it. Seeing as it isn’t new to the shops there have been quite a few reviews on it and a BBC One series back in 2008. Philip Ardagh wrote a review in the Guardian (he of the magnificent beard featured in my very first post), and his review is obviously worth reading.

The book is set in the village of Manod, a fictitiously named village but based on the real life Blaenau Festiniog in Gwynedd, Wales. The story revolves around a boy named Dylan whose family own a struggling garage business at the end of the village under the mountain.The story of the evacuation of paintings from The National Gallery in London, to the slate mines to preserve them during flooding is based on the wartime evacuation of paintings to save them from being bombed during World War Two.

The real charm of this story for me was the way it featured nine paintings from The National Gallery collection as part of the tale, (see their page on the book on the National Gallery website) and the way Dylan and his family, and the people of Manod reacted to the paintings in a way that changed their lives. What excited me was that my kids wanted to see the images, so, in true modern fashion, the instant fix for this was to go on-line and find them on the National Gallery website. If we have the opportunity one day, a trip to London and the National Gallery would be a better solution of course! My kids were fascinated to look at the images on my laptop whilst reading about them in the story and so the book became multi-dimensional – a story and a learning process – but a fabulously exciting read too!

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck

There are nine images featured in the story, the following are a selection of them but they can be found on the National Gallery website (if I’m breaking © showing these then please tell me and I’ll remove them!). My daughter was particularly enamored of the description of the Wilton Diptych in the story – I think it is really interesting the way he writes about the images from the fresh perspective of a child with no prior knowledge of the image:

We set it up on Marie’s dressing table. It was pretty but random. We weren’t even sure it was a painting. Not like the other paintings. It was more like a very short picture book, with just two pages. On the left page there was a king, kneeling down with three other men, all with big long beards, standing behind him. On the other page there were a lot of women with wings and a tall woman in a blue dress, holding a baby. She looks like she’s about to chuck the baby over to the king. Some of the angels are looking up at her, sort of saying, ‘Go on, chuck him!’ And the king’s got his hands up to catch him, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to make much effort, though he does have these big goalie hands. Minnie said it was the Madonna again. She didn’t look anything like the other Madonna though. And if that’s Jesus’s mam, I feel sorry for Jesus being chucked round like that.

An Old Woman (the Ugly Duchess) by Quinten Massys
The Umbrellas by Pierre Auguste Renoir

Definitely worth reading whether you are 10, or much older, it would be good (if you could afford the costs, and get permission from The National Gallery) to have an edition of this with full color prints of all the paintings in it.

The title of this post is from a poem by Rudyard Kipling: The Conundrum of the Workshops. I thought I had better explain this as some may not know to what it is referring. Here’s one of the verses:

We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree to the shape of a surplice-peg,
We have learned to bottle our parents twain in the yolk of an addled egg,
We know that the tail must wag the dog, for the horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: “It’s clever, but is it Art ?”