Learning to Look Beyond What You Think You See: How Middle Grade Fiction Can Entice Children to Explore the World Around Them

I’m thrilled to be visiting MG Book Village on the birthday of my latest novel, The Frame-Up, which is my love letter to art and art galleries/museums!

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As children, we are born with the love of creation. Sadly, for many of us, this unfettered joy gives way to abandonment when we realize that some of us have natural talent and some of us do not. Often, this feeling is only exaggerated by visits to where real art hangs. We wander gallery after gallery, seeing, but not seeing.

I’ve always loved art, though I didn’t always have a vocabulary to express why or how I was drawn to certain pieces of art. And if I am being truthful, at a certain point in my life, I sometimes felt intimidated when I visited art galleries, especially smaller ones, afraid I wouldn’t say or think the “right” thing. Because when I looked at the paintings or sculptures, I was imagining all kinds of things, none of which involved who the artist was or whether the medium was oil or watercolor or mixed media. I was imagining stories.

How to bring the love of art alive? I pondered this very question in the fall of 2015, sitting in my living room. I’m fortunate: I have artist friends, my great-grandmother was an amateur painter, and I have collected some nice pieces over the years. And I was always drawn to stories and movies that feature art: The Portrait of Dorian Gray, creepy movies where the eyes in the portrait follow the hapless victim from room to room, and of course, Harry Potter, where the paintings have lives of their own behind the frame. As I stared at an old oil painting of a cow on my wall, I wondered if it ever wandered over into the other paintings in my house. Were there brouhahas when I left the room or went to bed at night?

And then it hit me: what if all original art is alive, infused with the creative energy of their creators, and they don’t want us to know?

Much as I love the artwork in my home, I knew it wasn’t the proper setting for my book. But there was a place only a few miles away filled with world-class art who were just dying to share their stories: The Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. From there it was simply a matter of “casting” my characters from paintings and developing a compelling story of two worlds — one behind the frame, one in front of it — that exist side-by-side but can never intersect, at least not physically.

In the story, the gallery director’s son, an appropriately named Sargent Singer, discovers the secret of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery when he catches the book’s heroine, Mona Dunn, sticking out her tongue at a couple of obnoxious visitors. Add in some kids attending summer camp, a creepy art restorer, and a fractured father-son relationship, and I had my story.

But central to that story was encouraging children to look at art differently. In the book, the campers don’t just look at the art on the walls; they create copies using different mediums: crayons, graphic novels, collage. And readers get to step into the world behind the frame, encouraged to imagine what it was like the day the portrait or landscape was created, what’s been happening since, and the results of the artist’s choices (one can’t help but be sympathetic to the sketch of W. Somerset Maugham’s head in the story, forever dependent on the kindness of the gallery’s other residents to get him out and about.)

I also loved the idea of setting the book in a real place. Starting in June, people visiting The Beaverbrook Art Gallery can actually take The Frame-Up tour and see the characters in the book for themselves! And those who can’t go in person can visit the gallery virtually if they want to learn more about the paintings (after they’ve looked at the full color insert Greenwillow Books included in the novel!). If they visit the Beaverbrook, they’ll discover that the Mona Dunn portrait is every bit as mysterious and glorious as the Mona Lisa, which is why we’ve come up with #TheOtherMona.

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Mona Dunn, William Orpen, 1915, Oil on Canvas

One of my favourite things is when middle grade novels are set in real places that I can visit afterwards: The Anne of Green Gables House on Prince Edward Island, The Metropolitan Museum of Art after Percy Jackson, Betsy and Tacy’s houses in Mankato, Minnesota, Harriet the Spy’s house on the Upper East side of New York City, or all the locations in Michael Scott’s Alchemist books, for example. And if the reader can’t visit them in person, they can research them online.

But readers of The Frame-Up don’t have to travel to New Brunswick to experience art. My hope is that when they finish the book, they’ll ask their parents and teachers to take them to their local art galleries or museums. And when they do, I hope they stop and stare and wonder, just like I do. And realize that when you start to think of paintings as living things, they’ll come alive for you.

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Wendy McLeod MacKnight grew up in a small town and wrote her first novel at age nine. Her first middle grade novel, It’s a Mystery, Pig Face! was published by Sky Pony Press in 2017. She’s been known to wander through art galleries and converse with the paintings — mostly in her head, though sometimes not. She lives in New Brunswick, Canada with her husband, and feeds raccoons, even though she knows she shouldn’t!

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