When I Draw a Panda – written & illustrated by Amy June Bates

     When I Draw a Panda – written & illustrated by Amy June Bates, Simon & Schuster, 9781481451482, 2020 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: Hardcover

What did you like about the book?  A little girl looks at a giant black wall in her bedroom and announces “I love to draw.” Everything in her room (a doll house, some toy cars, an umbrella, a toy dinosaur) is hand drawn by our protagonist with childish earnestness, but with some obvious raw talent. What she doesn’t like is when “they” tell her how to draw. Although her first drawings (a bike, an ice cream cone) are a bit wobbly, she soon draws a series of simple circles that morph into an enormous friendly panda who joins in the artistic fun, coming to life in full ursine wonder. The dark wall becomes a huge canvas for them to create together, and Bates’ beautiful scribbly drawings in pastel, gouache, and colored pencil really recall an artist’s sketchbook, with the little girl in many various sitting, dancing, and standing poses. We’re always clear on which is the little girl’s art (a simple brontosaurus sporting a unicorn horn, for example) and which is Bate’s (the relaxed and playful girl and bear, the indulgent dad who peeks in as she plays and draws). Playful end papers feature by-the-book, straight-laced instructions for making a perfect princess or castle (in the beginning) and the same instructions at the end, but this time covered with wild, colorful swirls of crayons. The little girl and her dad have light-colored skin and black hair done up in a messy topknot, and her baggy overalls clearly telegraph that this girl is ready for the mess of artistic creation. A paean to the joy of coloring outside the lines.

Anything you didn’t like about it? I wasn’t crazy about the device of the straw men “they” who keep insisting that everything has to be perfect or drawn “this way.” Do a lot of children get told in art classes these days that they have to draw everything a certain way? In my time in elementary schools, I haven’t seen many teachers who harken back to the bad old days when everyone had to cut out the same shapes, assemble a brown bunny, and glue a cotton ball on to its bottom. On the other side, there is plenty to be learned about how to master basics such as perspective or shading, how to use various mediums, or even how to reflect on your own work after receiving feedback.  

To whom would you recommend this book?  Budding artists and iconoclasts. Art teachers could use this in a lesson about finding joy in self-expression and the dangers of conventional thinking. The large and lush illustrations and sparse text would make for a great read aloud.

Who should buy this book? Elementary and public libraries.

Where would you shelve it? Picture books

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: January 27, 2021

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