Review by Claudine Yip
Flying Paintings: The Zhou Brothers: A Story of Revolution and Art by Amy Alznauer, Illus. by ShanZuo Zhou and DaHuang Zhou
Candlewick Press (Penguin Random House), September 2020
48 pages, hardcover, $23.99 CAD, 978-1-5362-0428-5
Ages 5-9, Grades K–4
Picture Book, Non-Fiction, Biography
Who says real life can’t hold as many fantasies as fiction? A family of dreamers lies at the core of this biographical picture book. Flying Paintings recounts the early lives of Chinese artists and brothers ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou (known in the story as Shaoli and Shaoning, respectively). It depicts their childhood under the beginnings of the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, their struggles to pursue a fulfilling art career through young adulthood, and how they are eventually able to make a home for themselves in the U.S. as grown-ups. Flying Paintings is an ode to art and brotherhood.
The politics of artmaking in 1960s China is a tense subject to handle, especially for a picture book, but the brothers’ relationship and journey never stray from the foreground of the story. While fighting to create art distinct from the government-commissioned propaganda, Shaoli and Shaoning must also fight to find their way back to each other again and again. However, their dynamic is not without disagreement, and their cries of injustice over matters menial and not are relatable to anyone with siblings.
The bright and whimsical illustrations—painted by the Zhous themselves—provide an imaginative space to help readers explore the lives of the artists. Paired with a loving Po Po and her endless well of wisdom, Alznauer recreates an intergenerational bond that will have readers of any age yearn for more time with their own grandparents.
In the beginning of the story, repetition is used to emphasize how the world is made up of both beautiful and terrible things, like bookstores and bandits. Over the course of the book, this motif’s meaning transforms, and instead begins to offer readers the hope of a world where terrible things can become beautiful. What initially seems to be a child’s daydream can become a grown-up’s revitalized aspiration for the future. Painting the world in its array of potentials rather than maintaining the status quo is a tool that the Zhou brothers urge each other—and now the readers—to fulfill.
Combining history with a brush of fantasy, Flying Paintings is reminiscent of Francesca Sanna’s The Journey. Perhaps one of the most promising aspects of this story is that reaching the final page far from indicates the end of the Zhou brothers’ tale; rather, closing the book only creates the opportunity to find their influences in real life.
Claudine Yip is studying Creative Writing with an Art History minor at UBC. She is currently drafting her way through a YA contemporary novel and sporadically blogs about food as an excuse to post all the pictures she takes at bubble tea shops. Visit her at @cyieat on Instagram and @claudineyip on Twitter.