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

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A lyrically told, exquisitely illustrated biography of influential Jewish artist and activist Ben Shahn “The first thing I can remember,” Ben said, “I drew.” As an observant child growing up in Lithuania, Ben Shahn yearns to draw everything he sees—and, after seeing his father banished by the Czar for demanding workers’ rights, he develops a keen sense of justice, too. So w A lyrically told, exquisitely illustrated biography of influential Jewish artist and activist Ben Shahn “The first thing I can remember,” Ben said, “I drew.” As an observant child growing up in Lithuania, Ben Shahn yearns to draw everything he sees—and, after seeing his father banished by the Czar for demanding workers’ rights, he develops a keen sense of justice, too. So when Ben and the rest of his family make their way to America, Ben brings both his sharp artistic eye and his desire to fight for what’s right. As he grows, he speaks for justice through his art—by disarming classmates who bully him because he’s Jewish, by defying his teachers’ insistence that he paint beautiful landscapes rather than true stories, by urging the US government to pass Depression-era laws to help people find food and jobs. In this moving and timely portrait, award-winning author Cynthia Levinson and illustrator Evan Turk honor an artist, immigrant, and activist whose work still resonates today: a true painter for the people.  


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A lyrically told, exquisitely illustrated biography of influential Jewish artist and activist Ben Shahn “The first thing I can remember,” Ben said, “I drew.” As an observant child growing up in Lithuania, Ben Shahn yearns to draw everything he sees—and, after seeing his father banished by the Czar for demanding workers’ rights, he develops a keen sense of justice, too. So w A lyrically told, exquisitely illustrated biography of influential Jewish artist and activist Ben Shahn “The first thing I can remember,” Ben said, “I drew.” As an observant child growing up in Lithuania, Ben Shahn yearns to draw everything he sees—and, after seeing his father banished by the Czar for demanding workers’ rights, he develops a keen sense of justice, too. So when Ben and the rest of his family make their way to America, Ben brings both his sharp artistic eye and his desire to fight for what’s right. As he grows, he speaks for justice through his art—by disarming classmates who bully him because he’s Jewish, by defying his teachers’ insistence that he paint beautiful landscapes rather than true stories, by urging the US government to pass Depression-era laws to help people find food and jobs. In this moving and timely portrait, award-winning author Cynthia Levinson and illustrator Evan Turk honor an artist, immigrant, and activist whose work still resonates today: a true painter for the people.  

30 review for The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ben Truong

    The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art is a children's picture book written by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Evan Turk. It centers on Ben Shahn, who melds art and protest perfectly. Ben Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American artist. He is best known for his works of social realism, his left-wing political views, and his series of lectures published as "The Shape of Content". Levinson's text is rather simplistic, straightforward, and informative. Levinson's smooth, well The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art is a children's picture book written by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Evan Turk. It centers on Ben Shahn, who melds art and protest perfectly. Ben Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American artist. He is best known for his works of social realism, his left-wing political views, and his series of lectures published as "The Shape of Content". Levinson's text is rather simplistic, straightforward, and informative. Levinson's smooth, well-researched narrative provides a comprehensive introduction to a justice-minded painter. Backmatter includes an author's note, an illustrator's note, a timeline, Yiddish glossary, and selected bibliography. Bold, richly layered multimedia illustrations by Turk feature abstracted characters in Shahn's style. The premise of the book is rather straightforward. This profile of Jewish artist and activist Ben Shahn, who emigrated from Lithuania to America in 1906, highlights the threads of compassion and social justice that ran through his work. Shahn learned of injustice early in his life, witnessing his father's banishment to Siberia for demanding fair pay for working people, and later experiencing anti-Semitism in America. Leaving school at age 14 to help support his family, Shahn attended art school at night while apprenticed to a lithographer. An unjust execution spurred Shahn's social realism paintings, attention to which resulted in the U.S. government hiring him to take photographs across America that revealed hard lives in troubled times. All in all, The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art is an engaging account of a life of an artist with a social conscience makes itself heard.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Deborah

    As a fan of Cynthia Levinson, Evan Turk, and Ben Shahn, I have been eagerly waiting to see this book. It surpassed my expectations. As she always does so well, Levinson finds a timeless and important theme in Shahn's story—as an immigrant/refugee who persisted in telling his own stories of social justice through his art. Evan Turk conveys drama and the spirit of Shahn in his gorgeous illustrations. It's a must-purchase for me, and hopefully for every school and library as well! As a fan of Cynthia Levinson, Evan Turk, and Ben Shahn, I have been eagerly waiting to see this book. It surpassed my expectations. As she always does so well, Levinson finds a timeless and important theme in Shahn's story—as an immigrant/refugee who persisted in telling his own stories of social justice through his art. Evan Turk conveys drama and the spirit of Shahn in his gorgeous illustrations. It's a must-purchase for me, and hopefully for every school and library as well!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mutually Inclusive

    This wonderful picture book biography details the life of Ben Shahn, a Jewish artist, immigrant, and activist who used his discerning sense of justice and artistic talent to bring awareness to social issues throughout his career – issues such as the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927, the struggles of rural Americans during the Great Depression, and much more. Beginning with his childhood in Lithuania, where Ben’s father was banished for demanding worker’s rights, The Peop This wonderful picture book biography details the life of Ben Shahn, a Jewish artist, immigrant, and activist who used his discerning sense of justice and artistic talent to bring awareness to social issues throughout his career – issues such as the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927, the struggles of rural Americans during the Great Depression, and much more. Beginning with his childhood in Lithuania, where Ben’s father was banished for demanding worker’s rights, The People’s Painter teaches young readers about Ben Shahn’s passion for justice. Following his immigration to America, we learn the ways Ben Shahn pushed back against his teachers’ ideas of art. The People’s Painter is not only educational, but a great resource to encourage children to expose injustice and stand up for marginalized communities the same way Ben Shahn did — by finding their voice and following it. The illustrations by Evan Turk feature bold expressive paintings, drawing parallels to Shahn’s work, creating the perfect backdrop for his story. Cynthia Levinson is the author of The Youngest Marcher and the winner of both the Crystal Kite and Carter G. Woodson awards. Please visit her website at cynthialevinson.com to learn more about her and her work. Evan Turk is an author, animator, and Ezra Jack Keats Book Award–winning illustrator. To learn more about him and his work, please visit his website at evanturk.squarespace.com. I would like to thank Abrams Books For Young Readers for providing me a copy of this wonderful book. I can’t think of a better title for World Art Day, and I’m so honored to share Ben Shahn’s story with you all today. Blog | Instagram | Facebook | Goodreads | Storygraph

  4. 5 out of 5

    Edward Sullivan

    An exceptionally written and illustrated picture book biography of the "social realist" artist. Levinson's accessible, thoughtfully crafted text is beautifully complemented with Evan Turk's bold, expressive, richly layered illustrations. An exceptionally written and illustrated picture book biography of the "social realist" artist. Levinson's accessible, thoughtfully crafted text is beautifully complemented with Evan Turk's bold, expressive, richly layered illustrations.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Paula

    This is just absolutely damn wonderful. The combo of Evan Turk and Ben Shahn had me poring over every page.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Abby Johnson

    I'm a huge fan of Evan Turk's art and I love the textures and colors in this book about an American artist I knew nothing about. I'm a huge fan of Evan Turk's art and I love the textures and colors in this book about an American artist I knew nothing about.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Clay

    My artist-husband and I poured over the gorgeous illustrations in this beautiful biographical book and sought out more information about and images from the artist. Highly recommended, though, ps the tightness of the type could use some attention in places for subsequent editions to help early and struggling readers.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    EARC provided by Edelweiss Plus This is my favorite type of biography: It tells about the life and work of someone "new to me", the artwork is unique and adds to the story, and it has back matter to provide additional details/context. Add this to your collection! EARC provided by Edelweiss Plus This is my favorite type of biography: It tells about the life and work of someone "new to me", the artwork is unique and adds to the story, and it has back matter to provide additional details/context. Add this to your collection!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    The idea that words, whether they be spoken or written, can have long-lasting influence and even change minds is one with which few would argue. But art also has had great impact on those who see it. This picture book uses striking illustrations, created with gouache, acrylics, pencil, chalk, and linoleum block prints to tell the story of an artist who defied conventional expectations about what was appropriate for artwork, instead using it to fight for justice. I'm ashamed to admit that I'd nev The idea that words, whether they be spoken or written, can have long-lasting influence and even change minds is one with which few would argue. But art also has had great impact on those who see it. This picture book uses striking illustrations, created with gouache, acrylics, pencil, chalk, and linoleum block prints to tell the story of an artist who defied conventional expectations about what was appropriate for artwork, instead using it to fight for justice. I'm ashamed to admit that I'd never heard of Ben Shahn until I read this well-written picture book biography, but now that I have, I am filled with admiration. In the hands of the capable Cynthia Levinson, his story is shaped with respect and awareness of the book's audience. Details about his formative years as a Jew in Lithuania, including how he drew sketches in the margins of books because his family couldn't afford drawing paper or how he questioned unfair practices even his religious studies class, may resonate with young readers and perhaps kindle a growing awareness of justice and inequities in their own consciousness. Having seen his father punished for advocating for fair pay for workers, Ben was keenly aware of the injustices of the world, a knowledge that only increased once his family immigrated to the United States and lived in substandard housing. Even in his family, Ben's dreams of becoming an artist were dampened when he was forced to work rather than finish high school and attend college. After several detours and frustration over art instructors who insisted than artists should paint landscapes, Ben created 23 paintings inspired by the trial and execution of two Italian American men, falsely accused and convicted of murder, pictures that depicted parts of the immigration experience. He went on to draw and photograph poverty in the United States, moments in the civil rights movement, antiwar protests, and fights for unionization. In a mark of how dangerous his work was considered, Ben was even investigated as part of the House's Un-American Activities Committee, the Congressional witch hunt in the 1950s. Having finished this book, I am now determined to learn more about this social justice warrior. There is an excellent Author's Note in the back matter that provides more information about Ben and the author's research as well as a photograph of the subject. An Illustrator's Note, a Timeline with events in Ben's life alongside what was happening in the United States and globally, Source Notes, and a Bibliography round out the back matter. This is an important addition to any classroom collection of artists, groundbreakers or individuals who made a difference. While it might seem obvious that art can be political, that wasn't always the case. Ben Shahn is one of the individuals who changed the minds of onlookers about art.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tasha

    Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania and at age four saw his father taken banished for demanding workers’ rights. From a very young age, Ben drew, even though paper was scarce in Lithuania, so he drew in the margins. When his father ends up in America, he brings Ben, his mother and his brother to join him. Ben goes to school, learning a new alphabet instead of the Hebrew one that he learned in Lithuania. He is soon identified as a promising young artist at school, but his family must send him to work Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania and at age four saw his father taken banished for demanding workers’ rights. From a very young age, Ben drew, even though paper was scarce in Lithuania, so he drew in the margins. When his father ends up in America, he brings Ben, his mother and his brother to join him. Ben goes to school, learning a new alphabet instead of the Hebrew one that he learned in Lithuania. He is soon identified as a promising young artist at school, but his family must send him to work in order to survive. Ben works for a lithographer, hand-lettering signs while going to art school at night. But art school isn’t what he is looking for. They teach landscapes rather than the people and stories that Ben wants to paint. Inspired by stories of injustice, Ben painted about current events, creating series of paintings that while not pretty were inspiring. He went on to document the Great Depression using photography, hired by the government several times as an artist. Ben continued to paint the people who were invisible to others. Levinson captures the story of Shahn’s life with a focus on what drove him to create art, linking it to tragedies in his homeland and his family. Her writing is full of admiration for his hard work and insistence that he paint what he wanted to rather than what he was being told to do. His belief in sharing the stories of those less fortunate shines in her words, revealed by her stellar writing that is both clear and also evocative. Turk’s art pays homage to Shahn’s throughout the book. Made with gouache, acrylic, pencil, chalk and linoleum block prints, the illustrations are textured and layered. They include versions of some of Shahn’s most iconic works. Turk’s use of bold color, deep shadow and light create a marvelous background for Shahn’s life story. A great picture book biography that speaks to the intersection of art and political statement. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    I don't envy the task of the illustrator for a children's book about an artist. The pictures need to echo the style of the portrayed artist, without copying exactly. The illustrator talks a bit about how he approached this task in the illustrator's note. What I would have liked in this heavily illustrated biography is examples of Shahn's actual works in the back matter. Since Shahn's paintings were so reactive to then current events, the timeline in the back matter wisely includes both events in I don't envy the task of the illustrator for a children's book about an artist. The pictures need to echo the style of the portrayed artist, without copying exactly. The illustrator talks a bit about how he approached this task in the illustrator's note. What I would have liked in this heavily illustrated biography is examples of Shahn's actual works in the back matter. Since Shahn's paintings were so reactive to then current events, the timeline in the back matter wisely includes both events in his life, and also relevant world events.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kimi Loughlin

    The illustrations in this book are GORGEOUS! And the story was great too. However, I felt like the actual font and the text didn't meet the same level as the illustrations so it felt a little disjointed. It also didn't really feel like a children's picture book... but was great for me, an adult, to learn a little about an artist who's come in and out of my life without really realizing it - I had deeply studied Shahn's Saco and Vanzetti painting in history class but had never known Shahn's other The illustrations in this book are GORGEOUS! And the story was great too. However, I felt like the actual font and the text didn't meet the same level as the illustrations so it felt a little disjointed. It also didn't really feel like a children's picture book... but was great for me, an adult, to learn a little about an artist who's come in and out of my life without really realizing it - I had deeply studied Shahn's Saco and Vanzetti painting in history class but had never known Shahn's other work and history.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Susan Schipper

    The People's painter is a must read. This story traces Ben Shahn's life and accomplishments from his birth in Lithuania to his family 's immigration to America. His strength and courage are keenly depicted throughout this tale. Ben used his skills as an artist to fight for social justice! Evan Turks brilliant illustrations add to this story! The People's painter is a must read. This story traces Ben Shahn's life and accomplishments from his birth in Lithuania to his family 's immigration to America. His strength and courage are keenly depicted throughout this tale. Ben used his skills as an artist to fight for social justice! Evan Turks brilliant illustrations add to this story!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Margie

    Our view of the world, at a personal, local, state, national, and global level, is determined by more than one thing. We are shaped by the people who are our family, our closest friends, our colleagues and even those who wish us harm. We respond to small and large events and those things which register in our minds subconsciously. As whole people, we are comprised of many parts and their particular influences. When we look back at our lives, we can see this is true. When we are presented with the Our view of the world, at a personal, local, state, national, and global level, is determined by more than one thing. We are shaped by the people who are our family, our closest friends, our colleagues and even those who wish us harm. We respond to small and large events and those things which register in our minds subconsciously. As whole people, we are comprised of many parts and their particular influences. When we look back at our lives, we can see this is true. When we are presented with the facts of prominent people's lives, we understand why they took the direction they did. The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought For Justice With Art (Abrams Books for Young Readers, April 20, 2021) written by Cynthia Levinson with pictures by Evan Turk is a luminous exploration in words and art of a man who urged others through his creativity to look around and to make what they saw wrong, right. My full recommendation: https://librariansquest.blogspot.com/...

  15. 4 out of 5

    Pam

    Well done biography by Levinson. She introduces younger readers to Ben Shahn, his art, and his commitment to justice and fighting for equality. The text is simple to follow and still captures the essence of his spirit. The illustrations are representative of the art styles he pursued during his lifetime. Further informative text included at the end of the book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Peacegal

    Inspiring and insightful, this book reminds us that art doesn't have to be passive and pretty--art can speak as loudly as a shout in protesting injustice and calling for change. Adults may learn as much as the kids reading this! Inspiring and insightful, this book reminds us that art doesn't have to be passive and pretty--art can speak as loudly as a shout in protesting injustice and calling for change. Adults may learn as much as the kids reading this!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Katelynne

    Loved the art. Would’ve loved to see his art/photos.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mikaela Bichara

    Great job author, I really like your writing style. I suggest you join NovelStar’s writing competition, you might be their next big star.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Pinky

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. The story of Ben Shahn and how he became the people's painter. The story of Ben Shahn and how he became the people's painter.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Marjorie Ingall

    Absolutely stunning.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kim

    Columbus, OH native, Cynthia Levinson, provides an introduction of Ben Shahn to kids (and to be honest this adult) Left me wanting to learn more. Illustrated by Evan Turk in the style of Mr. Shahn

  22. 5 out of 5

    Andréa

    Note: I accessed a digital review copy of this book through Edelweiss.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Shoshanna

    Beautiful and inspiring!!!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    An introduction to the artist Ben Shahn.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Chrissy

    Nicely illustrated, excellent introduction to an artist I didn't know about, with the appropriate amount of information and perspective for children. Nicely illustrated, excellent introduction to an artist I didn't know about, with the appropriate amount of information and perspective for children.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Brenda Kahn

    Interesting and inspiring picture book biography of yet another new-to-me artist. Gorgeously illustrated!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Beverly

    Reading for the Mock Caldecott Awards to be held in January 2022. Fascinating book about an American painter that I've never heard of. Having suffered from injustice in his homeland, once he moved to America he painted the plight of the struggling poor. Reading for the Mock Caldecott Awards to be held in January 2022. Fascinating book about an American painter that I've never heard of. Having suffered from injustice in his homeland, once he moved to America he painted the plight of the struggling poor.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Manny

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

  30. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Lindstrom

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