Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Jackie and the Mona Lisa by Debbie Robin Murphy, illustrated by Jen Bricking

 Cheerful and colorful pictures tell the story of First Lady Jackie Kennedy and her love of art, which inspired her to bring a wide variety of artistic experiences to the White House and finally the most famous painting in the world - the Mona Lisa. After negotiations with the French government, she convinced them to lend the Mona Lisa to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In both places, floods of people gathered to see the famous picture and, as Jackie Kennedy had hoped, stayed to appreciate the beautiful art in the museums. An afterword talks about Jackie Kennedy's contributions to the art world and the history of the Mona Lisa.

The story is briefly and concisely told, starting with Jackie Kennedy's restoration of the White House and ending with her efforts to bring the arts to the American people. Jackie is shown as a youthful, smiling figure with her signature hair style and style of dress. The artists portrayed as visiting the White House are a diverse group, including a ballet troupe with a dark-skinned ballerina, and sprinkling many people of color among the museum and White House visitors.

Frankly, this picture book represents many of the issues I see with picture book biographies and history. It's obviously intended for a young audience and it's not realistic to include the entire, complex context of the time period in a picture book. I can understand that - I wouldn't expect it to talk about Kennedy's love affairs or delve deeply into the current turmoil of the Civil Rights era. But the consistent emphasis on Jackie Kennedy's desire to bring art to "all people" and the portrayal of diverse audiences and artists paints a false picture of the time period. There are no sources or references, but based on the research I did myself, there simply weren't any ballet troupes featuring a dark-skinned ballerina that would have visited the White House at this time. I found what I believe to be the reference picture, from a young artists series of events at the White House, and the ballerinas shown are all white - moreover, based on titles like Misty Copeland's Black Ballerinas, a ballerina with skin that dark did not exist at the time. I'm also skeptical of the art portraying Black people freely mixing with white people at the museum, in the White House, and as performers. The Civil Rights Act was several years in the future and Washington D. C. has a long and troubled history of segregation and prejudice. Could these pictures be accurate? It's possible. I don't know enough about the time period to know. But with no sources or identification of the artists pictured and no context or photographs of actual museum audiences, it's impossible to tell.

I think that if kids are too young to be taught the basics of the darker side of history, they aren't ready to learn about history period. In my opinion, it gives them a false foundation to pick out the lighter aspects and introduce kids to history without giving them the context for events and people. I contrast this title with Parks for the People, which also focuses on a public figure who wanted to benefit all people but does not gloss over the troublesome aspects of Olmsted's work, which involved displacing poor, Native, and Black people.

Verdict: If you have an audience for fluffy, feel-good biographies or want some supplemental material for the time period, this could fill that need, but in my opinion it should not stand alone and the lack of sources and misleading artwork make it a title I would be reluctant to purchase or add to our collection.

ISBN: 9781534111172; Published March 2022 by Sleeping Bear Press; Unsolicited review copy from publisher

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