Review: Elisabeth and the Box of Colours by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb

Illustration by Rebecca Cobb, to be published on 3rd February 2022 by Barrington Stoke

The latest title from the Little Gems series by Barrington Stoke, designed in super readable format for individuals beginning their reading journey is a delightful read, based on the true story of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and written by one of my favourite children’s book authors, Katherine Woodfine. I have lost count of the number of times that I have praised Barrington Stoke books on my blog, for their remarkable record of serving up truly engaging books which appeal to all readers, but are especially accessible to those for whom reading does not come easily. As an individual with close family members who are dyslexic, I will never tire of banging the drum for these books.

As for Elisabeth and the Box of Colours, it is a book which will appeal to a broad audience, written with real heart by Katherine Woodfine, and sumptuously illustrated throughout in full colour by Rebecca Cobb. The first part of the book is written as a story, whilst the latter part presents a short biography of the famous portrait painter and points out where some artistic licence was taken during the story. 

The opening page transports you right into the heart of a happy family, positively brimming with energy and laughter. Papa is dancing with the young daughter whilst Mama is joining in the gaiety with a toddler riding on her shoulders. The illustration is a riot of jewel colours; Papa wears an azure coat splattered with multi-coloured paint, the daughter wears jade, Mama is in coral and the toddler wears emerald. You know that you are entering a world in which colour, joy and art are celebrated. Time in this tall, elegant Parisian house seems to pass pleasantly, with Papa painting in the studio on the top floor and Elisabeth sharing his studio space and his artist materials and painting everything that she sees.

But then, suddenly the colour drains from the pictures as Elisabeth is sent to boarding school on the other side of Paris, and the crayons that Papa carefully packed for her, are confiscated by her new teacher. The illustrations in this part of the book reveal the depression experienced by Elisabeth so brilliantly, as well as the lift she gets from the natural world when the grey pictures are enlivened by small splashes of colour. My favourite page is one which depicts Elisabeth drawing for her classmates in the glowing light of a candle in their dormitory. It is so beautifully rendered that I could almost feel the warm glow from the flame, which for me symbolised the warmth of companionship. After tragedy strikes her family, Elisabeth can only remove the grey fog of grief by remembering the colours that defined her Papa. Katherine Woodfine’s delicate writing, using simple but emotionally sensitive vocabulary, helps readers to recognise that however grey life might become, colour will always return.

After the moving story, I found the brief biographical details at the end of the book absolutely fascinating. I have to admit that I had never heard of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun before reading this book, despite the fact that she was one of the few members of the French Royal Academy and has artworks on display in many museums and art galleries. It is even possible that I have looked at some of the portraits that she painted of Marie-Antionette and never noted her name. This is one of the absolute joys of great children’s books; they provide enlightenment for ALL readers. I highly recommend Elisabeth and the Box of Colours for all readers of 8+.

I am grateful to NetGalley and Barrington Stoke for allowing me to access an electronic proof prior to publication on 3rd February 2022.

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