Alibi V.23 No.16 • April 17-23, 2014 

Book Review

Color Me Curious

The Color Book

Tara Books

I love, in principle, any book about color. Probably because I can’t seem to break my own color habit. Wouldn’t you know, I’ve made various stabs throughout my life to hone a sophisticated wardrobe in a palette of neutrals, but I pretty much always backslide into purple paisley dresses and emerald green ballet flats. My home décor isn’t much saner, but this is no deliberate aesthetic—color just interests me and I find myself, as if by accident, surrounded by rainbow shades.

So I can appreciate what Sophie Benini Pietromarchi is trying to do in The Color Book. Her attempt to awaken that love of the visible spectrum in pre-teens (and older readers who haven’t outgrown a nice picture book with lots of vivid spreads to mull over) exudes a certain charisma. Pietromarchi's techniques for awaking artistry are varied. There’s imaginative association—“The BLACK LION is strong and elegant. He roars in a dark storm, and when he yawns, you can see the stars in his maw. He loves caves, vases and the depths of the sea.” She shares her palpable delight in color names (Prussian blue, pearl gray, saffron, burnt umber) and juxtaposes colors with sensation and physical objects in engaging ways (“Blue can have the smell of salt, just like you hear the sea in a shell. Pink can have the taste of sugar. Red is like touching a hot iron”). Most helpfully, she encourages practical experimentation—readers can construct their own expandable color book with paper, ribbon and cardboard; they can paint a portrait of their own paintbox (meta!); and there's even an exercise involving neat “little idea pouches” of colorful items that can then be placed in the highly personalized color book. And Pietromarchi talks specifically about how to achieve desired shades and effects in paint, which is helpful for anyone who wants to do more than think about color in abstract terms.

Yes, this is yellow.
Yes, this is yellow.

But The Color Book suffers from a few odd issues. That black lion I told you about? Well, there's a picture of him, and he ain't black—he's outlined in black, sure, but definitely white. Elsewhere, Pietromarchi waxes poetically about the color yellow (“Take this yellow. To me, it is a very full yellow, like it has something darker inside, something almost ancient like an old deep yolk”). Just one problem—the double-page spread on which it appears is incontrovertibly orange. (And there's plenty of correctly identified yellow elsewhere, so it doesn't seem to be a printing issue.) The Color Book is grounded in an overarching metaphor Pietromarchi dubs “the color dance,” except that there's nothing dance-like about it and it never seems to resolve into anything that makes real sense. Most curiously, the author insists at the outset, “Color speaks for itself better than words can – you can 'feel' color, and it goes straight into your heart.” But then she spends over 140 pages contradicting herself, because this is a fairly wordy book that meanders down quite a few tangents.

Despite these various disconnects, The Color Book is an appealing guide for the right kind of child (or childlike) artist—one who's a free spirit and not too nitpicky. It's a volume that rewards nonlinear reading and thought, one that spurs rampant exploration. The pages are so varied that it's impossible not to flip through them and begin to daydream about the enormous colorful world humming around us in all its irresistible complexity.