It’s a wonderful time for picture books about little known or almost forgotten African American heroes and heroines — and not just because Black History Month is coming. It’s because people have begun to yearn for a more thorough account of the “whole story of the black experience.” This means that in addition to welcoming stories about slavery and reconstruction, people also yearn for more stories about talent, genius, perseverance, and success.

Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring, by Nancy Churnin, is one of those stories. It is the true, beautifully-illustrated tale of art prodigy Laura Wheeler, who adores the light, dark and honey-tinged shades of brown in her parents, her siblings, and even in her own reflection in the mirror. She loves these colors so much that these “shades of brown” inspire her to create an amazing body of work that survives to this day.

The book opens with Laura musing over all the browns in the world. Obsessed with “browns,” Laura persuades siblings and relatives to sit for her, and then she hangs their lovely portraits in her room, turning it into a sort of art gallery for everyone to appreciate.

Of course, an immense talent like Laura’s could never be confined to a simple bedroom. In high school, she is admitted to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and from there, she goes to Paris to learn from the best. She hones her talents with bold and beautiful strokes of brown, and when she returns home to Philadelphia, she is ready to take her skills to the next level. When she happens to hear teenager Marian Anderson singing at a local baptist church, Laura knows just what that “next level” will be: She is going to paint Marian Anderson one day.

And one day it happens: The Harmon Foundation asks Laura to help them build a collection of portraits of important African Americans. Laura says YES, and not only does she get to meet amazing African American personalities, she also gets to paint her heroine, singer Marian Anderson.

Beautiful shades of Brown is a lovely book about talent, dreams, and working past obstacles to find success. Although Laura Wheeler lived during segregation and blatant racial discrimination, she did not allow the rules of the day (namely, that an African American artist’s paintings would never hang in a white art gallery) to stop her from perfecting her talent and pursuing her dreams. The book is a confirmation to contemporary students with talents, plans and dreams that they should hold on to their desires and keep pushing forward, no matter how many obstacles they face.

Ms. Churning’s prose is sweet and simplistic, and readers feel they are experimenting with talent and finding success right along with young Laura Wheeler. Artist Felicia Marshall works just as much magic with her beautiful shades of brown as the MC, Laura Wheeler. She captures expressions of love, admiration, pride and appreciation, and she accentuates each emotion with her own lovely shades of brown.

Use this book to open discussions about artistic talent, entrepreneurism, childhood genius, historical mindsets, and/or vocational planning. Enjoy!

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