One-Minute Book Reviews

July 14, 2007

Art Imitates Life in Jon Agee’s Witty ‘The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:57 am
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A French artist is hailed as a genius after his painting of a duck quacks in an acclaimed picture book for preschoolers

The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau. By Jon Agee, 32 pp., $6.95, paperback. Ages: 4-8. [See further discussion of ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

How can you beat the alpine cost of children’s picture books? A new 32-page hardcover typically costs about $16 or 50 cents per page. At that rate, your favorite 300-page adult bestseller would cost $150.

Of course, the comparison isn’t entirely fair. Picture books have more illustrations than most adult bestsellers, which drives up the cost. And children may read them over and over. On a cost-per-use basis, a lot of those $16 picture books look like a steal next to the latest novel by Mitch Albom or Danielle Steel.

The catch is that you can’t be sure which books a child will want to read more than once. And a good way to hedge your bets is to look for wonderful picture books that are old enough to have a) come out in paperback and b) shown again and again that they can delight children even if they haven’t attained the status of “classics.”

A case in point is The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, a 32-page book with more drama than some novels. The judges at a 19th-century French exhibition ridicule a humble painting of a duck by an obscure artist named Felix Clousseau until the picture quacks. Then the world proclaims Clousseau “a genius.” But fate reverses again itself when strange things happen to some of his other paintings, like his pictures of boa constrictor and a cannon. Will Clousseau have to spend his life in jail to satisfy a public as outraged as a mob at the Bastille?

Jon Agee heightens the drama of this story with a smoky color palette that befits the grimy look of even the most beautiful cities in the days before electricity and central heating. And without ever saying so directly, he reminds that paintings once had the quality that movies and television have today – that of seeming more real than life.

Best line/picture: The last illustration shows Clousseau walking away, having stepped into one of his pictures. This reverses the pattern in the rest of the book – when creatures emerge from paintings – and is a great twist ending.

Worst line/picture: None.

Recommendation? The publisher recommends this book, appropriately, for ages 3 and up. But in one scene a thief climbs into room after dark. So I’d read it only to a child who has passed the stage of being afraid of shiny-eyed monsters under the bed.

Furthermore: The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau was an American Library Association Notable Book and one of the New York Times’s Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 1988.

Published: First edition: 1988

Links: You can learn more about this book and others by Agee at Agree has also written several terrific books of palindromes for ages 9 and up.

One-Minute Book Reviews was created by Janice Harayda, who has been a book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears on the site every Saturday. Please visit for information about the author’s comic novels.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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