Little Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog Review

Little Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog
Story by Nicholas B.A. Nicholson, Paintings by Cynthia Von Buhler
Viking, Feb., 1998.
Picture Book, 29 pages.
ISBN: 0670871834.
Ordering information:

Cover of Little Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog
Story by Nicholas B.A. Nicholson, Paintings by Cynthia Von Buhler Once upon a time there was a very lively little girl. Everyone in her family was always very busy and didn't have time to play with the very lively little girl. Her father was very busy in his office paying bills so he sent her to her mother. Her mother was very busy in the parlor entertaining ladies so she sent her to her brothers. Her brothers, Ezekial and Benjamin and Joseph and Obadiah, were very busy cutting wood so they sent her to her sisters. Her sisters, Rebecca and Sarah and Esther, were very busy with their needlework, so they sent her to the cook. The cook, Mrs. Tucker was so busy that she didn't even have time to tell the very lively little girl to go anywhere at all, so the very lively little girl ran around mostly with Cat and Dog. She looked out her fan shaped window and waited to grow up or for something exciting to happen.

Something exciting happened that very night. Mr. Ammi Phillips, an itinerant painter, came to their house. He wanted to paint the whole family. Everyone was too busy, but the very lively little girl hollered out I'll do it! And Cat and Dog, too. Her parents smiled and nodded.

The next day, the very lively little girl and Cat and Dog sat in the parlor and Mr. Phillips started painting. Now remember, she was a very lively little girl and sitting very still was very hard. As usual, her mother was entertaining in the parlor, but this time, all the ladies exclaimed "Oh, how darling she is!" They gave her and Mr. Phillips cherry tarts, and they stayed with the ladies all afternoon. Hmmm. Sitting still wasn't so difficult after all.

The next day, the very lively little girl and Mr. Phillips went outside to paint in the sun. That looks like fun, said her brothers and they let her break the twigs off their logs all afternoon. Hmmm. Standing still wasn't so bad after all, either.

The day after that, the very lively little girl's sisters came to watch. Sarah let her wear her lace pantalettes, and Rebecca let her wear her favorite red dress, and Esther let her wear her coral beads. And Mr. Phillips painted while the big girls taught the very lively little girl how to sew! Hmmm. Sitting still was turning out to be pretty wonderful after all.

The next day, Mr. Phillips had to put the finishing touches on the painting, so Mrs. Tucker let the very lively little girl stir the soup. That night, when it was time for dinner, the painting of the Little Girl in the Red Dress with Cat and Dog was hanging over the fireplace. Everyone clapped. The very lively little girl told Mr. Phillips that she would miss him very much, and after supper, he said good-bye and left.

Many years later, the very lively little girl now all grown up still thought about Mr. Ammi Phillips. She found out that there were more portraits of little girls in red dresses like hers. But she liked to think that it was because Mr. Phillips missed her, too.

Once upon a time, there really was a Mr. Ammi Phillips, a self-taught painter, who traveled around northern New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts offering to paint pictures of the families who lived in that area. The painting Portrait of a Little Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog was painted in the area around Amenia, New York in about 1835 and now hangs in the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City. Several other versions of the painting exist in other museums as well, but Mr. Nicholson explains in a note at the end of the book that the painting in New York speaks to him in an emotional level in a way that the other versions do not. He feels this indicates a degree of personal attachment on Mr. Phillips part to the sitter, in this case the lively little girl, which the other versions do not possess. This was his inspiration for this delightful book, which is both a celebration of American folk art and a charming story.

It is a universal and timeless truth that all children want more time with their parents, and all children want to be included in family activities. There have been many children's books written on this theme and variations. However, Nicholson artfully uses the theme to show us the activities of a typical landed family in 1830s New England. As the very lively little girl goes from family member to family member looking for attention, we are introduced to what was expected of the master and mistress of a large farming household; what were considered suitable activities for young gentlemen, like chopping wood and young ladies, like needlework. Even then, little ones were often shooed aside when things got hectic. In a creative plot twist, when the very lively little girl very vocally agrees to be the subject of Mr. Ammi's painting, she becomes the center of attention of her until then too busy family. Suddenly she is treated like a little princess. That lets us discover even more about the era since she is now allowed to participate in all of the heretofore forbidden activities like tea parties, wood chopping and sewing. Most importantly of all, we find out the origin of the red dress in the painting -- her sister Rebecca's favorite one. The little girl's feelings are portrayed realistically since the book is written in first person, a sure way to capture a young reader's attention.

Cynthia Von Buhler deserves high praise for her masterful re-creation of the American folk art style. The little girl in the red dress is enchanting. The illustrations are magnificent. They effectively capture both the personal attachment to the sitter attributed to Mr. Ammi and the emotional attachment Mr. Nicholson feels toward this particular version of the painting. It is through Ms. Von Buhler's art that we are able to get a feel for life in the 1830s just as Mr. Nicholson explains how American folk art was begun and carried on as part of a tradition of the times. Ms. Von Buhler includes both portraits and landscapes with much minute detail just like the real thing, so we are introduced to both facets of American folk art. A quaint touch I particularly enjoyed was Ms. Von Buhler's American folk art style portraits of herself and Mr. Nicholson on the flyleaf at the back of the cover.

This is the first book for both author and illustrator. It is an extremely impressive and auspicious beginning. Once again, children can and will learn much about art and history while being enthralled instead of bored by the this excellent example of children's literature. The very lively little girl is very entertaining with her shenanigans. The colors are stunning. Little Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog is proof positive that books written for children can be inspirations for young imaginations. This is a book that definitely belongs in every child's and even every grown-up's library.

--Nancy Littlejohn

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