The Zhou Brothers: When You Have the Chance to Paint Your Own Story
Pop quiz, cuties. Let’s see what you can make of this one:
How many picture book biographies can you name that are about an artist and are illustrated (but not written) by that same artist?
If you’re anything like me then the answer is easy. One. And that one would be the new book by Amy Alznauer, illustrated by ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou, Flying Paintings – The Zhou Brothers: A Story of Revolution and Art. Need a synopsis? Here’s what the publisher has to say about it:
First there was one Zhou brother, and then there were two. They lived in a bookstore with their grandmother, Po Po, whose stories of paintings that flew through the air and landed on mountain cliffs inspired them to create their own art. Amid the turbulence of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, the Zhou Brothers began painting together on the same canvas. Today, ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou are icons in the art world, renowned for working side by side on all their paintings and sculptures.
In this extraordinary biography, author Amy Alznauer joins with the Zhou Brothers to tell the story of their unique and often difficult childhood and their pursuit of a wild, impossible dream. The lyrical writing blends elements of legend, while the brothers’ dramatic illustrations soar with vibrant colors and surreal imagery from ancient Chinese cliff paintings. An inspiration for young artists and dreamers of all kinds, this deeply felt collaboration explores how art can bring people together, as well as set them free. The epic story of two Chinese brothers who became art-world legends, illustrated with stunning paintings by the artists themselves.
Now imagine that you are a mild-mannered librarian living in the Chicagoland area when you find yourself invited to a book release party.
The pandemic is still raging strong, so this begged some obvious questions. How on earth can you do any kind of a book release party in the current era? I mean, for that to work you’d have to have an incredibly pared down guest list and huge, great, gaping gobs of space so that people could social distance the whole time. I mean, honestly, it would have to look something like this:
And so it did! Yes! For the first time in months and months and months, I attended a book release event. It was a very small guest list and heavily distanced. Tiny food? Not an option! Ditto breathing on anyone. But as someone still relatively new to the Chicago area, this introduction to the Zhou B Art Center and its founders ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou proved invaluable.
Travel is not really an option for a lot of us at the moment, but if in the future you happen to find yourself in Chicago (and ALA sort of guarantees that for a lot of folks) I highly recommend a visit to this studio. If nothing else, the sheer scale of the art blows the little mind away.
Author Amy Alznauer (Evanston pride, woohoo!) was on hand to speak about the creation of this book. “People think that collaboration is about harmony, but that’s wrong.” For the Zhou brothers, painting together (as they do) isn’t easy. As DaHuang says in the the book, “When you paint by yourself, you won’t have the courage to destroy your own painting… You think you are always right. But two people together, they don’t care. With this kind of fighting something comes out that’s never happened before. It creates a new magic.”
For Amy, it wasn’t just the collaboration between the brothers that appealed to her as part of the story. It was also the fact that by writing this book she would be given a chance to talk about the emotional lives of boys, something that is missing from a lot of picture book biographies out there.
But think about the guts it must take to write the story of someone still alive, who would have definite things to say about how you’ve portrayed them on the page. I mean, Amy wasn’t just copying down rote facts. She had to construct a narrative, and this proved to be quite interesting. Through her eyes, there are elements to the brothers’ lives that border on the mythic. For example, cave paintings play such a large role in the brothers’ art as well as the stories they heard from their Po Po. To incorporate those elements alongside the larger story of leaving Communist China to work in the United States and to achieve international success is something indeed.
Then both brothers spoke. For them, a children’s book uses a different kind of image. What may have clinched the job for them, though was when they read their own story the memories came floating back. How their grandmother talked. Fights. The times they were separated and missed one another. With this book their very life has been turned into art, and they sincerely hope that it brings inspiration to the younger generations. Still, they couldn’t help but stand amazed that time has gone by so very fast. They’ve been living in Chicago for 34 years now. So basically, they can say they’ve spent most of their lives here. You see? Strange.
It must have been a surreal experience to watch Amy give their lives the narrative of a coherent, cohesive story. Stranger too to illustrate yourself at the different stages of your life. The good and the bad.
It all makes you think about the role of the picture book biography when an element of autobiography is worked in. It’s such a rare concept and I’m still parsing all of its ramifications. While I do so, I’ll page through Flying Paintings again. Beautifully rendered, it’s unique in more ways than one.
Many thanks to Tracy van Straaten for that invite.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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