Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reading: Mister Orange

Published by Enchanted Lion Books
Courtesy of
The year is 1943, and World War II is in full-swing.  For pre-teen Linus Muller, the pendulum of life is swinging from one direction to the next.  His older brother, Albie, has volunteered to leave for Europe and go to war, leaving Linus new responsibilities and a bunk to share with his other older, yet less fun, brother Simon.  At first, Linus is proud of his brother's bravery about going off to war but soon learns that war is not all fun and games, as he once thought.  In this coming-of-age story, he befriends an older gentleman that he fondly calls "Mister Orange" who helps Linus to rediscover the power of imagination in an age when it could be a dangerous possession.  

Like many young boys, Linus loves superheroes, and he often daydreams about Mister Superspeed.  The author highlights these daydreams in italics, showing Linus often having conversations with this imagination being that his brother created.  Linus turns to Mister Superspeed for strength when his brother first departs for war, admiring his fictional superhero for his agility, speed, strength, and ability to defeat the enemy.  It is this same quality that Linus admires in Albie and causes him to question why his parents just won't put a blue star in their market window to tell the whole city of New York that they have a son at war, and they are proud!  

As the story continues, Linus is responsible for delivering produce to homebound customers, a job that he inherited from Albie, when he befriends Mister Orange, a customer whose real name confuses him.  He learns that Mister Orange came to America to escape the war in Europe and is able to confide in Mister Orange in a way that he cannot do with anyone else.  As the war progresses and Linus learns that people can't be saved from make believe superheroes like Superspeed, he expresses his frustration at the powerlessness of imagination to Mister Orange, an artist, who in turn expresses his hope in the powerfulness of imagination to transform the future!  
Mr. Orange's real artwork, "Victory Boogie Woogie"

In reality, author Truus Matti created Mister Orange in the likeness of artist Piet Mondrian who actually created the same artwork that Mister Orange is credited for in this book - "Victory Boogie Woogie"!  After reading Mister Orange, the first thing that I did was google this famous artwork to see what it looked like, to see if it bared a resemblance to the way I had imagined it to look based on the author's description.  If I had seen this artwork without knowing about its creator and being ignorant to what the artist intended it to mean, I probably wouldn't pay much notice to it.  But since I know what the artist was trying to convey, and since I came to adore "Mister Orange" in this novel, I do have an appreciation for what the artist did and an understanding for why he did it.  

Indeed, I did adore Mister Orange and his wise persona.  Never quick to anger - in fact, never seeming angry at all - he was a calm gentleman who seemed to never waste words.  He thought "outside of the box" and sought to do something purposeful with his artwork.  The only reason that Mister Orange came to America in the first place was so that he could create the artwork he wanted to without worrying about it being destroyed or burned by the Nazi Party.  Besides being a deep thinker and a creative soul, Mister Orange was also empathetic towards the feelings of other and extremely sweet-natured.  When he tossed Linus an orange, causing Linus to fall down the stairs, he asked, "Did you very much hurt yourself?"  Then, he immediately set out to bandage Linus' scraped knee.  When he introduced Linus to his friend, Harry, he heartfully explained, "Linus asks the best questions in all of New York."  This was after Linus had expressed concern about asking "stupid" questions.

Further, young Linus was also a character that I adored and that I could achingly relate to as a young, nearly-a-teenager myself.  He so badly wants to be respected and to prove himself, yet something always seems to stand in the way!  His brother sends him on an important mission, detailed in a letter from war, that involves a milk carton, spiders, and a birthday card.  Linus is determined to do it right and to do it himself.  But when the family receives Albie's follow-up letter, Linus thinks that he ruined the whole mission.  He later realizes his selfishness and forces himself to grow up, only to find out that he may have had the right mindset to begin with!  Not sure of his place in the world, and stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood, Linus struggles to prove himself, loses a friend, gains a friend, and even develops a hopeful sort of crush that never really develops anywhere.  Most young readers will be able to relate with Linus, too. 

One of the most interesting aspects about Mister Orange to me is that it was originally published in Dutch before being translated in English.  Its translation by Laura Watkinson earned it the Batchelder Award in 2014 for translated texts. (See the website for more information.)  In the back of the book, the author cites research that she did to create an accurate portrait of the artist, the war, and life in New York City in 1943.  I often read books by American authors, or at least initially written in English, about people in other countries, and it's uncommon for me to read a book about Americans that was not written by an American author or an English-speaker!  The translation of this book makes it a delectable, enriching read, and I truly enjoyed the story of Mister Orange and the message that it conveys about imagination.  As a teacher, I often wonder why standardized tests often emphasize recall of information.  Certainly, basic knowledge is important, but the highest level of thinking is creation, and we progress as a society when people create new things - new thoughts, new books, new ideologies, new pieces of art, new technological devices, and so forth!  I am often perplexed as to why research shows that creativity dwindles when children age and that most people reach their creative peaks at the age of six - the same age when children usually enroll in school.  Coincidence?  

While Mister Orange does not discuss the implementation or absence of creativity in school, it does have an important message for readers of all ages.  To check it out at your local library, visit the WorldCat website.  And to view more artwork by Piet Mondrian, click here.

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