Have you ever lost yourself in a painting? Perhaps when looking at Monet’s haystacks you’ve heard the wind whispering through the grass, or when gazing at one of Renoir’s party scenes you could almost hear the clink of the glasses and the din of laughter. Maybe, dizzy and awestruck, you’ve steadied yourself against a wall before one of J.M.W. Turner’s seascape paintings, with the waves crashing against the prow of an imperiled ship and the sky broiling with storm clouds.
Art wields a power to draw us in, to steep us in brushstrokes that come alive, tell a story, and touch our souls. For most of us, such journeys into paintings occur only in our minds. While wandering an art gallery, our four-year old tugs at the hem of our shirt and wrenches us back into the mundane details of the present, with all its hassles and banalities, all its parking spaces and expired milk and bills piled haphazardly on the desk. For most of us, the journey through paintings is fleeting.
For the main characters in Carolyn Leiloglou’s Beneath the Swirling Sky, however, the journey is real.
Leiloglou is the daughter of an art teacher, a follower of Christ, and a lover of wordsmithing. In her debut novel, Beneath the Swirling Sky (WaterBrook, Sept. 2023), she weaves these elements together to create an imaginative adventure story that will both captivate middle-grade readers and stir their hearts and minds toward Christ.
The book follows Vincent, a grouchy 12-year old boy who loathes the prospect of spending spring break with his Uncle Leo, an art restorer. For reasons not divulged until later in the narrative, Vincent disdains art and wants nothing to do with Uncle Leo’s walls of canvases. . . until he’s mysteriously warped into a painting. Vincent discovers his family are Restorationists, people gifted with the ability to travel through paintings. When his little sister disappears into a painting herself, Vincent embarks upon a dangerous journey to rescue her. Along the way he learns valuable lessons not only about art, but about humility, kindness, and redemption.
Not only is the premise of Swirling Sky enticing, but Leiloglou builds her world of artful adventures with skill and attention to detail. She writes in a down-to-earth and casual tone reminiscent of Amanda Cleary Eastep, an approach that works especially well for her target age group. Parents may initially balk at the main character’s behavior; Vincent, is selfish, judgmental, and moody. However, he shows tremendous growth through the novel in the best kind of way — when he encounters Jesus. The scene of his transformation was so skillfully done, and so naturally followed the plot, that it reduced me to tears.
Leiloglou understands that the act of creation reflects our Creator, who made us in His image. She encourages even the youngest artists to wield their craft not for their own glory, but for His: “Art expresses beauty and truth. . . It’s a gift. It’s meant to be experienced and interacted with, not used.” (p. 110) For such thoughtful moments, and for the art history content, this book would be ideal as a read-aloud. Leiloglou’s knowledge of fine art is extensive, and she offers ample opportunities for parents to add some art history to their kids’ read-alouds. Pause during readings to look up paintings, and the already vibrant story will come alive in an even richer way. If your kids won’t wait to gather around the couch, be sure to inquire about what they read, and encourage them to explore some of the paintings they encounter.
Swirling Sky is the first book in a trilogy. If Leiloglou approaches her next two installments with the same sensitivity, imagination, and skill as this book, young readers will find themselves mesmerized with art, eager to visit the local gallery, and enchanted with the one, true Artist to whom her story points.