Beneath the Swirling Sky, by Carolyn Leiloglou

WaterBrook, September 2023, 304 pp. ages 8-12

Carolyn Leiloglou’s debut work for middle grade readers incorporates art history and principles of painting into an engaging narrative. Beneath the Swirling Sky isn’t the first book in which characters travel through paintings or engage with art history. Also familiar are tropes of belonging to an endangered ancestral line, questing to save an abducted sibling, and hunting down art thieves.

Such perennial devices nevertheless retain their appeal. What adolescent wouldn’t want to discover inherited gifts that enable them to profoundly change the world? Possibly those chary enough to recognize the probable weight of accompanying responsibility. But who has time to worry about that?

Unbeknownst to them, Vincent and Lily belong to a family of not only artists but members of a society tasked with protecting and recovering art. These few remaining Restorationists counter the work of the Distortionists, those who use art for the own ends, promoting propaganda and destabilizing societies.

Twelve-year-old Vincent has eschewed art since receiving unwelcome critique on one of his creations. But when Distortionists abduct his younger sister through a painting, Vincent has no choice but to follow. His mission to save his sister not only requires him to employ his artistic skills but challenges his powers of empathy and discernment. 

Leiloglou succeeds in pairing knowledge with plot by making the one intrinsic to the other. Traveling through paintings and discovering their family’s legacy prompts characters to reflect on the purposes of art. Fulfilling their mission requires Vincent and his companions to engage with perspective, color, and artistic intention. While a few maxims are stated in the course of conversation, the overall tone is far from a lecture on aesthetics.

In case you’re wondering, as I did, whether the author is an artist, she isn’t. But she comes from a family of art aficionados, and her meticulous research into the art world makes for fascinating back matter. Check out these interviews for further discussion: YA and Kids Books Central and iHeart.

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