Friday, June 26, 2009

Letters to Leonardo - a new novel, and a literacy activity

Many people are fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance man. For one Australian writer, that fascination turned into a full-blown obsession - and then into a wonderful new YA novel, called Letters to Leonardo.

I have a guest on my blog today.
Dee White is as passionate about books and writing as I am. She is also an Australian author, celebrating the launch of her novel, Letters to Leonardo (Walker Books, July 2009) with a blog tour. (* See below for the tour schedule).

My review of
Letters to Leonardo is coming soon. There are many things that intrigue me about this novel, and about Dee's writing process. Letters to Leonardo was ten years in the making and it was fuelled by an amazing amount of research. It sounds as if Dee became just as obsessed with Leonardo da Vinci as did her main character, Matt.

Dee says, "What fascinates me about Leonardo, apart from his overwhelming genius and artistic talent, is that he was true to himself. I bought a little statuette of Leonardo and the Mona Lisa, and it sits on my desk watching over me. Leonardo da Vinci has become my muse."

I really love some of the sketches Leonardo did, his use of fine detail and the way he made art out of an apparatus diagram. Check out some of
these drawings. Dee's favourite piece of his art is The Benois Madonna. She explains, "Apart from the wonderful colours and detail, I love the relationship depicted between the mother and child. The mother's expression is of overwhelming love, while the baby with typical youthful curiosity is totally oblivious to his mother's emotion and is completely fixated on the flower in her hand."

As you can imagine, art is a major theme in Dee's book. I took shameless advantage of her obsession, and asked Dee to explain the role art plays in
Letters to Leonardo. I think her explanation provides a wonderful insight into this gripping novel. I also asked her to develop a literacy activity for young writers that uses a picture as its focus. Dee has added even more value by providing questions to help kids think their way into a character. Here's what she said.

In Letters to Leonardo, the main character Matt, and Leonardo da Vinci lived over 500 years apart, so I wanted to bring them together in a realistic and original way.
Art was a powerful connection between the two. Matt was an artist, and he later discovered that this was one of the strongest things that linked him to his mother.
I've used some of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings to symbolise people and events in the story. The Mona Lisa, for example, is an enigma like Matt’s mother, but she is also a watching presence.
In the letters he writes to Leonardo, Matt uses da Vinci’s paintings to talk about things that are happening in his own life. It’s what connects them to each other.

 ‘…that’s what I love about your Drapery Study, I never thought of clothes as having a life of their own – but they do. We all wear an outer layer to hide who we really are.’

Matt’s anguish and feelings of betrayal when he discovers that his mother is not dead are symbolised in another of Leonardo’s paintings.

‘There’s this one painting, St Jerome. I can’t stop looking at it – at the torture in the saint’s eyes as he crouches among those craggy rocks, prostrate before that open-mouthed lion. It’s like that painting expresses everything that’s going on inside me.’

He links Leonardo’s Lady with the Ermine to his own feelings of disappointment, and trying to come to terms with who his mother really is.

‘…I’m starting to think that Mum and I are like your Lady with the Ermine. I’m Mum’s pet. Maybe that’s all I was to her when I was a kid.’

Letters to Leonardo Literacy Activity
by Dee White, author of Letters to Leonardo 

Did you know that you can develop an entire story from just one picture? Here’s how!
Find a picture of someone you don’t know – it could be a painting, a print, or a photo from a newspaper or magazine. Cut it out and tape it to a wall – and really look at it.
Just from looking at the person in the picture, and using your own imagination, answer the following questions about them:
How old are they?
What’s their name?
What sort of job or hobbies might they have?
What sort of family life do you think the person in the picture has – who are their parents, brothers and sisters etc?
What was the person doing? Where were they when the picture was taken/portrait was painted?
What else can you imagine about this person – eg favourite food, likes, dislikes?
Are they from the present, the past or the future?
Write a letter to this person and tell them about yourself.
In Letters to Leonardo, Matt gets a letter from his mother and discovers a confronting secret about his life.
Pretend that the person from your picture has written back. In their letter to you, they have revealed a life changing secret either about them or you. Matt’s secret is that his mother isn’t really dead. What’s the secret the person in the picture reveals to you?
Use this secret to write a story about the secret itself.

What happens when the secret is revealed?
How does it affect the people involved?
What is the final outcome of the revelations?


I hope your children or students enjoy that writing activity. My thanks to Dee for providing it.
Letters to Leonardo is available online from Boomerang Books and Booktopia. There's a video preview of the novel, too. 

If your kids would like more information about Leonardo da Vinci, visit Universal Leonardo, where you can play online games to explore his thinking, get a really great close-up of some paintings, check out his inventions, and much more. Young artists might enjoy the tips on technique which are linked to Leonardo's paintings at Diary of 1. 

* If you'd like to follow the
Letters to Leonardo blog tour, here is the tour schedule.

24th June 2009
Dee and Matt talk about promoting Letters to Leonardo online.

25th June 2009
Author interview

26th June 2009
How art has been used in Letters to Leonardo

27th June 2009
The research process involved in writing Letters to Leonardo

28th June 2009
Guest blogger - talking with Vanessa Barneveld - interactive discussion with bloggers

29th June 2009
An author interview covering things like inspiration and perspective

30th June http://www.letshave
Mentors in YA fiction, and Leonardo da Vinci's involvement in the book

1st July Cyber launch including cross to Robyn Opie's blog - hurdles overcome on the way to publication.

2nd July
How the author's life paralleled Matt's - her growing obsession with Leonardo da Vinci

3rd July
Working with a publisher and the editing process

4th July
Interview with the elusive Matt Hudson

5th July
Class writing activities based on Letters to Leonardo

6th July
Tips 4 young writers on how Letters to Leonardo was written

7th July http://www.Jennifer
An overseas stop before heading home


  1. Oh my! I think this book is absolutely perfect! I would have loved to review this myself! So, now can't wait for yours:D

  2. Just wanted to let you know that I've posted this on Win A Book.

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  3. Kim Chatel26 June, 2009

    This does sound like a keeper. I love your Literacy Activity too! May I snag that to show teachers?

  4. bookchook26 June, 2009

    I love to keep my blog readers on tenterhooks, Lucy! (What IS a tenterhook anyway?)

  5. bookchook26 June, 2009

    Thanks so much Bridget/Susan.

  6. bookchook26 June, 2009

    I will check with Dee, Kim, but my tip is a big YES!

  7. Dee White26 June, 2009

    Thanks so much Susan for having us on your blog - and for all the trouble you have gone to in setting this up with all the links and your own research and input. Matt and I love an excuse to talk about art - and especially about Leonardo da Vinci - oops! didn't mean to let that slip about the obsession - oh well, like Matt says, "Truth is important in art".

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  8. Dee White26 June, 2009

    Thanks Lucy and Kim for your kind words about Letters to Leonardo. Kim you are very welcome to use the Literacy Activity.

    Dee and Matt:-)

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  9. Wow! This stopover is a real eye-opener to me. What a beautiful visit. Congratuations to you both. I can't wait to see the book.

  10. bookchook26 June, 2009

    It's been fascinating, Dee. I wonder what it is about Leonardo that inspires so much admiration? Partly for me, it has to be how long ago he lived, and how much he knew about the world. All that talent inside one human being!

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  11. bookchook26 June, 2009

    I honestly feel as if, were Matt to walk in my door, I would sit down and have a great chat to him, Dee. I keep having to remind myself he is (ahem) a book character. Cos, that's what he is, right? Right?

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  12. bookchook26 June, 2009

    So glad you stopped by, Mabel. I'm with you re the book! I hope everyone will stop by Mabel's ( and all the other blogs when Dee and Matt move on.

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  13. Share Term Papers04 September, 2009

    Nice posting..................Keep it up.

    Recent blog:=- About employee codes??????

  14. Colin Glover28 November, 2009

    We Just Finished This in Class. It was a Heart stopping with Twists and turns. Our Teacher always stopped at the Exciting moments that left dreaming about what was going to happen next. I wish she didn't put down. It like one of those stay up past bedtime books. The Ending was so unexpected. It was probably one of best i've read.

  15. Colin, isn't it great when books just grab you like that! Thanks for letting us know your opinion on this great book too.

    Recent blog:=- So Creative, It's Spooky

  16. Colin Glover29 November, 2009

    My Class and me have to write a book rveiw on it. 250 words

  17. I bet yours will be an excellent review, Colin, because you really enjoyed the book. You might get some good ideas for your review from Dee White's own site.

    Recent blog:=- Create with Fish - Poisson Rouge

  18. Thank you for the information....

  19. Anonymous01 June, 2012

    You have a really good blog. Very interesting read. I will be back to look for more posts, keep it going.


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