Today I’ve got a few biographies that zoom in on just one artist, each one a work of art in itself.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe published in 2016 by Little, Brown and Company
Winner of the 2017 Caldecott Medal, this is a fresh, urban, vigorous look at the life and art of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Steptoe’s innovative illustration work, painted on rough, textured pieces of found wood scavenged from around New York City, sizzles with color, strength, and a contemporary, diverse world. His unconventional approach aptly conveys the ethos of Basquiat.
At the same time, Steptoe’s straightforward text narrates the tempests of Basquiat’s life and the powerful hunger he had to voice through his art what was in his soul — urgent, messy, painful, important ideas that required jarringly new forms, lines, and approaches.
Steptoe communicates all of this with enough subtlety to make it accessible to young elementary children, concluding his brief bio with Steptoe victorious. In his excellent back-matter, he provides more detail about the difficulties of Steptoe’s life including his death due to drug addiction at the age of 27. For many children, this artist’s life and work will reflect their reality with incisive clarity. For others, this keen book offers an essential bridge into the experience of many fellow travelers.
Mr. Matisse and his Cutouts, written and illustrated by Annemarie van Haeringen, translated from the Dutch by Jan Michael
first published in Holland in 2015; English edition published in 2016 by NorthSouth Books
Matisse is a marvelous artist for young children to enjoy with his eye-popping colors and his can-do attitude that led him to one extraordinary artistic discovery.
This brief bio features a zesty text with words that sparkle. Its focus is Matisse’s adaptation to his great physical limitations and the momentous new art he created.
That all those glorious cut paper works of his are in response to illness — doesn’t that make the explosive gladness of them even more stunning?
Van Haeringen’s pages zing with the color and courage of Matisse himself. It’s a grand welcome into his artwork, with a short Author’s Note to fill in more details of Matisse’s life. Ages 3 and up.
Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World, written and illustrated by Laurence Anholt published in 2016 in the U.S. by Barron’s
Laurence Anholt has created a lovely series of artist biographies all featuring a child in the artist’s life. This one is his warm tribute to Frida Kahlo and a little girl named Mariana.
Mariana’s family were great friends of Frida’s and Kahlo painted each of their portraits. Mariana is anxious to have her portrait done as well, but everyone says she’s too young to sit still so long. Her brother takes it one step farther and tells her she’d be too scared to go to Frida’s house on account of the skeleton she keeps above her bed!
This does indeed squelch Mariana’s eagerness! When the day finally comes to go to Kahlo’s house for her portrait, Mariana is very nervous.
As the gracious Frida gets to know dear Mariana and paints her portrait, she tells her about herself, her tragic accident, and the way she started painting as a result of those lifelong injuries.
With it’s tropical-colored illustrations and brilliantly-composed narrative, this is an excellent introduction to a truly brave woman, for ages 5 and up.
Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature, written by Cindy Jenson-Elliott, illustrated by Christy Hale published in 2016, Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company
One of the few children’s biographies of Ansel Adams, this well-crafted book introduces children to one of the greatest photographers whose fiercely-high energy propelled him out of doors and eventually into the art of photography.
Adams was a restless, fidgety kid who would likely be on meds were he in classrooms today. Instead his father pulled him out of school and pushed him into the great outdoors. Adams thrilled to the Pacific coastal area where he lived and learned an enormous amount through all his explorations.
When he arrived at Yosemite Valley at age 14, “it was love at first sight.” The roar of water and dramatic light spilling and splaying upon the rock walls transfixed him. Ansel’s parents gave him a camera on that trip, and the rest of the story is well known!
Beautiful cut-paper illustrations bring to life the rugged, dappled, soaring, wilderness as well as the running, leaping, energy of Ansel Adams. A lengthy afterword tells much more about his life and work. Ages 4 and up.
Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, written by Kay A. Haring, illustrated by Robert Neubecker published in 2017 by Dial Books for Young Readers
Drop into the contemporary art world with this affectionate, spirited exploration of Keith Haring’s innovative work. I love that this is written by his sister. She brings a unique, intimate knowledge of the inner-tickings of Haring and his lifelong zeal for drawing.
What pops off the page, besides the seemingly indefatigable artist, his bottomless spring of ideas and incessant experimentation, is his generosity of spirit. Haring died as a young man, but in his brief career he exploded onto the world art scene while simultaneously keeping his bearings as a fellow human being seeking to bring healing to the world through art.
Neubecker’s robust illustration work is the perfect match for his subject. Lengthy afterwords tell lots more about Haring and the pieces of his art appearing in the book. Ages 5 and up.
What Degas Saw, written by Samantha Friedman, illustrated by Cristina Pieropan published in 2016 by The Museum of Modern Art
This handsome book exudes all the top production quality you’d expect from MoMA.
Gorgeous illustration work from Italian illustrator Pieropan spreads turn-of-the-century Paris before us with its cobblestones, wrought-iron tracery, horse-drawn carriages, and hustle-bustle. This is the world in which Degas lived. This is what he saw.
Samantha Friedman takes all of these sights and helps us see how they turn up in Degas’ famous paintings. A peek into the milliner’s shop metamorphoses into his At the Milliner’s.
His many visits to the Opera House of course turn into the ballerina paintings we know so well. Minimal text is needed here as the concept is so well conceived. Wondering-aloud types of questions serve to engage children even more in the paintings. It’s like an art appreciation lesson in a book, for ages 3 and up.