Nonfiction 10 for 10: Lives of the Artists

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“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination…”

~ Mary Oliver ~

When I was a senior in high school, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time. It was pure coincidence that Monet’s famous Water Lily paintings were starring in the exhibit “Monet’s Years at Giverney” at the time of this visit. Seeing those paintings was a revelatory experience. My appreciation and love of art began on that spring day.

Le bassin aux nymphéas Claude Monet , 1919 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Le bassin aux nymphéas Claude Monet , 1919 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although nothing compares to standing in front of a magnificent work of art, kids don’t have to visit a museum to learn about art and artists. Gorgeous picture books about artists and their work abound. These books will inspire young artists to pick up a paint brush, scissors, or clay and begin creating their own art.

I searched for the origin of the trend of picture books about artists, but couldn’t find a definitive answer. The first picture book about an artist I remember (probably not a coincidence) is Linnea in Monet’s Garden, (R&S Books, 1985) by Christina Björk and illustrated by Lena Anderson. Björk blends the fictional account of a young girl’s pilgrimage to Monet’s home in Giverney, France with facts about Monet’s life and art. Illustrations of Linnea’s trip are combined with photos of Monet, his masterpieces, and the his beloved gardens that inspired so many of his paintings. A timeline of Monet’s life, a family tree, and a description of the museums Linnea visits in Paris are included, as well as a very brief bibliography are included.

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One of the most recent picture book biographies of an artist is The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Grandpre. This 2015 Caldecott Honor book introduces   young Vasya Kandinsky as a proper Russian boy, who is bored by his studies and his monochromatic life. Vasya’s world is changed when his aunt presents him with a “small wooden paint box.” Suddenly, colors swirl around him, creating a cacophony of sound. Kandinsky had synesthesia, which enabled him to “hear the hiss of the colors as they mingled.” Discouraged by his family from following his dream, Kandinsky persevered, capturing the music the colors created. In the process, he “created something entirely new–abstract art.”

An Author’s Note includes additional information about Kandinsky’s life, as well as information about synesthesia. There is also a list of sources and websites for additional information.

Another recent title that will inspire young artists is Lois Ehlert’s autobiography, The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life (Beach Lane Books, 2014). This joyous book is filled with Ehlert’s signature collages, photos of Ehlert’s family, collections, and her inspirations from nature. Ehlert parents, both of whom “made things with their hands” shared their tools and materials with young Lois. She describes finding “ideas in the world around” her, and is full of encouragement for young artists. “An egg in the nest doesn’t become a bird overnight,” Ehlert states. Good advice for us all.

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Alexander Calder, who “invented the very first mobiles,” is another artist whose parents nurtured his creativity from a young age. Tanya Lee Stone’s Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder (Viking, 2008; Author’s Note and a list of sources included), illustrated by Boris Kulikov, describes Calder as a boy who always had a workshop and tools. He used scraps of wire, wood, and other materials to create jewelry and toys for his friends. After art school, Calder, nicknamed Sandy, used these same materials to create a “magical, moveable circus,” which he performed in New York and Paris. Calder’s exuberance shines through in Kulikov’s illustrations. Children of all ages will be inspired to “turned ordinary objects into extraordinary art,” just as Calder did throughout his lifetime.

Watch a performance of “Sandy’s Circus:”

You can also view how one school was inspired by Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder to create their own circus:

I had never heard of Calder’s circus before, but his whimsical creations immediately reminded me of the art of Melissa Sweet. Sweet’s illustrations vividly recreate the world of Horace Pippin in Jen Bryant’s biography, A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). This Schneider Family Book Award winner also won the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children and was named a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book. Young Horace loved to draw, “loved looking at something in the room and making it come alive again in front of him.” Self-taught, Pippin pursued his artistic vision through a life of physical pain and hardship to become widely known and admired. His paintings now hang in museums around the country. Bryant and Sweet both include notes about the origins of this beautiful book, and an extensive list our resources is included.

You can read more about this book and view the book trailer here.

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Henri Matisse is another visionary artist who never gave up on his art, despite physical hardships. In The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse (A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, 2014), Patricia MacLachlan poetically relates the origins of Matisse’s vivid colors and natural subjects. Hadley Hooper’s illustrations are saturated with the same monochromatic blues and warm reds, oranges, and golds that Matiesse used in his paintings. Notes are included from both MacLachlan and Hooper, and there is also a list of books for additional reading.

One of those is Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors (Grosset & Dunlap, 2002) by Keesia Johnson and Jane O’Connor, with illustrations by Jessie Hartland. This book, from the “Smart About Art” series, is a more complete biography of Matisse, as it might be written by a fourth or fifth grader. It includes information about different phases of Matisse’s career, including his final collages, which he began creating after he became ill and could no longer stand long enough to paint.

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Another volume in this accessible series is Mary Cassatt: Family Pictures (Grosset & Dunlap, 2003), by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Jennifer Kalis. Children are naturally drawn to Cassatt’s impressionistic paintings of the everyday lives of children and families.

Childhood memories are the inspiration for the work of Wanda Gág, (rhymes with jog, not bag, as I learned in the Author’s Note) author of the beloved picture book, Millions of Cats. Deborah Kogan Ray’s Wanda Gág: The Girl Who Lived to Draw (Viking, 2008), recounts Gág’s life, beginning with her childhood in Minnesota. “A love of art was valued above all else in the Gag home” and Wanda was moved to draw everything around her. Overcoming hardships seems to be a theme among many artists, and Gág is no exception. Like Pippin, Calder, and other, Wanda Gág didn’t give up on her dream of becoming an artist or her father’s advice to “Always look at the world around you in your own way.”

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Seeing the world in your own, unique way is the theme of No One Saw: Ordinary Things Through the Eyes of an Artist (Millbrook Press, 2002). Prolific poet Bob Raczka has selected sixteen famous artists and one of their iconic paintings and paired it with a simple sentence such as “No one saw stars like Vincent Van Gogh.” Each large reproduction gives kids a chance to pore over the details of these paintings, observing and noticing the details that make these masterpieces instantly recognizable. The simplicity of this book belies its power, which Raczka sums up perfectly in this final line: “Artists express their own point of view. And nobody sees the world like you.

In this age of standardization, these beautiful books give children the important message that their vision of the world matters. From the lives of these artists, children learn that if they open their imagination to the beauty that surrounds them and follow their dreams, anything is possible.

Nonfiction Picture Book 10 for 10 is a “celebration of nonfiction picture books” organized by Cathy Mere, and Mandy Robek. Thank you, Cathy and Mandy for hosting! Please be sure to visit the Picture Book 10 for 10 Community to find lists of other wonderful nonfiction picture books.

12 thoughts on “Nonfiction 10 for 10: Lives of the Artists

  1. So happy you joined us this year. What a great theme to work with. I love the Scraps and I just read a new book today you might want to check out – Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes.


  2. I know them all but No One Saw, Catherine, will look for it. I think my favorite is A Splash of Red, but I love the Matisse books too. I would add the book by Alan Say, Drawing From Memory-another lovely one about art. Great theme, & unique today!


  3. “In this age of standardization, these beautiful books give children the important message that their vision of the world matters. From the lives of these artists, children learn that if they open their imagination to the beauty that surrounds them and follow their dreams, anything is possible.” What beautiful, true words and what an amazing list of books. I don’t know any of them! I am eager to read them. Thanks.


  4. Catherine,
    These are just gorgeous. I am always amazed as I move from blog to blog that I find books that I haven’t read, yet they’ve been around for a few years. So many books…so little time. Thank you for sharing this inspiring collection.



  5. Thank you for sharing books centered around this theme. I haven’t seen Lois Ehlert’s book yet (or several others you mentioned). Lois Ehlert has always been a favorite author of mine both as a mother and a teacher. I shared your blog with the art teacher in my building. I think he’ll find some treasures here too.


  6. What a lovely, lovely collection of books, Catherine. I saw the very same exhibition at the Met, all those years ago, too – which is why I have such warmth for Linnea and her travels through Giverny.


  7. It’s fascinating to see all of the different lists that people have compiled. You have some beautiful books here and I can’t wait to share your list with my school’s art teacher on Monday. I’ve added SANDY’S CIRCUS to my TBR list- it’s totally new to me.


  8. Love this post! Some are new to me so will be pinning this post to come back to. I love reading books about artists with my class – they are such a creative bunch and they are very inspired when learning about an actual artist.


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