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.

10 for 10 Nonfiction Picture Books and a Poem

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Last Sunday, the New York Times Book Review featured Al Gore’s review of  Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt, 2014), an examination of “what biologists call the sixth mass extinction.” Gore states that Kolbert “makes it clear that doing what is right means accelerating our transition to a more sustainable world.”

It seems to me that educating our kids about the wonders of the natural world is one way to accomplish this transition. Children are naturally curious and amazed, and we should do everything we can to build on this sense of wonder. One natural way to do that by sharing books, beautiful nonfiction picture books that celebrate “The World Around Us.”

 Sing of the Earth and Sky,

sing of our lovely planet,

sing of the low and high,

of fossils locked in granite.

Sing of the strange, the known,

the secrets that surround us,

sing of the wonders shown,

and wonders still around us.

 Aileen Fisher

Each one of the books shared below open a window onto nature, and will help inspire awe and wonder about our world in children of all ages.

The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest–and Most Surprising–Animals on Earth, by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin, 2013)

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This book is chock full of fascinating facts about animals of every kind, a book to savor and pore over. The stunning illustrations of each animal are carefully crafted in Jenkins’ signature collage technique.  Jenkins provides a thorough explanation of his process in the book and in this video:

Island: A Story of the Galápagos, by Jason Chin (grades 2-4, Roaring Brook Press, 2012)


Jason Chin has created a richly detailed account of the creation of the Galápagos and how they came to be populated by so many species found only on these volcanic islands. The book ends with the arrival of Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle and provides a brief explanation of how Darwin developed his theory of evolution based on his observations of animals during his visit to the islands.

Coral Reefs, by Jason Chin (grades K-4, Roaring Brook Press, 2011)


Coral Reef begins with a girl taking Coral Reef down from a shelf in the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library. As the main character becomes immersed in her book, coral begins to appear, and soon the library is transformed into a magnificent coral reef.  Chin’s text and illustrations are perfectly matched as the structure of the reef and the relationships of the animals who live in and around it are explained. An Author’s Note briefly explains the threat to coral reefs from global warming and offers suggestions for how readers can help slow this process. Chin also explains how he researched coral reefs and offers some additional resources.

The Case of the Vanishing Honeybees: A Scientific Mystery, by Sandra Markle (grades 4-8, Millbrook Press, 2013)

Case-of-the-Vanishing-HoneybeesRecommended by the National Science Teachers Association, Sandra Markle’s meticulously researched book explains in detail the essential role honeybees play in nature. Gorgeous photographs are clearly labeled and include explanatory captions. Markle raises the many questions scientists have about the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder and is realistic in her conclusion that honeybees are not out of danger. Suggestions for how to help honeybees are included, as well as a list of additional resources, a glossary, and index.

The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families, by Susan L. Roth & Cindy Trumbore; collages by Susan L. Roth (grades 1 and up, Lee & Low Books, Inc., 2011)

The-Mangrove-Tree-FORMATCreated by the same team behind Parrots Over Puerto Rico, winner of the 2014 Sibert Medal for the most distinguished information book published in the United States, The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families describes the effort of Dr. Gordon Sato to ease the poverty and lack of food in the African country of Eritrea. The story is told in layers, the simplest of which is a cumulative rhyme a la “The Hose that Jack Built.” Sidebars explain Dr. Sato’s project in more detail, and an Afterword provides even more details as well as photographs of Dr. Sato, the mangrove trees, and the Eritreans who worked to make the project a success. A glossary, websites, and sources are also included.

Stripes of All Types, by Susan Stockdale (Preschool-grade 1, Peachtree, 2013)

Stripes-of-All-TypesThis simple rhyming text introduces young readers to a wide variety of animals whose stripes help them survive in different habitats. Stockdale’s writing is full of vivid language, and is perfect for building vocabulary. Additional information about each animal is provided at the end of the book.

Wings, by Sneed B. Collard III; illustrated by Robin Brickman (grades 2-3, Charlesbridge, 2008) Wings

Collard’s rich, descriptive language and Brickman’s stunning collages present readers with a surprising range of information about wings found all over the world, from “steamy rain forests to the frigid North Pole.” Details illuminate the wide variety of styles of wings, how many wings particular animals have, even the various purposes for wings. A list of both print and digital resources is included, as is a glossary and a brief description of Brickman’s paper collages.

Pointy, Long, or Round: A Book About Animal Shapes,  by Patricia M. Stockland; illustrated by Todd Ouren (Kindergarten-grade 3, Picture Window Books, 2005)


Here’s another book organized around a trait many different animals have in common. Stockland’s text is simple yet descriptive, and provides details about how these animals use their shape for protection or survival. Additional details related to each animal’s shape can be found in side bars, which are cleverly incorporated into the illustrations.

Volcano Rising, by Elizabeth Rusch; illustrated by Susan Swan (grades 1-4) Charlesbridge, 2013)


Volcano Rising explains what volcanoes are, how they work, and that “volcanoes are not just destructive. Much more often, volcanoes are creative.” This overview is told using one font style. Specific examples of each type of volcano, such as the creation of Paricutín, a volcano in Mexico that grew to a height of 1,300 feet in just nine years, are provided in a different font. Back matter includes a glossary, resources the author used, and books for further reading.

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps, by Jeanette Winter (Preschool-grade 3, Schwartz + Wade Books, 2011)

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When Jane Goodall first went to Africa, she “wanted to learn things that no one else knew, uncover secrets…” She did just that during her years studying the chimps of Gombe. Winter writes in language that is both simple and accessible, yet evokes Jane’s sense of wonder in all that she sees. She ends her account of Goodall’s inspiring life story with these words: “Jane carried with her the peace of the forest…and opened a window for us to the world of chimpanzees.”

Nonfiction Picture Book 10 for 10 is a “celebration of nonfiction picture books” organized by Julie Balen, Cathy Mere, and Mandy Robek. Many bloggers shared lists of their favorite nonfiction picture books on Wednesday, and a list of their posts can be found on Julie’s blog. My post is a little late because of internet issues, so I decided to combine it with Poetry Friday. Be sure to visit Karen Edmisten for the Poetry Friday Round Up. Thank you to all these ladies for devoting their time to make cyberspace a rich and inspiring place to visit.

10 for 10 Nonfiction Books

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“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein

When Cathy, Mandy, and Julie announced this Nonfiction 10 for 10, I started thinking about what would be on my list. It quickly became apparent that I could come up with 20 for 20 or more. Hard choices would have to be made. I decided pretty quickly to focus on picture books because they have such a broad appeal. As I looked through my collection, I began to notice a trend. These books were mostly about people who came up with some pretty interesting ideas. These people, like Einstein, were curious. They were passionate about something and used that passion to create and innovate. I love sharing these stories with students, encouraging and fostering their curiosity.


The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors (2009) by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani. The Switzer brothers each had plans for their futures, but their serendipitous discovery of day-glo paint changed everything.


Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum (2010) by Meghan McCarthy. Kids love this engaging picture book about how bubble gum was invented. (And why it’s pink!)


The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2003) by Mordicai Gerstein. Phillipe Petit’s daring adventure comes alive in this beautifully illustrated Caldecott Award winner.


Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade (2011) by Melissa Sweet.  Tony Sarg’s creativity is expertly conveyed through Sweet’s appealing combination of words, drawings, collage and photographs of handmade toys.


Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune & Swimsuit History! (2009) by Shana Corey, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Annette Kellerman overcame physical challenges, only to confront the challenges faced by all women at the turn of the twentieth century. Making lots of waves, she worked to overcome them.


The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau (2009) by Dan Yaccarino. Talk about making waves! Jacques Cousteau fell in love with the sea as a boy, and he devoted his life to learning all he could about the mysteries of the deep.


Me, Jane (2011) by Patrick McDonnell. Jane Goodall decided at an early age that Africa was the place for her and her love of animals. This beautifully illustrated book tells her story.


Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave (2010) by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier. The craftsmanship and skill of a man known only by his first name shines in this tribute to an amazing artist.


Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (2009) by Brian Floca. Most of the books on this list are about the accomplishments of an individual pursuing a dream. This inspiring story   demonstrates the power of a group of smart, creative people working together toward a common goal.


Snowflake Bentley (1998) by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian. The unexplored has always fascinated human beings. And, as the stories in these books, and countless others, prove, we are persistent and innovative in our pursuit of the unknown. Wilson Bentley was the quintessential dreamer. Fascinated with the snow that surrounded him, he devoted his life to exploring the microscopic beauty of nature.

Compiling this list was a huge challenge. There are so many books I wanted to include. Hopefully others have included them on their list. Better yet, readers will be inspired to explore and discover other wonderful nonfiction books to share with their students.

(If you haven’t already, check out Google‘s doodle today. It’s Nicolaus Copernicus’ 540th birthday, a very fitting date for a list like this. Happy exploring!)