Portraits of the Artists for a Young Reader

h1 August 1st, 2006 by eisha

The blooming popularity of picture book biographies – simply-worded, richly-illustrated biographies for children – has been one of the coolest things to happen to children’s lit in recent years. It’s a format that’s especially well-suited to biographies of artists; the use of illustrations to depict an artist’s life can lead to a deeper understanding of his or her works. I imagine that for an illustrator, creating a picture book biography presents a unique challenge: using his or her own style and talents to portray the world that inspired and shaped another artist. The results can be breathtaking works of art in their own right. Here’s a few of my recent favorites:

Action Jackson

Action Jackson
by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan; illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker.
Greenberg’s day-in-the-life account of Jackson Pollock is perfectly complimented by Parker’s sketchy watercolors. Alternating scenes show Pollock at work and at rest, stretching almost prone to fling paint across a canvas, and sitting alone for hours watching gulls fly over a beach. The shaky black ink outlines over blurry washes of color create a visual tension that echoes, without imitating, Pollock’s trademark style.

by Jonah Winter; illustrated by Ana Juan.
Winter describes the tragedy and triumph of Frida Kahlo’s life with delicate grace. Juan provides a boldly-hued dreamscape for young Frida, whose famous unibrow is depicted as a blackbird in flight. Characters from Mexican folklore cavort through every scene, dramatizing the stoic Frida’s emotions like a visual Greek Chorus.

Georgia's BonesGeorgia’s Bones
by Jen Bryant; illustrated by Bethanne Andersen.
Bryant’s spare, simple text highlights young Georgia O’Keefe’s ability to see the hidden beauty in common shapes: the hole in a doughnut, the curve of a bone. Andersen’s wistful gouache illustrations pay similar tribute, surrounding Georgia and her beloved objects with generous spaces saturated with rich blues, soft greens and vibrant oranges.

HokusaiHokusai: the Man Who Painted a Mountain written and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray.
This is a fascinating, well-researched glimpse into Edo-period Japan and the traditional art of Japanese woodblock engraving, as well as the individual artist who revolutionized the medium. Ray’s watercolor-and-colored-pencil depictions of Kabuki actors, busy marketplaces, and peasants harvesting rice borrow from Japanese compositional style, while retaining the naturalism and three-dimensionality that Hokusai borrowed from Western artists.

Klimt and His CatKlimt and His Cat
by Berenice Capatti; illustrated by Octavia Monaco.
Gustav Klimt’s cat introduces the reader to the artist and his work in this whimsical story. The figures in Monaco’s mixed-media illustrations are appropriately comic, with soft round bodies and the occasional cauliflower for a head, but she pays direct homage to Klimt in the odd tilt to character’s faces, repetitive geometric patterns and liberal use of metallic gold.

Magical Garden of Claude MonetThe Magical Garden of Claude Monet
written and illustrated by Laurence Anholt.

Anholt, who has also created picture books featuring Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Degas and Picasso, turns his considerable talent to a scene from the life of Claude Monet. The luminous watercolor landscapes of flower gardens and lily-strewn pools are dreamy reinterpretations of Monet’s famous subjects, and provide a nice segue between the story and the reproductions of his actual paintings. Simple black outlines add a child-friendly quality to the characters.

4 comments to “Portraits of the Artists for a Young Reader”

  1. Great list! There is also Diane Stanley’s ‘Michelangelo’ — very readable, and if memory serves me correctly here, she manipulated reproductions of his works into her illustrations. She always makes purty books, too.

  2. Saw a review today for ‘Through Georgia’s Eyes’ by Rachel Rodriguez and ill. by Julie Paschkis — a picture book biography of Georgia O’Keefe (got a good review, too, by the way).

  3. ooh, thanks. i’ll look for that. there’s an interesting pic-book-bio about Marc Chagall that came out recently, too – very wild mixed-media art, little blue-haired figurines in cardboard houses – “I am Marc Chagall” by Bimba Landmann. woulda put it on the list, but i hadn’t seen it yet.

  4. Eisha, let’s not forget Jonah Winter’s and Jeanette Winter’s Diego — with text in English and Spanish — from ’91 (Knopf Books for Young Readers), which I’m just now discovering (about the life of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera). It’s a good one.

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