Kid's Stuff -- Books About Art & Artists
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Drawing, painting, doodling, creating. Understandably, these are popular topics among the creators of children's books. Here are some suggestions for books to help inspire those creative, expressive, joyous urges in your little genius... (By the way, any suggestions or recommendations out there...?)




"Draw Me A Star"
Written by Eric Carle
Illustrated by Eric Carle
(Philomel, 1992)

I'm not a huge fan of religiously-themed stories written for small children... But this charming, colorful (and refreshingly nondenominational) picturebook strikes a nice balance, and is one of Carle's simplest, most visually appealing children's books. In an interesting twist on the creation story, Carle casts the god-figure as an artist, first as an infant, asked to draw a star, then as a lad swiftly maturing into a teen, a young man, and finally into a wizened, flowing-beard style diety, who flies away into the heavens with the very stars he created, after having drawn man, woman, and the world they inhabit. One aspect of the book -- that someone was there to ask "the artist" to draw all these things -- raises some interesting theological questions, but the central message of celebrating art and the world around is, is uncomplicated and welcome. Worth checking out, as long as you're not militantly agnostic or atheistic.
(B)


"What Do Authors Do?"
Written by Eileen Christelow
Illustrated by Eileen Christelow
(Clarion Books, 1997)

(B+)


"What Do Illustrators Do?"
Written by Eileen Christelow
Illustrated by Eileen Christelow
(Clarion Books, 1997)

An excellent, imaginative explanation of how children's book illustrators do their work. The book also shows pragmatic, functional information, such as how artists can "rough out" their ideas before they begin their work, making dummy versions of the books first, and experiment with perspective, point of view, framing and work in various mediums such as pen, pencil, pastels, watercolor or oils. The book's plot concerns two artists who are neighbors and who each get the same assignment, to make a new version of "Jack And The Beanstalk." Their different approaches -- and the different results -- hint at how diverse art and artists can be. A very nice book for creative-minded kids (and adults!) to check out, both for inspiration and instruction. (A)


"The Art Lesson"
Written by Tomie DePaola
Illustrated by Tomie DePaola
(G.P. Putnam, 1989)

A fascinating autobiographical book about how author-illustrator Tomie DePaola (creator of the Strega Nona series) felt when he first went to grade school and had his artistic talent dampened by rigid, unreceptive teachers. A visual arts prodigy, DePaola was excited to go to kindergarten and get "real" art lessons, then shocked and disappointed when his home room teacher wouldn't let him use his brand-new 64-piece crayon set, because everyone in school had to use the same supplies and do the same activities. At first, when the visiting art teacher shows up, she says the same thing, but when Tomie complains, they cut a deal: if he can do the assigned work first, then he can do other stuff as well. The boy learns to accept that, in school, you have to accept certain limitations and uniformities, but he also stands up for himself and creates a space in which he can blossom as an artist. An interesting twist on the normally bland, celebratory tone of most pro-art books -- DePaola shows how creative people sometimes have to fight to get what they need. (B+)


"David's Drawings"
Written by Catheryn Falwell
Illustrated by Catheryn Falwell
(Lee & Low Books, 2001)

A shy young boy (with a gift for art) goes to school one day and finds friendship when he cheerfully lets the other kids in his class share a picture he drew of a bare tree in winter. They decorate it with leaves, grass, clouds, stars, people and animals, a visual brightening-up that's mirrored in David's life, as his new friends invite him to play with them at recess. When he goes, home, though, David sees the grey tree again, and recreates his original picture, showing that he can still be true to himself while making friends and accomodating their needs. This is a sweet little story -- a consistent favorite with my daughter -- that makes its point without being too heavy-handed. Nice multiculturalism, too, reflected in all the kids in the class. Initially I wasn't fond of the artwork, but now I like the whole package. Nice book... definitely recommended!
(A)


"Scribble"
Written by Deborah Freedman
Illustrated by Deborah Freedman
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

This book expects a lot from its readers, but it pays off well. It works on several levels -- as a fairytale-related lark, as a book about visual art and creative thinking, and as a snapshot of sibling conflict. Two sisters, Emma and Lucie, are each drawing their own pictures... Emma, the older child, is in the middle of a complicated princess fantasy, and made a really fancy picture of the princess in her sleeping-beauty bed, while little Lucie has scrawled out a scribbly yellow kitty kat. After Emma makes fun of Lucie's picture, Lucie retaliates by scribbling all over the princess. Emma leaves in a huff, off to tell the 'rents, and that's when things get weird. Lucie and her cat get sucked into the pink construction paper world of the princess, and the only way back out is for Lucie to erase all the scribbly lines she plastered over the page. In the meantime, the cat and the princess have fallen in love, and formed their own fairytale romance. The plot is complicated and fantastical, and may be hard for younger children to follow, but it hits a certain kooky, whimsical tone that the right readers will love. Worth checking out. (B)


"The Art Box"
Written by Gail Gibbons
Illustrated by Gail Gibbons
(Holiday House, 1998)

(-)


"Squiggles -- A Really Giant Drawing And Painting Book"
Written by Taro Gomi
Illustrated by Taro Gomi
(Chronicle Books, 2007)

Awesome! The third in a series (following Doodles and Scribbles) by the puckish Japanese illustrator Taro Gomi, this is a hip, modern coloring book that breaks the fourth wall, or at least encourages you to splatter a little paint on it and maybe the other three as well. Breaking away from the static, old-fashioned, draw-inside-the-lines, oh-look-it's-a-puppy tradition, Gomi crafts a coloring book that talks to the reader in confidential whispers, plays with them, winks at them and invites them in on the jokes. Continually inventive and improvisational, Squiggles nudges would-be colorists to do some of the heavy lifting as well, and create the pictures as they go along -- the approach is expansive and subtle, and infused with a big dose of humor. A section on the ocean spans nearly twenty pages, with simple, thick-lined illustrations of waves and the occasional island, with a lot of empty water down below, accompanied (on only a few pages) by gentle creative suggestions such as, "start with lots of fish" and "what's in the net?"; a series of pictures about food shows only empty plates and bowls: it's up to the reader to decide what's on the menu. Likewise, Gomi provides a series of heads without facial features -- you fill 'em in -- and a business district where all the signs are blank: it's up to the book's new owner to decide what the stores will sell. By providing the simplest of frames, Gomi opens up wide horizons; this edition also features hefty, durable paper that's thick enough to paint on as well as doodle. This series just gets better and better: let's hope the books keep on coming! (A)


"Riley And Rose In The Picture"
Written by Susanna Gretz
Illustrated by Susanna Gretz
(Candlewick, 2005)

Riley, a dog, and Rose, a cat, are best friends, but their friendship hits a rough patch one rainy day when they do an art project together and discover that they think about things differently. Riley is literal-minded and insists that he is drawing circles and triangles while Rose is more imaginative -- she sees tents and ladybugs and flowers. But when they start talking about what they're making, the discussion briefly turns into a shouting match. But when they go "into" their pictures, they have an adventure that erases their differences and brings the fun back into the equation. This is a nice book -- I'd say it's more about conflict resolution that creativity and art, but really it works both ways. (It's worth mentioning that this is also very similar to Barbara Baker's Digby And Kate series... If you like Riley and Rose, you'll probably enjoy their predecessors, too!) (B-)


"The Class Artist"
Written by G. Brian Karas
Illustrated by G. Brian Karas
(Greenwillow, 2001)

An entertaining story about a young boy (five or six-ish?) who discovers his aptitude for drawing and art. At first Fred feels self-conscious and insecure about sharing his artwork with the other kids at school -- "I can't draw!" he complains to his older sister, who responds by showing Fred a simple design that he easily masters, which in turn boosts his confidence. Things aren't helped, though, by one of his classmates, a persnicketty girl named Frances, who teases and tattles on Fred at every turn. Confident of his ability, but still feeling unsure of his social standing, Fred plans a grandiose project, but is afraid to ask for help when he can't figure out how to complete it. (Of course, he eventually triumphs and becomes "class artist" when the other kids are impressed by his work...) Illustrator G. Brian Karas attempts to tie in a lot of things in this book, telling a dual story about about self-confidence being balanced against pride and fear of failure, while also instilling a sense of wonder for the visual arts. On the whole, I think this is a successful book, although it probably won't work for the smallest readers... You'd have to be at least in first grade or so for the story to really sink in... (B)


"Milli, Jack And The Dancing Cat"
Written by Stephen Michael King
Illustrated by Stephen Michael King
(Penguin Putnam/Philomel, 2004)

Milli is an artist -- a found-art sculptor -- living in some nameless, pastoral European village where she feels constrained to hide her expressive, creative side. She dances and sings only in private and never shows her kooky 3-D art to anyone. No one, that is, until Jack and his cat, two traveling minstrels, come to town and encourage her to let her hair down and be as artsy as she wants to be. When she does reveal her creative side, everyone loves it, of course, and Milli becomes a local celebrity. Jack is a wanderer, though, and he has other towns to visit, so the implicit romance between the two is kept out of the text... I like the message, I like King's artwork, but the story didn't really hang together. The magical, fairytale tone King was aiming for doesn't quite overcome the forced. mechanistic structure of the plot. This is okay, but not great. (C+)


"Pablo The Artist"
Written by Satoshi Kitamura
Illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005)

A pleasantly absurd animal fable about an elephant who has "artist's block," and is unable to come up with inspiration for a painting he's been invited to hang in an upcoming exhibition. Taking a friend's suggestion, he heads for the countryside to try his hand at landscape portraiture, and gets off to a fine start before he takes a lunch break and dozes off on a hillside. Then, several forest animals appear and add their stamps to the unfinished canvas -- a sheep makes the grass greener, a bird makes the sky more blue, etc. -- giving it the richness Pablo was looking for. There's a was-it-all-a-dream twist, when Pablo wakes up and finishes the painting himself... And yet, who should show up at the big art show, but the very same animals he dreamt about? I wasn't wild about this one, but my kid liked it a lot. Nice artwork -- Kitamura has a bold, distinctive style that draws on classical Asian art, as well as a bit of Japanese manga. It's both playful and formal, and lends itself to the level of detail that he adds to the more involved splash pages. Worth checking out. (B+)


"The Lion And The Little Red Bird"
Written by Elisa Kleven
Illustrated by Elisa Kleven
(Dutton, 1992)

A sweet story about art and creativity, told in Kleven's dense yet joyful graphic style. An inquisitive little songbird sees a lion with a green tail, and follows the lion around, trying to figure out where the color came from. Each day the tail's color changes, and the bird becomes more and more curious... It turns out the lion is painting a beautiful mural in its den, and when the bird is invited in, and sees the pretty pictures, she adds her own art to the project by singing a beautiful song. A lovely, magical story with a relatively complicated plot and thoroughly entrancing artwork. Nice introduction to this delightful storyteller's work. (B+)


"Let's Make Rabbits"
Written by Leo Lionni
Illustrated by Leo Lionni
(Random House, 1982)

A wonderful, wonderfully simple book about creation and creativity. A pair of scissors and a pencil get together one day and decide to make some rabbits, one cut out of paper, and the other swiftly sketched out, each as appealing and unique as the other. Like their creators, the rabbits become fast friends... The story closes with a magical, and somewhat Garden Of Eden-like ending, when the two bunnies become "real" after eating a real live, 3-D carrot. If you're looking for pro-art books that encourage creative thinking, you'd be hard pressed to find one better than this. Recommended! (A)


"The Fantastic Drawings Of Danielle"
Written by Barbara McClintock
Illustrated by Barbara McClintock
(Houghton Mifflin, 1996)

A lovely tale, apparently somewhat autobiographical, about a young girl who loves to draw fantastical pictures of clothes-wearing animals, flowers with faces and giant floating fish that go strolling down the avenues on leashes. The girl's father is a professional photographer and a realist, and he scolds her for her dreaminess, but no matter how hard she tries, Danielle cannot shed the fantasy elements in her artwork. Finally, she meets a painter, an adult woman, whose work is much like her own, and the happy ending promises that Danielle will blossom under the painter's mentorship. Set in 19th Century Paris (a favorite McClintock locale), this features wonderfully detailed, elegant cityscapes and period costumes. There is also a theme of poverty -- the father has hit hard times when the story begins -- that may make this more appropriate for older readers, but like all of McClintock's work, it's a delight.
(A-)


"Art"
Written by Patrick McDonnell
Illustrated by Patrick McDonnell
(Little Brown & Co., 2006)

A charming pro-art, pro-creativity book, about a little boy named Art who likes to make art. He draws simple squiggles and elaborate, crazy curlicues. He also goes into a deep fantasy world, drawing a cartoon version of himself, with a house and dog, a car/spaceship and stars to fly to... Naturally, everything he makes winds up on the refrigerator because (and this pun is my favorite part of the book!) his mom "loves Art." Author-illustrator Patrick McDonnell is also the cartoonist for the syndicated daily strip, Mutts, so this book will have a built-in following. I've never been able to get into Mutts, myself... It always seemed like he was trying for a Krazy Kat-ish absurdism... but that's a pretty high mark to hit, and personally, I'll just stick with good ol' George Herrimann. Still, it's nice to see McDonnell break out into a more conventional narrative mode... and to experiment with color! I thought this one was okay, though not great... It met with a fairly muted response from Her Nibs. (B-)


"Something Special"
Written by David McPhail
Illustrated by David McPhail
(Little Brown & Co, 1988)

A little raccoon named Sam is feeling insecure because everyone in his family has a special talent -- his big sisters play piano and baseball, his brother is a computer whiz, and his father is a fine cook. But when Sam tries to help them out, he's always a flop. It turns out, though, that Sam shares his mother's flair for art, and after helping her finish a crafts project, Sam discovers his love of painting, which is duly celebrated by the other family members. The prolonged exploration of feelings of failure and inadequacy might go on a little too long, but the happy ending is nice. And McPhail's artwork is as appealing as ever. (B-)


"Drawing Lessons From A Bear"
Written by David McPhail
Illustrated by David McPhail
(Harcourt, 2000)

Pretty disappointing. Unless the reader is a young person with a definite interest in art, I would have a hard time recommending this book. McPhail is a wonderful draftsman and storyteller but this book, sadly, is a narrative flop. McPhail's heart was clearly in the right place and this book has the feel of a very personal, heartfelt work -- so much so, in fact, that his self-editing abilities seem to have been waylaid for a while. The story, about a little bear who discovers a passion for drawing and art, and who nutures it throughout his whole life, just isn't very well written. The tone is overly didactic and in an odd way it feels unassured and almost desperate to impart McPhail's pro-creativity message. Pity. It's a great message, but this just isn't as elegant or magical as McPhail's best books.
(C-)


"Lucy's Picture"
Written by Nicola Moon
Illustrated by Alex Ayliffe
(Dial Books/Orchard Books, 1994)

While all the other kids plunge into their art class paintings, young Lucy hangs back and asks the teacher if she can make a collage, instead. The teacher says yes, and Lucy spends the day building a very tactile painting, with felt strips, feathers, yarn and three-dimensional elements. The reason isn't clear until the very end, when Lucy's grandfather comes to pick her up after school... She'd been making the picture for him, and it turns out he's blind... The book makes its point subtlely -- mostly the story is about the thrill of creating an art piece, but the twist ending provides a nice springboard for conversations about disabilities and different ways of perceiving the world. Nicely done... recommended! (B+)


"The Dot"
Written by Peter Reynolds
Illustrated by Peter Reynolds
(Candlewick, 2003)

A great book about artistic creativity and how to encourage it. A young girl named Vashti feels uninspired in her art class, and faced by a blank paper, declares that she has no talent and "can't draw." Her teacher tells her to put something down on the paper -- anything -- and when Vashti petulantly stabs a single dot onto the page, the teacher asks her to sign it, and later puts the picture up on the classroom wall. This piques Vashti's interest, and she figures, well, if the teacher calls that "art," I can do better than that! Then she embarks on an expansive, joyful series of dot-themed pictures and paintings, eventually showing them, to great acclaim, atthe school art show. The artwork is nice, done in a scratchy style similar to Quentin Blake's, and the text has a magical elegance about it -- Reynolds hits just the right note throughout. Highly recommended. (A)


"Billy's Picture"
Written by Margaret Rey & H.A. Rey
Illustrated by H.A. Rey
(Houghton Mifflin)

When little Billy, a young rabbit, sits down to draw a picture, things start out fine, but get a little kooky when all of his friends -- ducks, chickens, mice, an elephant and a porcupine -- drop by and offer their suggestions. Each animal want the picture to look like them, and what they end up with looks very interesting, indeed! (B)


"Ish"
Written by Peter Reynolds
Illustrated by Peter Reynolds
(Candlewick, 2004)

More or less a followup to Reynold's charming The Dot, but far less satisfying or magical. This time around, it's about a boy named Ramon who likes to draw wherever he goes and whatever he's doing, but whose enthusiasm is quashed by a mean older brother who teases Ramon because his art doesn't look realistic enough. Ramon starts to fret over not getting it "right," and eventually decides to quit doing art. His little sister, however, renews Ramon's artistic instincts by helping him see that art doesn't have to be "real," but that it can be "ish," and that things that are "ish" can be cooler than things that are literal or representational. That's all very well and fine, except that the writing on this book is relatively clunky -- preachy even -- and lacks the economy and light touch of the previous volume. Oh, well. It's still a nice message. (B-)


"Begin At The Beginning: A Little Artist Learns About Life"
Written by Amy Schwartz
Illustrated by Amy Schwartz
(Katherine Tegen Books, 2005)

An interesting book about the pitfalls of over-thinking things and perfectionism. When a young girl named Sara is given a school assignment to make a painting for a school art show, she decides it has to be the best painting ever, showing the whole universe, from A to Z. She quickly runs up against a major case of artist's block, and nothing she tries lives up to her internal ideal. Finally, Sara spills out her feelings to her mom, who talks her down from the ledge and encourages her to start small -- perhaps just paint the tree outside her window, instead of trying to encompass all creation? It's a nice, gentle lesson, encouraging emotional and philosophical growth, as well as the creative artistic process. (B)


"I Can Draw It Myself"
Written by Dr. Seuss
Illustrated by Dr. Seuss
(Random House, 1970)

(-)


"Doris's Dinosaur"
Written by Rosemary Wells
Illustrated by Rosemary Wells
(Hyperion, 2001)

A lighthearted defense of abstract art... When the teacher. Mrs. Jenkins, asks her students to paint pictures of dinosaurs, Doris the beaver makes a weird, abstract splash of color and form. The other kids naturally make fun of her, but during a trip to the local art museum, they see a "real" painting by a famous artist that looks just like Doris' picture. Vindicated, Doris can now paint whatever she likes, without the other kids teasing her. An okay story that makes its point without being too heavyhanded or preachy. Also a cartoon episode of the Timothy And Friends TV show. (B)




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