To quote my sister, a youth services librarian, “No one reads picture book biographies of obscure people–only of people who have a holiday named after them. Or Johnny Appleseed.” Well, let’s change that! Most of these people are far from obscure, but artists don’t often get a lot of (juvenile) literary attention, possibly because some of the greats weren’t exactly known for their rated-G behavior. These excellent picture book and illustrated chapter book biographies for kids are a great way to combine information and art in a way even a young child can enjoy. (Links for parents/teachers/librarians to more information about the artist are included in each summary.)
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier (2010): Written in free verse to honor the poetry of the potter himself, this book tells a little about the man known simply as Dave who, as a slave with the unusual skills of pottery and literacy, created possibly up to forty thousand high-quality pots in his seventy year life. They are unique in both their size and quality in addition to the rarity of a slave being allowed to do skilled work and the bits of verse the potter often scratched into the finished product. Both an artist’s and illustrator’s note are included as well as a bibliography.
Frida, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Ana Juan (2002): The life of Frida Kahlo was filled with pain, but her pain gave her the opportunity and inspiration to create the art that made her famous. Stricken by polio as a child, involved in a terrible accident as a teenager, she spent a lot of time stuck in bed, alone except for her paints. The text is written in an italic kind of font, and some younger readers may find it a little difficult to read because of that despite the short, simple sentences that make up the content. The illustrations in this book were inspired both by Kahlo’s art and by the Mexican folk art that inspired her. Includes an author and artist note.
Action Jackson, by Jan Greenburg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (2002): Using a variety of primary sources about Jackson Pollock, the authors create a story around the creation of one of his most famous abstract impressionist works, Lavender Mist. Small details, like the fact that he used regular house paint for this work and the names of his pet crow and dog, bring life to the sometimes lengthy text. Again, a detailed author’s note and careful citation make this picture book a good source of nonfiction information about the artist, and the authors use occasional relevant quotes from the artist in the text as well.
Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse, by Marjorie Blain Parker, illustrated by Holly Berry (2012): The opening pages of this biography of Henri Matisse are in drastic contrast with the ending pages; the beginning, all black and white and gray; the end, exploding with more colors than it seems can fit on one page. This is how the author and illustrator help create an analogy of the way that Matisse’s dreams and his art brought color to a life he at first found drab and colorless. Although the author’s note provides some additional detail about Matisse’s life, the illustrations help tell the story by showing the emotions of the characters, samples of Matisse’s work, and, always, using color (or lack thereof) to create a mood for the reader.
Through Georgia’s Eyes, by Rachel Rodriguez, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (2006): Georgia O’Keeffe was born in a time when women artists were scarce and viewed with suspicion. Using collage art and the present tense, this book follows Georgia from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (where she was born) to the big city to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. The author’s words, chosen to share with readers the things about the artist that fascinated her, reveal the passion of an introverted woman for her art and the things that inspired it. Notes from both author and illustrator, a brief bibliography, and an afterword giving more detailed information about O’Keeffe round out this nonfiction picture book.
Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!, by Jonah Winter, pictures by Kevin Hawkes (2012): Pablo Picasso wasn’t one to stay content doing the same old thing all the time. Throughout his life, he experimented with many different styles of art, even becoming the co-creator of the art form known as Cubism. The text and art of the book—filled with exaggerations and hyperbole—help to create an image of the type of man and artist that Pablo Picasso was: bold, intense, and completely unique. Includes a note about the artist and citations naming the art reproduced in the book and where the original is displayed.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, written by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (2013): Horace Pippin got his first real art supplies as a prize in a drawing contest as a child, but even before that, he had been an artist. Life, however, required him to go to work at a young age to help support his family. He was injured in World War I and had to adjust his technique in order to continue creating art. This colorful book includes not only images of some pieces of his actual art but features hand-lettered quotes from the artist as part of many of the illustrations. The writing style is engaging, and the author and illustrator both include notes as well as a good list of books and websites for reference and citation.
Bill Peet: An Autobiography (1989): This Caldecott Honor book is, obviously, written by Bill Peet about himself, from the time he was just a young child through his time with Disney and on into his own work writing children’s books. Illustrated throughout, this book is a favorite of many who read his books growing up and should be introduced to a new generation!
If you’re looking for books for older children who are interested in learning more about these artists, you might consider the Who Was…? series (Picasso and da Vinci each have a title, among others) for detailed books that are relatively easy to read and are still rated-G for independent research. If you think your child is mature enough to read about some more rated-PG things responsibly, Lives of the Artists: Masterpieces, Messes (and What the Neighbors Thought) is an interesting and informative collection of mini-biographies of nearly twenty famous artists, but, as the quote on the first page says, “The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable” (H. L. Mencken). This book talks a little more about the sexual lives of the artists than I would generally expect in a book written for children, and it really doesn’t sugarcoat some of their idiosyncrasies or personality defects or gloss over them like books for younger readers, but it really does give good information about a decent selection of artists and is intended for upper elementary readers. Teachers of younger students might consider reading this book themselves and sharing interesting tidbits about the artist to supplement some of the picture books I’ve shared to enrich the experience without getting young students in over their heads.
Although you can always use the advanced search to look up the subjects “artists biography” and “juvenile” (to make sure you’re getting children’s books) at your local library, be aware that not all children’s biographies are created equal; some will bore you to tears, and others will leave you breathless! You’ll never know until you start to explore!