Tag Archives: art

Themed Third Throwback Thursday: 1980-1989

The 1980s were my childhood decade. I went from infant to tween in the space of those ten years, and it seems obvious that the books of the decade would stick with me since I was both an early and indiscriminate reader.


Here’s a sampling of the historical events of which I was probably completely unaware while I was being a child:

1980–Pac-Man video game released
1981–First woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor, who spoke at my university years later!)
1982–E.T. released
1983–Cabbage Patch Kids popular (now this I remember!)
1985–Titanic wreckage found
1986–Chernobyl disaster
1989–Berlin Wall falls, World Wide Web invented

Newbery medalists of the decade include a number that I remember reading (but not all), and the honor books (some of which I’ll address later in the post) were also standard fare:

1980–A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-1832, by Joan W. Blos
1981–Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson
1982–A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by Nancy Willard
1983–Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voight
1984–Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary
1985–The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley
1986–Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan
1987–The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman
1988–Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman
1989–Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, by Paul Fleischman

Caldecott medalists, including some of my most remembered illustrators (like Trina Schart Hyman, Stephen Gammell (whose more recent work I didn’t connect to these books), and Chris Van Allsburg):

1980–Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
1981–Fables, by Arnold Lobel
1982–Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg
1983–Shadow, translated and illustrated by Marcia Brown (French text by Blaise Cendrars)
1984–The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot, by Alice and Martin Provensen
1985–Saint George and the Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
1986–The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
1987–Hey, Al, by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Richard Egielski
1988–Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr
1989–Song and Dance Man, by Karen Ackerman, illustrated by Stephen Gammell

While a number of the above titles have stood the test of time, my personal favorites will show up again in the reviews below!

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book EverRichard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever: New Revised Edition, by Richard Scarry (1980): Okay, I know that this was not published originally in the 1980s, but it was such a giant in my vocabulary development as a wee lass that I had to include it! My brother, born in the previous decade, had the 1963 version for his edification, but I learned about the bear twins’ clothing, shapes and colors, and parts of the body with a few more females in male-dominated fields and a few more gender-neutral job titles (fire fighter as opposed to fireman, for example). Love, love, love this book. My mom made sure to get each of her sets of grandchildren a copy so they, too, could examine each page diligently as they grew!

Fables, by Arnold Lobel Fables(1980): This book of one-page original fables was a favorite of mine as a child. I’m not sure where I got my paperback copy–either a book fair or a RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) give-away, I think–but I treasured it! It was a Caldecott Medal winner, and each fable has a large, detailed illustration to go with it. Each fable comes with its own explicitly stated moral, such as “Satisfaction will come to those who please themselves” and “Advice from friends is like the weather. Some of it is good; some of it is bad.” It would be a great mentor text for writing stories with a moral (or even just a message), and I might suggest covering the morals up, reading the fables aloud, and letting the class brainstorm what each moral might be. Because the animal characters are so silly, the fact that there is a message to each one won’t ruin the fun!

If You Give a Mouse a CookieIf You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond (1985): I apparently missed this as a kid, but the Kohl’s Cares reprints and accompanying toys were a big hit with my children when they were smaller! (In fact, this particular title was the one we didn’t own, and BoyChild–age 5–discovered how much he loves it when he found it sitting with our library books and made GirlChild read it to him!) It’s a cause-and-effect story that has just enough silliness to disguise the fact that it is a great literacy learning tool!

Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan Sarah, Plain and Tall (30th anniversary edition)(1985): This Newbery Medal book tells the story of a father and his children who are hoping that the father’s advertisement for a wife will bring songs back to their home and hearts. Sarah from Maine answers the letter and comes to the plains for a trial period. Anna and Caleb hope that Sarah, who describes herself as plain and tall, will learn to love their home and stop missing the sea. When she goes into town alone one day, the children are worried that she has decided against staying and is buying a train ticket home to Maine. However, Sarah returns with special gifts and tells them that although she misses the sea, she would miss them more. The book is a fast, simple read and would be a good choice for historical fiction for middle grade readers starting around third grade. I’m going to give it to GirlChild to try! (The book flap says the story is based on “a true event in [the author’s] family history”–always a great way to get story ideas!)

The Whipping Boy (updated cover)The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman (1986): Our cat, a kitten we rescued from the storm sewer on our street, was named Jemmy after this book; it’s one of those that my mom read aloud to us in that memorable way (where she used different voices for different characters but didn’t even realize it) that made the book come alive! An orphan named Jemmy catches rats in the sewer to earn money. He is snatched from the streets to live in the castle as the whipping boy for Prince Brat (not his given name). When the prince tires of Jemmy’s stoic response to whippings and his father’s lack of attention, he makes Jemmy help him run away. There is a circus bear, a pair of kidnapping highwaymen, and a chase through a city sewer–all the ridiculousness and excitement a middle grade student needs! This historical fiction book (quite possibly more popular with boys but obviously something I quite enjoyed!) won the Newbery Medal.

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianna Wynne Jones Howl's Moving Castle(1986): I have to admit that I checked this book out and still didn’t get a chance to read it! So many of my fantasy-loving friends have mentioned it, however, that when I discovered it had been published in the ’80s, I had to include it. I have read another of her fantasy titles for young adults, The Dark Lord of Derkholm (which is not quite as dark as the title might imply!), and Wikipedia (that monolith of solid information!) says that she has been compared to Robin McKinley and Neil Gaiman, both authors whose books I have loved (although I can’t read Coraline and look at the illustrations at all!), so I am going to keep my borrowed copy of this book until I actually get it read! It was made into a movie in 2004, so we’ll see if I have to look that up, too, after I’ve finished!

Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters (updated cover)Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale, by John Steptoe (1987): Steptoe retells a folktale first recorded in published form in 1895. The moral points out that being kind and caring is more important than being beautiful (and reaps better rewards), but the illustrations that earned it a Caldecott Honor are worth the purchase price of the book even without the story! Another positive aspect of the book is that the author clearly did research, not only citing the first printed version of the story that inspired his book but also the origins of the names he chose, the inspiration for the scenery in the illustrations, and the people (and related institutions) that assisted him in his research. Additionally, unlike many books where there is a king seeking a bride, there is actual mutual consent and respect shown between the king and the woman he asks (not just chooses!) to be his bride. Definitely a lasting title great for any home, school, or classroom library!

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen Hatchet (updated cover)(1987): When I discovered many years ago that my husband had never read this Newbery Honor book, I actually read it aloud to him while we traveled! It’s the kind of book I can’t believe a boy in the ’80s would have missed! So many things from the book still linger with me, and the survivalism depicted–both his physical survival and emotional survival–could be empowering to modern readers as well. I’m sure some of the aspects of the story haven’t aged well–Brian would have had a cell phone handy, for one thing, although he might not have gotten a signal in the woods!–but the overall themes and internal struggles still ring true. Gary Paulsen is a master of realistic survival stories (and has lived a rather adventurous life to get the credibility and experience needed to do them real justice), and this is a classic. I think the youngest reader I’d suggest would be probably fifth grade, but the protagonist is thirteen, and there is real meat to the story, so middle and high school readers are likely to get the most out of it.

The MittenThe Mitten, by Jan Brett (1989): I’ve blogged about Jan Brett’s books before, and part of it is because she has just written so very many! The exquisite detail in her illustrations, her lifelike but anthropomorphic animal characters, and her gravitation toward snowy scenes and retellings of traditional tales make her the quintessential author for a primary school library. Because of the way part of the story is told in words and part in pictures, (particularly the images featured around the borders of each page, in this case made to look like decorations pinned to a birch bark panel), readers get several layers of story when the story is read versus when they are able to spend time examining the illustrations. Another great thing about Ms. Brett is that her website contains links for pages to color among other things! The Mitten–the story of how a variety of cold animals squeeze into one lost mitten–is one of her most well-known and loved books.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, True Story of the Three Little Pigsby A. Wolf, as told to Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith (1989): I’m not sure if I’ve said this before (I’ve said this before), but I love Jon Scieszka! While my first introduction to his work was The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, this book was actually his first picture book! Fractured fairy tales are a genre I have always enjoyed, and this title is a great example. In it, Al Wolf (from his prison cell) defends himself against the claims that he cold-heartedly ate the first two little pigs when what he really did was have a sneezing fit while trying to ask to borrow a cup of sugar to make his granny’s birthday cake (and then eat the pigs when their homes fell down so as not to let them go to waste!). He has been framed! Like much of Scieszka’s work, young readers will need to have somewhat sophisticated reading skills to really get the story independently, but these books are also great to share and discuss with kids (and then let them explore them alone to see the nuances and clever details that might be missed in a first read-through)–great for discussing inference, voice, and point-of-view!

Number the StarsNumber the Stars, by Lois Lowry (1989): Set in Denmark in 1943, this Newbery Medal book tells how a young Danish girl helps her Jewish friend during the Nazi occupation of her country. The family’s determination, inventiveness, and bravery in spite of reasonable fear are clear throughout, and I know that my mother has used this book as a literature supplement to her history lessons in her sixth grade classroom. (Another World War II historical fiction book I can suggest for upper elementary and middle school aged readers would be Michael Morpurgo’s Waiting for Anya (1990).)

I obviously have quite a few favorites from the decade, and the bloggers over at What Do We Do All Day? had a list with even more forgotten favorites on it! (My kids just finished listening to the Wayside School books on audiobook during our summer travels this year!) I do notice a few common threads on both our lists: silly/slapstick, folktales, and historical fiction. I don’t know whether these things were just en vogue at that time and really dominated children’s literature or if we bloggers just have similar taste in our ’80s books!


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BoyChild Chooses: The 12 Reviews of Christmas, Day 9–Twelve Lizards Leaping: A New Twelve Days of Christmas

Twelve Lizards Leaping

Twelve Lizards Leaping: A New Twelve Days of Christmas, by Jan Romero Stevens, illustrated by Christine Mau (1999)

BoyChild is getting hard to please this week, but he likes lizards and other creepy critters, so this was a winner!

This book is a Southwestern U.S. version of the traditional English carol. From a quail in a paloverde tree to steaming tamales and the twelve leaping lizards, each day’s gift is something found in that part of the world, and the few people depicted are as diverse as that region actually is as well. The artist has included at least one lizard in each image, interacting with the gift of the day somehow and drawing the art out of the heavily bordered area where the main image is found and across the full page spread to where the text is located. The colors are deep and rich, typical of Southwestern folk art, and the technique the illustrator uses makes these acrylic paintings almost look like murals on a concrete wall. The text mostly fits the rhythm of the song well, with one syllable-heavy exception (luminarias has too many!), and was easy to sing to the tune as I read the book aloud. A little knowledge of Spanish pronunciation might help, but the few Spanish-influenced words (paloverde, pinatas, tamales, and luminarias) are likely simple enough or in common enough use not to be too difficult to say for most.

The desert animals, cowboy themes, and bright colors make this book a good alternative for the sometimes delicate and frilly versions (like the beautiful Twelve Days of Christmas by Jan Brett!) often found to illustrate the traditional version.

Other alternatives:

(other states available!)

(a layered board book version)


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BoyChild Chooses: The 12 Reviews of Christmas, Day 8–Carl’s Christmas

Carl's Christmas

Carl’s Christmas, by Alexandra Day (1990)

In this endearing tale of child neglect…

Wait, no. I’m just kidding. As confused as I was as a child realizing that Nana in Peter Pan was actually a dog (I thought J.M. Barrie was just going overboard with the characterization and apparently missed something important as my mom read it aloud), the idea that people might leave their young children with just a dog for supervision (in fantasy books, at least!) should not continue to surprise me! I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of my son (who thought this book was hilarious)!

Carl is a Rottweiler whose owners apparently entrust him regularly to watch their toddler child (simply called “the baby”) while they go out and about. In this book, they’re off to Grandma’s and church on Christmas Eve. Who would possibly consider bringing a baby to either of those places?! 😉 Other than the first page where the father tells Carl this (and to take good care of the baby), the only other text in the book is environmental print (signs, gift tags, etc.) to help explain certain events in the plot. The rest of the story is told entirely in beautiful oil paintings of the enterprising dog and his trusting charge. Carl gets the baby out of her crib and brings her downstairs to see the Christmas tree, then they decorate a houseplant together. Carl gets the baby ready for an outing, blue snowsuit and purple hat and all. They go downtown to check out the stores, and they win a Christmas basket full of goodies. The baby donates her hat to a bell-ringer dressed as Santa, and a caroler whose group they join gives her a scarf to warm her head again. (By this time, a scruffy stray dog has started following them.) When they see a couple children inside a house checking the fireplace for Santa, they rush home again (where an apparently stray cat is waiting near the door). They all go inside and enjoy a fire, and they fall asleep on the floor (where they are joined by two mice). Carl hears something and wakes up, rushing out the front door to greet his owners…except it’s not them–it’s Santa and his reindeer in the front yard! Carl helps Santa bring in and distribute gifts to all the inhabitants of the house and is given a new collar himself. Then Santa disappears up the chimney, and Carl brings the baby (wearing her brand-new hat to replace the one she gave away) up to bed, settling in for the night on the floor next to her crib.

The paintings really are gorgeous, but BoyChild just thought it was funny that the baby and dog were out and about on their own! I should have had him do the storytelling for this one, but I had forgotten that these books are basically wordless, so I did the narrating myself while I kept expecting more text to come up! (I would have needed to explain the signs or he probably would have thought that Carl stole the Christmas basket and wouldn’t have understood why the baby was giving her hat to the Salvation Army bell-ringer, but I wonder what else he would have noticed to talk about in the pictures!) As long as you don’t fear that you will raise a child who will become an adult who thinks it’s okay to leave just a dog as a babysitter, these are sweet and funny books to share with your early readers and pre-readers! They give many opportunities to apply reading comprehension strategies (previewing, predicting, asking questions, making connections, etc.) despite the lack of words, and this book (or another in the series) may be a good mentor text for teaching some of these strategies without the distraction or intimidation of large blocks of text. Another possible extension for this text would be to have a child illustrate a story of what he or she would do if left alone with a pet in charge! (BoyChild loves our little French bulldog, so this could be a really funny story. He refuses to draw, however, so it might have to be a story he dictates to me instead!)

(Good Dog, Carl is the original, and there are at least ten books in this series!)


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Chalk, by Bill Thomson

Chalk, by Bill Thomson

Chalk, by Bill Thomson (2010)

This wordless book has become BoyChild’s favorite this week!

What drew BoyChild to this book initially was the dinosaur (well, dinosaur ride-on toy) on the cover. We picked it out once before sometime last year, and he and GirlChild both browsed it, but this time, it has been an every day request! We started by just looking at the pictures and discussing what was going on in them, but then BoyChild asked me to make up a story to go with it. Janelle, Christina, and Billy are the children’s names in my story, and if I forget to roar in the right places, BoyChild lets me know! Because there aren’t any printed words at all, the reader can make up any storyline at all and include as much dialogue or as many sound effects as necessary to hold the listener’s attention (or let the little “reader” make the story up him or herself–I love listening to BoyChild tell stories to himself!). The basic plot is that some kids are out on a rainy day and find a bag of chalk that makes drawings come to life!

The illustrations are nearly photo realistic, and the back pages contain a note assuring the reader that the artist is not using photographs or computer illustrations…these were done in acrylics and colored pencil! It’s almost hard to believe when you look at the sheen on the dinosaur toy, the texture of the concrete, the level of detail given to even the smallest things (like the back of an earring). The illustrator plays with angles and perspective so you feel like you’re sometimes spying from above, sometimes in the thick of things, sometimes looking on from the sidelines. There’s a distinct Jumanji feel to the story and the illustrations, but it is definitely still a unique work!

Although the illustrations are amazing and the appeal obvious, one of the best things about this book is, I think, the variety of possible extensions beyond the pages. I have asked BoyChild what he would draw (a dinosaur…but that’s pretty much all he does draw!), where he thinks the chalks came from (another boy put them there), where he thinks the chalks got their magic (he couldn’t figure that one out)…on and on! This is not only a fantastic one-on-one exercise to practice comprehension and critical thinking, but I believe that this book would be an amazing springboard for a creative writing/art project in any elementary grade. What a child in kindergarten might draw and write about would differ completely from what a fifth grader might dream up, and therein lies the beauty! There is just so much a teacher or parent could do with this…I could even see a library summer reading program from it! Check out the book, grab a bag of chalks, and enjoy!

Additional titles:

Fossil(another wordless book)

Building with Dad(illustrated by the author/illustrator)

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O Holy Night: Christmas with the Boys Choir of Harlem, pictures by Faith Ringgold

O Holy Night: Christmas with the Boys Choir of Harlem

O Holy Night: Christmas with the Boys Choir of Harlem, pictures by Faith Ringgold (2004)

Here are five traditional English Christmas carols on this twelfth day of Christmas book reviews, performed by the Boys Choir of Harlem and illustrated by the inimitable Faith Ringgold!

The book begins with the text of Luke 2:1-20 from the King James Version (the one I memorized growing up!) in block text just as an introduction. Then it moves into the illustrated carols, and the rest of the text is written as song lyrics, so they look more like poetry than prose (as they should) and, after the first few lines, are printed in white on a gold box with a character from the story illustrated at the top of the box. “Silent Night” is the first song, and you’ll notice that a verse from the performance is missing in the text and that the verse that is printed is not sung. There is an adult female soloist for this song, and it is not the traditional arrangement. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is next, and it is recognizable as the standard arrangement performed with a traditional choir sound. There is one verse printed in the book that is not performed on the cd. “O Holy Night” is a somewhat subdued gospel choir arrangement, and this one is actually my favorite! I love the voice of the soloist on the “sweet hymns of joy” section, and I love the joy and energy of the whole arrangement as well as the experimentation with volume and voice groupings. It sounds as though it may have been recorded live. The last two songs, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” seem to be pretty traditional renditions, and the lyrics match the performances. My favorite part of these two is that they seem to have trumpet accompaniment (or maybe even full orchestra–but years of playing trumpet makes my ears tune in most to that!) and fanfares.

Since she earned the Caldecott in 1992 for Tar Beach, Faith Ringgold’s work has been a familiar part of most picture book collections. (The one with which I’m most familiar is Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky–it was a trade book that came with a reading series my school used when I taught fifth grade.) I am no art expert, so I’m unsure if the paintings are done in oil or acrylic, but they start in the endpapers with Mary and Joseph arriving at the stable and end with them leaving it. (It should be noted that these are the only times that Mary is shown not wearing the blue outer garment with white and gold spots that identifies her in all the other illustrations. Joseph always wears an orange robe with gold accents, and Jesus is in various styles of clothing but always white with blue. They also all have the traditional halo circle behind their heads.) Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and most of the other characters have skin tones that are varying shades of brown, but some of the angels and a few other people within groups have lighter skin tones and hair. I wonder if Ms. Ringgold was rendering an actual group of people and not just a variety of random faces, particularly among the angels; the features and hairstyles just seem too unique and detailed to be fully dreamed up in the artist’s mind! (I’m thinking particularly of one male angel with curly red hair, a long nose, and a distinctive mustache…) While the paintings don’t seem to refer specifically to the song they illustrate, they all depict either a scene from the nativity or Jesus (sometimes without his family and sometimes with Mary or Mary and Joseph) partially out of context (so you can’t really identify if a specific scene is intended). Jesus is also shown at various ages from infant to adult. Some other elements that caught my eye were the setting-less backgrounds (except in the endpapers) and the appearance of a variety of unexpected animals (like the black and white bulldogs at Mary’s feet and a pinkish animal on the title page that I couldn’t quite identify) and large crowds of brightly dressed people (who can’t be identified specifically as shepherds or wise men), sometimes adoring Jesus (who sometimes wears a crown), sometimes offering gifts. The colors are bright and rich, and the pages are full of detail to explore.

GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: GirlChild read the book independently before we realized there was actually a cd with it, but she knew some of the songs, and she made up tunes to sing with the others! When I realized she was singing randomly, I joined her to teach her the actual tunes of the ones she didn’t know. When I had them listen to the cd, she noticed right away that “Silent Night” wasn’t the arrangement we’re used to hearing, but she said it was her favorite of all of them anyway. BoyChild looked at the cover and said, “Did their skin change colors?” This is why I like to choose Bible stories and nativity books with a variety of illustrations! I had the chance to explain to him that no one knows exactly what Jesus looked like, so people imagine him and draw him in a lot of different ways, including different skin tones. I don’t know exactly how to recommend using this book–it’s not really the kind of book most kids would sit down and read through (although, of course, GirlChild did just that despite the unfamiliar vocabulary present in the songs), but it would be hard to read it aloud because of the singing element. What I ended up doing was setting the book up at the table while the kids were eating (so they wouldn’t have to sit through twenty minutes of music with nothing to occupy their hands) and played the cd for them while I turned the pages to stay with the lyrics. Because some of the lyrics don’t match the music, that could be confusing, though. I think, perhaps, it would be a perfect book to have available in a listening corner (they still have those in younger grades, right?!) during the Christmas season or during a unit study of Faith Ringgold’s works (or just at your own house for quiet rest time!). It’s definitely the sort of book that you can just sit and look at the pictures without worrying about the complex text, and the musical accompaniment would make it that much more enjoyable!



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Themed Third Thursday: Artists Edition

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 PotterDave 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): Frida, by Jonah WinterThe 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 JacksonAction 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 MatisseColorful 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 EyesThrough 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,Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! 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 PippinA 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): Bill Peet: An AutobiographyThis 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!

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Themed Third Thursday: Alphabet Edition

GirlChild starts kindergarten next month (*gulp!*), and although she already knows her alphabet, there’s never any harm in reviewing (or getting more practice recognizing the sounds in different words)! Not all alphabet books are created equal, of course, and parents, teachers, and librarians have many different motivations for choosing an alphabet book for a child (or children). For that reason, I’ll try to highlight the concepts introduced or reinforced by each title and suggest what kind of reader might find each book useful.

Dr. Seuss’s ABC, by Dr. Seuss (1963/1991): This has always been my favorite alphabet book. As a child, I had it memorized. (My favorite page was the one with the “[f]our fluffy feathers on a Fiffer-feffer-feff.”) As an adult, this is always the book I give to babies at book showers (I was a teacher and library student; it happens often!), and I re-memorized it when GirlChild was small. We read and reread this book so many times that, before she was two, GirlChild could quote vast passages from it from memory as well. Many adults struggle with the made-up words and unusual cadences in Dr. Seuss’s books, but the phonetic nonsense language has always been a draw for me, and you get the rhythm down once you’ve read it a time or two aloud. That said, this book is best shared as a read-aloud with young children to give them a feel for the sounds of the letters while experiencing Dr. Seuss’s playful writing style and art. (I do NOT recommend getting the board book version if you are already familiar with the original; there are significant changes to some of the images and text (causing a disruption in the rhythm and rhyme), and you will be disappointed. If you’re not already familiar with the book, it’s probably not so big a deal.) One of the biggest positives of this book is the repetition of the name of the key letter as a part of the rhyme that uses it so that the sound of the letter and the name of the letter are linked in the hearer’s mind.

Augie to Zebra: An Alphabet Book!, by Kate Endle and Caspar Babypants (2012): Access the free MP3 download of Caspar Babypants (who is otherwise known as Chris Ballew, the illustrator’s husband and a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter) performing a reading of the book set to music, and you have a multimedia alphabet experience! Each page features a piece of collage art that illustrates the simple sentence using each letter, like “Augie Awards the Ape” for A. In addition to the words in the sentence, each image also includes a variety of other objects or adjectives starting with that letter. (For the adult who wants assistance, there’s a listing in the back of the book with each “hidden” alphabet word…for instance, apple, ant, acorn, and arrow for A.) The audio version is pretty well paced for a basic read-through, but it does go too fast to find all the other words in the pictures, so independent or adult-assisted perusal of the illustrations after an individual or group listening experience would help a child practice identifying words that start with each letter. The names used reflect a variety of cultures and nationalities, and a teacher of early elementary students could use this book as a springboard for having students write and illustrate an alphabet page with their own names.

A Is for Angry: An Animal and Adjective Alphabet, by Sandra Boynton (1987): I included this book in my Themed Third Thursday: Feelings Edition post because each letter is represented by an adjective in “A is for angry” format, and many of the adjectives represent emotions. In addition to the stated adjective, the illustration includes one or more animals (labeled so you don’t have to try to figure out what the upside-down animal is (an unau)) that start with the appropriate letter  demonstrating the adjective. Because I love Sandra Boynton’s work, I love this book, but it isn’t one that I would read over and over again. There is very little text on each page, but the adjectives are somewhat sophisticated, so it’s really not for independent reading for the alphabet-learning crowd. Still, it’s a great way to expand a young child’s vocabulary to include words beyond “nice” and “mean,” “mad” and “happy”!

abcd: An Alphabet Book of Cats and Dogs, by Sheila Moxley (2001): Sheila Moxley apparently has become more computer savvy since she published this book with the note that “[n]o computers were used in the creation of the art” because she now has a blog and a webpage featuring her art. (I actually prefer most of her other art to the cat and dog collage art in this book, but my children beg to differ.) Each page has the upper and lowercase letter, an alliterative sentence using that page’s letter, and an illustration featuring a cat or dog photograph with painted additions to make the animal appear to be doing what the sentence says. BoyChild went nuts over the dogs and cats, barking and meowing like crazy, so he actually sat to listen to the whole thing and interacted with the illustrations. GirlChild liked it, too–Daddy *is* a vet!–but she was much less…enthusiastic…than BoyChild. BoyChild’s favorite page is where “Renée races around in her rocket ship.”

Picture a Letter, by Brad Sneed (2002): My husband has had to share this book with each of our kids multiple times since we checked it out at the library–they both love it! Each page features a full-color letter made from something that starts with that letter, usually a little warped to fit the shape (like the acrobat made into an A and Zeus in the shape of a Z). Behind the feature letter/item, there is a detailed black-and-white illustration of the rest of the scene with a number of other things that start with that letter. (Some are really obscure, but there is a list at the back of the book, the feature word written in bold capital letters, to figure out the rest if you’re stuck.) Each page also has a small mouse pulling a wagon full of stacked letters at the bottom, and it deposits each new letter so that readers can see the alphabet progressing as they read. (There’s a second mouse somewhere in the illustration as well, and that gives young readers who may not know what some of the other items are have something to look for on each page.) Although there are no words in the book, many of the item names are too sophisticated for your average alphabet-learner, so this is good either for reading with a child or for an older reader to explore independently.

Alphabeasties and Other Amazing Types, by Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss (2009): I think this is my new favorite alphabet book for the main reason that it introduces children to letters in different typefaces so that they can learn to read/interpret whatever crazy font they encounter in life! One of my biggest pet peeves (I have plenty, as my associates and relatives will attest!) with books/materials for very new readers is the use of fonts with lower case a with “a little hood” (as this book describes it) when pretty much all new writers are taught the basic circle-and-line (geometric) type of a when they are learning to write; the other a (like this one!) doesn’t even look like the same letter to them!  (GirlChild used to think it was an upside-down lowercase g. <– Look, another bizarre-looking typed letter!) This book plays with the letters by using a variety of each one to create the shape of an animal that begins with that letter, showcases different, somewhat unusual fonts with a description that utilizes the featured letter, and includes a number of other interactive elements throughout. The publisher-suggested range of preschool to grade 3 seems about right, and I would recommend it for use one-on-one or in a classroom group exploration with the opportunity for the students to peruse it independently after the class share so they can become familiar with the letters and see all the details of the illustrations.

Alphabet Books for Seasonal or Unit Studies:

Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables from A to Z, by Lois Ehlert (1989): Using large, bright watercolor paintings, Lois Ehlert records and illustrates her adventure in the produce department that took her a full year to complete! (She visited the grocery store every two weeks to pick up new fruits and vegetables that began with the next successive letter in the alphabet.) Each fruit or vegetable is pictured and named in all capital letters and all lower-case letters on the appropriate letter page. While much of the produce is likely familiar, there will surely be some surprises. At the back of the book is an appendix with a brief description of Ehlert’s research findings about the origins of each fruit or vegetable. This alphabet book would be a great addition to a unit on healthy foods, a letter-of-the-week experience, or a botany or plant unit (even for older students).

The Graphic Alphabet, by David Pelletier (1996): This Caldecott Honor Book doesn’t have much in the way of content, but the stylized letters that represent the chosen word (a k made to look like tied string to show the word “knot”) make this book perfect for inclusion in an art center or for use in art class (although I don’t know that it would be much of a read-aloud).

Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet, by David McLimans (2006): Another Caldecott Honor Book, I have to say that the book could be more useful for instruction if there were actual photographs of the animals referenced, but the scientific information included (both in a sidebar with a basic drawing of the animal and in the appendix) would be interesting to budding ecologists or zoologists, and it would be useful to include in a unit about endangered species or conservation (particularly as a springboard for choosing an animal to research for that topic).

Country Road ABC: An Illustrated Journey Through America’s Farmland, by Arthur Geisert (2010): Clearly, this book has a farm theme, but it’s not your basic “A is for animal” kind. (A is actually for ammonia fertilizer…) There is a “farm glossary” at the end as well as acknowledgements that suggest that each of the detailed illustrations represents a real place! Good for a higher-level farm unit or for comparing and contrasting city versus country living.

City Seen from A to Z, by Rachel Isadora (1983): Although the illustrations seem somewhat dated (I hope New Yorkers don’t dress like this anymore, at least!), the concepts and quality of the art really help convey city life accurately. A simple word (“Art” for instance) accompanies a black-and-white, detailed drawing of a city scene for each letter. Look for a paperback copy rather than an original hardback for cost effectiveness. ABCers, by Carole Lexa Schaefer, illustrated by Pierr Morgan (2012) is another title that paints a rosier (and more simplified) picture of the city, perhaps for a younger audience. Each letter features a description of the child(ren) pictured (like “F is for Friend greeters” for a page showing children hugging when they meet at a park) that seem a little forced, but they are appropriate and understandable for young readers.

A Fabulous Fair Alphabet, by Debra Frasier (2010): Perhaps because we’ve hit two fairs in the last two weekends, this book caught my attention on the shelves! Each illustration is a collage made using, in part, photographs of letters that were taken at fairs (including the State Fair of Texas, the source of the letters J, Q, and X, one we visited several times in the last few years while we lived near Dallas!) to write the words in ransom letter style. While this book may not be a particularly useful book in an educational setting, it is certainly good for reminiscing with your children about (or preparing them for) the fair!

A Is for Autumn, by Robert Maass (2011): Featuring photographs of fall-themed items or scenes along with a sentence beginning “A is for…” (etc.), this is just one possible choice for seasonally-themed alphabet books! Try searching “alphabet” along with the seasonal name of your choice in your library’s catalog!

L Is for Lincoln: An Illinois Alphabet, by Kathy-Jo Wargin, illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen (2000): While this was the title I remembered best (being from Illinois originally), there are many state-based alphabet books available in this series (Discover America State by State) as well as many other geography-based alphabet books (again, just search “alphabet” and the name of the state, country, or continent you’re trying to find!). Perfect for state studies!

Are there any other alphabet books that you and your kids really love? Share in the comments!

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