Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look and Meilo So
This is a picture book biography of Wu Daozi from the T’ang Dynasty, who is considered China’s greatest painter. As a child, Daozi is taught calligraphy, but his brush does not want to just create Chinese characters. Instead, he creates the first stroke and then turns it into an animal like a fish or a horse. Daozi began to paint on walls, painting so fast that his sleeves opened like wings, gaining him the nickname of Flying Sleeves. He painted every day and people began to leave coins for him that he donated to feed the poor. As time passed, his skills grew even greater until the creatures he drew and painted became alive and left the flat surface of the walls. He was then commissioned to paint an entire wall for the emperor, a project that took him many years. In the end though, he created an entire world on a wall, one that you could almost walk right into.
Beautifully told and illustrated, this picture book biography takes a playful tone right from the beginning. The sense that Daozi was not in control of his own gift makes for a wonderful insight into the drive and talent of artists and the way their talents can control them. It is also a tribute to the skills gained by doing what you love and practicing a tremendous amount. Daozi’s work and its lifelike quality is captured through a magical transformation to life in the story, making this feel much more like folklore than a biography.
Look’s text will work best for elementary-aged children, as she tells the story of hard work and talent combined into something spectacular. They will also be more likely to understand the juxtaposition of biography and magical realism that is in the book. Her writing is clear and lingers in all of the right moments and moves quickly when those moments are right too. So’s illustrations are a tribute to Chinese art. Done with clear brushstrokes, they also have fine details and small touches that make them shine.
This is a very impressive biography of an incredible artist that few children will be aware of before reading this book, making it perfect to share with children in art classes. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House via Edelweiss.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Born in 1888, Horace Pippin loved to draw from the time he was a small child. He would draw on scrap paper using charcoal, he would draw for his friends, and he would even draw on his spelling tests though his teacher did not appreciate that. As he grew, he had to quit school in 8th grade. He worked hard with his hands in different ways, but continued to draw and paint. Then Horace went to war and was wounded in his right arm. Now he could no longer draw, or so he thought. He started trying again with a poker and using his other hand to steady himself. As he grew stronger, he drew more and more. Eventually, he gained the attention of people like N. C. Wyeth, who helped put together his first art show. Pippin’s life that was filled with hardships and obstacles serves as inspiration for young artists.
Bryant and Sweet collaborated before with Caldecott Honor results. This picture book biography of an important but lesser known African-American artist shows the power of art in one’s life and how it is impossible to stop seeing and communicating the world through art once you begin. Bryant writes with a solidity that is lovely. Incorporating Pippin’s own words from letters, she captures the life of this artist and how he came to be recognized for his work.
Sweet too weaves Pippin’s words into her art. Her use of collage truly builds Pippin’s world before readers’ eyes. My favorite image in the book is Pippin as a young boy sitting and drawing on piles of papers. It captures the intensity with which he created art even at such a young age. This intensity continues through his story to after he is wounded and the determination that is apparent in just his hands.
Another very successful collaboration of these two masters, this biographical picture book should serve as its own splash of red on every library’s shelves. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse by Marjorie Blain Parker, illustrated by Holly Berry
Matisse grew up in a French town that was industrial and gray. Despite this, he dreamed in bright colors. He was a boy who did not do well in school, at music, or really at much of anything except dreaming. Matisse decided to study law in Paris, but he discovered that being a law clerk was very dull, copying legal documents word for word by hand. Due to the stress, Matisse ended up in a hospital bed for months. It was there that he started painting to pass the time. Now he had found exactly what he was good at. It wasn’t easy, there were times he lacked food and money, but he worked very hard at his art. Years later, Matisse found himself sick and in bed again in his old age. He could no longer stand at an easel, so he turned to making cut-out collages, and those pieces turned out to be some of his most celebrated creations.
Parker vividly tells the story of a boy who grew up as a very unlikely artist. From his colorless surroundings to the fact that he had never discovered his artistic gift, it is amazing that Matisse became what he was. I appreciate particularly her celebration of the creative and the imaginative. She also makes sure though that young readers know how much work it took for Matisse to reach success and that it did not come instantaneously. It’s a book that speaks to everyone having a gift, but also the hard work it takes to achieve it.
Berry’s art plays black-and-white against brilliant color. The gray world of Matisse’s youth is shown in intricate pencil illustrations, but pales against the radiant color of his dreams and his art. As the pages turn, Matisse’s world becomes the same colors as the art he creates, demonstrating that he has finally found his place in the world as a whole.
Beautifully illustrated and written as an inspiration to young people looking for their own special place in the world, this is a very special look at a famous artist. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.
The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Amanda Hall
This striking picture book is a biography of the artist, Henri Rousseau. It tells the story of this man as he started to do art at forty years old. Rousseau dreamt of being an artist because he saw so much beauty and color everywhere. He couldn’t afford lessons, so he read many books to learn techniques and structure. At age 41, Rousseau entered an art exhibition for the first time. The art experts said mean things about his art, but Rousseau kept painting. Inspired by the World’s Fair in Paris, he began to draw jungles. Rousseau kept entering exhibitions and kept getting rude things written about his art. He kept on painting, eventually getting accepted by the younger artists in Paris, like Pablo Picasso. By the end of his life, no one was laughing or scorning his art. Rousseau had not just proven himself to the critics, but to the entire world.
Markel has chosen to write this book in the present tense and also to call Rousseau by his first name throughout. Both of these make the book feel welcoming and immediate. The prose here is never dense and at times is almost playful as Rousseau (or Henri) starts to discover his talent and inspirations. It is like you are discovering things alongside Rousseau.
Hall’s art pays beautiful homage to Rousseau’s own work. Reading her Illustrator’s Note, one finds that she has changed her medium for this book, using watercolor and acrylics to achieve Rousseau’s characteristic look and feel. She also used some of his original work as direct inspiration, adding his breaking of scale and perspective rules as well.
This is a superb picture book biography of an artist who came late to finding his passion in life. Both his life and work are inspirations for children and adults to dream big and ignore the critics. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
This picture book is a beautiful tribute to a legendary folk artist. Bill Traylor grew up a slave in Alabama. Born in 1854, he worked in the fields as a child. When the slaves were freed at the end of the Civil War, his family stayed on working as sharecroppers on the same land they worked as slaves. As things happened to him throughout his life, from hunger to parties, Bill Traylor remembered it all. When he finally left the farm and headed to the big city of Montgomery, it was those memories that he drew and painted. At age 85, he started drawing and kept on. He got attention for it too, eventually getting a gallery show in 1940. Bill Traylor showed his life and his heart through his simple yet powerful art.
Tate does not shy away from truly embracing Traylor in this picture book. The book has more words than many picture books, but they are necessary to truly recreate both the memories of Bill Traylor and the amazing transformation to artist that happened so late in his life. The writing is solid and smooth, building a full life before your eyes.
Christie’s art hearkens back to that of Traylor’s in its rough simplicity. It speaks to the deep colors and the power of plain paint and strong lines. There is also a wonderful dynamic quality to the art that offers motion and storytelling.
A lovely look at the life of a folk artist, this book is a great example of a picture book biography. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Monet Paints a Day by Julie Danneberg, illustrated by Caitlin Heimerl
Told in the first person by Monet, this book explores his painting process when he was on holiday in Etretat, France. Children waited for him when he leaves his hotel, wanting to help carry his canvasses to the seaside. When they reached the strip of sand at the bottom of the cliffs, the canvasses were placed against the cliff. Monet was unique in painting right in the middle of the landscape rather than sketching and then finishing the painting in his studio. Because of his unique approach, he had many canvasses in process at the same time. On this day, he got so involved in painting that he didn’t realize how quickly the tide was coming in. Everything was taken out by the sea, so he had to begin again on a new day.
Danneberg manages to tell two levels of story here. There is the day that Monet is painting which is explored in exquisite detail. Then in small boxes that are offset from the rest of the story, there is historical context offered about how Monet differs from other artists of his time and how he was creating an entirely new style of painting. The Author’s Note at the end offers even more detail as well as a copy of Monet’s Waves at the Manneporte so that readers can see an example of Monet’s work.
Heimerl has the challenge of doing a picture book based on a famous artist. In her illustrations she manages to create illustrations that both are their own style and yet pay homage to impressionism. She achieves this with small touches, daubs of watercolor, here and there, lightening and brightening the illustrations.
A very successful picture book biography of Monet, this will be enjoyed by elementary art teachers and students. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Charlesbridge.
Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
In 1939, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company commissioned two painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. This picture book is the story of her trip to Hawaii funded by the company. O’Keeffe spent time on each of the Hawaiian islands. Her first stop was Oahu where she saw pineapples in the fields. She wanted to spend time close to the plants as they grew, but the company did not approve. They gave her a pineapple that had been picked, but that was not the same for O’Keeffe. She next went to Maui where she spent time near a rainforest and waterfalls. She painted what she wanted, when she wanted. On the island of Hawaii, she saw volcanoes, rare red coral and lots of flowers. Finally, she went to Kauai and visited with the local artists as the air was filled with the scent of burning sugar. But when she returned to the mainland, she didn’t have a single picture of a pineapple. The company was upset, and so was O’Keeffe, who hated being told what to paint. So how could they resolve this?
Novesky brings the Hawaiian island to lush life in this picture book. Her words tell of the beauty and diversity of the islands. They also show how the islands impacted the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. The story is told on a level that children will enjoy, giving examples of what inspired O’Keefe to paint and what did not. It is a strong story about how creativity and inspiration work.
Morales’ art is so lovely. As she says in her illustrator’s note at the end of the book, she took inspiration for the illustrations not only from the twenty paintings that O’Keeffe created in Hawaii, but also from works throughout O’Keeffe’s lifetime. The illustrations have something that I can’t put into words. It’s a kinship or a closeness with the original work.
This is a gorgeous and striking picture book about a dynamic, one-of-a-kind artist. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Pablo Picasso started out painting just like everyone else, but when he started to paint his moods in colors, things started to change. The gallery owners wanted more pictures in just the same style, and suddenly Picasso became wealthy and well know. But Picasso was not interested in painting the same rose colored paintings again and again. Instead, he becomes inspired by African masks and does a new painting that breaks all of the rules. When it is unveiled, the reaction is strongly negative and it is called “ugly” by the critics. When the entire world starts doubting him, Picasso works even harder, coming out with another painting that is the birth of modernism. This book displays the strength needed to stay true to yourself all through the lens of the incredible Pablo Picasso.
Winter has not written a conventional picture book biography here. Instead, he plays with the format. He uses comic book techniques like BLAM! and has pages that range from just a sentence or two to ones that are lengthier and provide more information and insight into Picasso. This biography is less about the details of his life and much more about his art and its inspiration and evolving style. We learn nothing of his family, but much about his process and his drive.
Hawkes’ illustrations carry that same playful feeling forward. He toys with perspective, enjoys depicting the close quarters in Paris with see-through walls. It takes a certain amount of playfulness to take on a book about Picasso and not imitate his style in the illustrations. Hawkes’ style remains true to himself, underlining the overall message of the book by doing so.
A creative and fun picture book biography about a vibrant and rebellious artist, this book should find a place in children’s nonfiction collections. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Dream Something Big: The Story of the Watts Towers by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Susan L. Roth
Told through the voice of a fictional child, this is a look at the building of the Watts Towers, a huge art piece that is outsider art and has been named a National Landmark. Simon Rodia, called Uncle Simon in the book, built the towers from glass, pottery shards, seashells and a vision. Each piece on the towers was selected by hand. The book shows the careful selection and then the transformation from garbage to art. This is about the artistic dream and the process more than the man himself. Because the building of the towers took decades, the story shows the girl grown into a woman with her own children. It is a story of an artist, his skill, and the strength and vision it took to make it happen.
Aston has written so simply here that her format speaks also to the simplicity yet complexity too of the art itself. She writes in the first person, inviting people into the story. As she explores the process of the art, it is broken into parts and becomes jewel like too. These are small moments and decisions that contribute to the whole. The moments of creation are exceptionally important to the feel of the entire book. They are moments that are celebrated and savored.
Roth’s incredible collage illustrations also elevate this book. They are bright, filled with motion, and there is a constant feel of confetti and celebration on the page. The shards and small treasures slowly coalesce into the towers and the gates around them. The art is so close to reality that when the final page is turned and one sees a photograph of the towers, there is no jilt to reality. Roth captured the spirit of the art so completely that it just feels right to see the real work at that point.
This is a powerful picture book about the process and importance of art and the act of creation. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books for Young Readers.
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Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge
Paige has just moved with her family to New York City. She is having trouble relating to her mother and had to leave her best friend behind. Now she has to find people in the big city who can understand her. But before she can do that, she has to start to understand herself. Is she the quiet girl or can she become an extroverted artist? As Paige struggles to find herself and to find her voice as an artist, readers are treated to an extraordinary look at the process of art combined with the process of finding friends and love.
Gulledge has created a graphic novel where the visuals are powerful and speak volumes. She turns the comic format into one that is strongly artistic and very visual. Here we see the emotions of Paige brought to visual life from her self-doubts to her most self-aware. Paige is a character that readers with artistic interests will relate to easily. Her yearning to create combined with her doubts and worries make for a book with plenty to inspire other young artists to take the risk of creation.
Get this in the hands of tween and teen artists and step back. A truly inspiring read. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from library copy.
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Check out the trailer that gives a sense of the great art: