Jul/Aug 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

Children's Books for the Artistically Inclined

Review by Colleen Mondor

Ashley Bryan is a three-time Coretta Scott King award winner whose work has rightfully brought a ton of acclaim. His new book is, most unusually, a memoir while also a celebration of his present life and work. Written for older children it is a title that will be enjoyed—even cherished—by any artist or reader who is enthusiastic about lives well lived.

Bryan uses two parallel timelines to share his story—the more conventional historic approach that begins with his birth and his family and continues forward from there and a contemporary look at his present life on a Maine island. The past is the main storyline and carries most of the text, but the larger font gives the look at his present life a great deal of power and accompanied by photographs of the beach he walks, his home, the art he makes for himself and his neighbors, is both visually and textually effective. Simply put, while Bryan's life itself is a worthy read, it is how he fills his time today that will make readers feel as if they have met a friend. His talent is unmistakable and his dedication to art, revealed in a life that saw more than one difficult turn due to racism, is clear. But more than anything it is his kindness and exuberant love of life that shine through. He designs stained glass windows on commission and then crafts small ones for himself out of beach glass; he has spent a lifetime making art of all kinds out of junk he finds on the street—fiber and tin and even puppets—and he also landed at Normandy on D-Day. He majored in philosophy and has written and illustrated African folktales. If you're looking for a true modern day renaissance man then Ashley Bryan is your guy and this is the book to make you believe in everything. It left me with a smile on my face and a wish for a ticket to Maine. Wonderful.

A lot of kids have an interest in art when they are very young but some continue to engage in it when their contemporaries have moved on to other things. With continued budget cuts in public schools it's important to seek out titles that will foster this prolonged interest and especially to show children the work of adults who prove that art is, indeed, a valuable and worthy endeavor. Michael Albert is one of those artists and his focus on Pop Art will particularly resonate with young readers. An Artist's Papers is divided into two-page spreads, with one of Albert's collages portrayed on one side and a description of how it was made on the left. As so much of his pieces are comprised of smaller pictures of other things there is an element of "search and find" to many of them that will amuse young artists and intrigue older ones. This is especially true of his "Pop Cubist Portraits" which includes the cereal box collages or Cerealism. But the so-called "Epic Works" with dozens of different brands, logos and words embedded are the true treasure hunts. "The Gettysburg Address" will likely draw the most interest from older children as it is rare to find such a famous document addressed in a lighthearted, although clearly still respectful, manner.

Michael Albert's art is cheeky and fun and something that children can emulate, on a much smaller scale, on their own. He makes very approachable art and this title emphasizes that with its spare design which lets the art be front and center. For classroom use, there is a brief afterword showing how to make collages in Albert's style and the materials he recommends.

The Bologna Illustrators Exhibition is an international event that allows illustrators to share their work with the world. Every year a catalog of the "finest established and emerging illustrators of children's literature" is compiled by the jury. In 2008 there 2,598 entries in the exhibition and the catalog includes examples of 99 of them. It's a pricy volume at $55.00 but if you have an older child or teenager who is interested in illustration then this is really the best place to peruse what is going on in the field. It's an exceedingly well put together volume; the pages are heavy and have a glossy finish and artists are given multiple pages to share their work. The final pages also include a glossary of the artists with information on publications, where they live, the techniques they use and how they may be contacted.

I think what impresses me the most about the Bologna Annual is the sheer breadth of illustration techniques that are revealed within its pages. It is impossible to devise any trends here—if anything it becomes clear with each turn of the page how there is no one way (or ten or one hundred) that something must be drawn. From eerie to comical, surreal to simple, it is quite simply all here. I also like that while the bulk of the book deals with fiction there are several nonfiction entries as well, so artists who prefer to draw straightforward animals or boats or buildings will feel right at home. This is, in fact, one of the more inclusive volumes I have found on illustration. It makes no judgments other than the art is well done, powerful and appealing. You can be a fan of fish dressed as people (having a cup of coffee), ghostly figures walking down the street or someone floating in a hot air balloon and it is all here. The international nature of the competition also makes the participants multi-ethnic. There are many nationalities featured in the Annual and people of all colors depicted throughout.

The Bologna Annual is a beautiful book to peruse for the sheer pleasure of enjoying professional illustration but for a young artist it is a gold mine. If you want to show that you respect the choices of a budding artist in your life, then this is the book to gift to them.

For younger artists Hank Finds Inspiration by Craig Frazier is a story book with a very serious art message. A sequel to Stanley, this title follows Hank the snake who is looking for inspiration to liven up Stanley's "flat and boring" front yard. Separately they both head off into the city in search of inspiration. Hank meets a succession of individuals all of whom he asks the same questions: "Where could I get some inspiration?" A construction worker recommends through a cup of coffee, a businessman suggests the library, a reader suggests the local park and from there he is directed by a bird watcher to a performing jazz trio. The musicians suggest a nearby flower store and from there he is told to "follow your heart." This leaves Hank uncertain until he sees a sign outside for a gallery opening and goes inside discovering a "huge and twisty sculpture." Hank loves it but unfortunately it is already sold. When he returns home despondent he discovers that Stanley was inspired by the same piece of art and now it is in their front yard where it can inspire them both.

The take-home message from Hank Finds Inspiration is twofold: first that inspiration is a valuable and yet personal thing and also that art can be very inspiring. I especially liked that the sculpture Hank and Stanley choose is so unusual and nontraditional. The point is not that art must be acceptable or expected but that it can be anything that, as the lady in the flower shop explained, speaks to your individual heart. Again it is about placing value on art for simply existing and seeking it out to enhance your own life.

Oooh! Picasso from Mil Niepold and Jeanyves Verdu introduces children to the found-object art of Pablo Picasso. Starting with close-up pictures of the sculptures, the question is asked "What is this?" From there different perspectives are shown and clues dropped: "I am water falling down from on high" or "I am a lollipop dreaming" until the full sculpture is exposed and its actual nature revealed. ("I am a guitar" or "I am a bull".)

This entry in The Oooh! Artist Series is simple, direct and to the point. It takes the work of a famous artist down to its bare bones and shows different components and how they fit together to make an unexpected whole. The text is as bare as the photographs but it gets the job done and keeps a sense of fun going throughout. In the end children will have a vision of Picasso as a bit of a madcap but certainly visionary artist and it will certainly inspire their own crazy creativity to emulate him.


Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life's Song
By Ashley Bryan
Photos by Bill Mc Guinness
Atheneum 2009
ISBN 1-4169-0541-3
64 pages

An Artist's Papers
By Michael Albert
Henry Holt 2008
ISBN 0-8050-7857-6
48 pages

Bologna Annual 2008
Penguin Young Readers 2008
ISBN 0-698-40086-3
272 pages

Hank Finds Inspiration
By Hank Frazier
Roaring Brook 2008
ISBN 1-59643-358-2
40 pages

Oooh! Picasso
By Mil Niepold & Jeanyves Verdu
Tricycle Press 2009
ISBN 1-58246-265-3
48 pages


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