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Biographies and the Arts

By Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
 | Aug 05, 2019

The biographies reviewed this week introduce readers to creative individuals who have made contributions in the visual, literary, and performing arts. Included are books that are great choices for reading aloud to spark interest and discussion on a topic in classrooms, libraries, and homes as well as for independent reading.

Ages 4–8

Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me. Susan L. Roth. 2019. Neal Porter/Holiday House.

Birds of a FeatherSusan L. Roth clearly demonstrates how she and bowerbirds are “birds of a feather” by enumerating similarities between her creating of collage illustrations for books and the male bowerbird’s building of a bower (not a nest) decorated to attract a mate. With her signature colorful, textured collage art on double-page spreads, Roth shows herself and a bowerbird at work on their creations. Roth states that they begin with the collection of “unusual, often unrelated stuff that we use in unusual ways to create different and unexpected compositions . . .” and share the hope that their “finished works are much greater than the sum of their parts.” Roth includes lists of facts about bowerbirds, how these birds work, how she works, and how bowerbirds and she are the same.

Dancing Through Fields of Color: The Story of Helen Frankenthaler. Elizabeth Brown. Ill. Aimée Sicuro. 2019. Abrams.

Dancing Through Fields of ColorHelen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), a leading abstract expressionist of the 20th century, “never wanted to follow the rules” in her paintings, collages, card making, chalk drawings, and beadwork. After graduating from college and meeting Jackson Pollock, an artist who broke all the rules, Helen Frankenthaler revolutionized modern art with her Color Field school of painting which included her “soak stain” technique and use of unexpected tools (mops, sponges, and squeegees). Her abstract art was tied to nature and human emotions, and she achieved success in a field dominated by male artists. Aimée Sicuro’s illustrations in watercolor, ink, and charcoal pencil with evocative words dancing across some of the double-page spreads convey Frankenthaler’s creative spirit with their movement, energy, and color. Back matter includes a “More About Helen Frankenthaler” section, a timeline, a Poured Paint/Soak-Stain Activity, an author’s note, sources of quotes, and a bibliography.

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown. Mac Barnett. Ill. Sarah Jacoby. 2019. Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins.

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown“The important thing about Margaret Wise Brown is that she wrote books.” This statement, made in the beginning and repeated at the end of the book, emphasizes the importance of the life and work of the beloved children’s author, who died at the age of 42. Mac Barnett points out that some people thought Brown and her books were strange, and he includes the criticism of Anne Carroll Moore, the influential librarian at the New York Public Library. Moore thought Brown’s books were not the kind of books children should be reading and stamped them “NOT RECOMMENDED FOR PURCHASE BY EXPERT.” Sarah Jacoby’s whimsical illustrations depicting scenes in Brown’s life and bunny children reading books (including some of Brown’s) complement this tribute to Margaret Wise Brown and the importance of books like hers in the lives of children.

Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever. Barbara Lowell. Ill. Dan Andreasen. 2019. Cameron Kids.

Sparky & SpikeSparky dreams of becoming a cartoonist, and encouraged by his classmates and teacher, he keeps practicing his art. One day Sparky sends a drawing of Spike, his wild, smart hunting dog “that eats pins, tacks, screws, and razor blades” to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not comic strip. Two months later, his picture of Spike is published in the Sunday comics. Later, Sparky—Charles Schulz (19222000)—will become famous for his Peanuts comic strip featuring Charlie Brown and his beagle, Snoopy. Back matter in this picture biographywith cartoon illustrations in full-page spreads and panels includes an illustrator’s note (with a letter of encouragement Schulz sent Dan Andreasen when he was a boy)and an author’s note (with biographical information and photos of Sparky and Spike).

Ages 9–11

Degas, Painter of Ballerinas. Susan Goldman Rubin. 2019. Abrams.

Degas Painter of BallerinasThis beautifully designed book is a study of the French artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and his works of art—drawings, pastels, paintings, and sculptures—of ballerinas. Susan Goldman Rubin’s writing, which incorporates numerous quotes, is informative and engaging. Additional information about Degas’ artistic techniques and use of various media is provided in the descriptive captions for illustrations of Degas’ artwork (most from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), which are identified by title and date of creation. Back matter includes a brief biography, an author’s note, source notes, a glossary of art terms and ballet terms, a list of places where Degas’ art can be seen, a bibliography of works on Degas and on ballet, a list of illustrations, and an index.

Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry). Gary Golio. Ill. Ed Young. 2019. Candlewick.

SmileAt age 5, London-born Charlie Chaplin (18891977) sang and danced before a public audience for the first time. After his parents divorced and his mother, a singer, lost her voice, he joined a theater troupe for boys and discovered how “Funny and Sad went hand in hand.” While touring America with an acting company in 1912, he was recruited by filmmaker Mack Sennett to act in silent movies. Wearing baggy old pants, a short topcoat, oversized shoes, and his signature black bowler hat, in his alter ego role, Little Tramp, Chaplin became famous. Ed Young’s clever illustrations done in collage and ink capture this man who made the world “laugh and cry” without saying a word. Readers will discover a special treat with a quick flip of the pages. Back matter includes an afterword about Chaplin’s Tramp character, a “Facts About Charlie Chaplin” list, and resources.

Two Brothers, Four Hands: The Artists Alberto and Diego Giacometti. Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan. Ill. Hadley Hooper. 2019. Holiday House.

Two Brothers, Four HandsA spare, lyrical text and expressive mixed-media illustrations tell the life stories of artists Alberto Giacometti (19011966) and Diego Giacometti (19021985). Growing up in Switzerland, Alberto is the family’s artistic genius; adventurous Diego roams the countryside. In Paris, Alberto establishes his art studio; unsettled Diego joins him. Alberto abandons painting and devotes his time to sculpting; Diego becomes his model and helper in the studio. During World War II, Alberto lives in Switzerland; Diego stays in Paris to guard the studio. After the war, Alberto begins sculpting the skeletal figures that gain him worldwide recognition; Diego begins creating handcrafted furniture and sculptures of animals that will eventually make him famous, too. Back matter includes a “Looking at Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man” activity, a timeline, photographs of artwork, and a bibliography.

Ages 1214

Before They Were Authors: Famous Writers as Kids. Elizabeth Haidle. 2019. Houghton Mifflin.

Before They Were AuthorsIn this collective biography, Elizabeth Haidle tells the stories behind the stories of 10 popular American and British authors—Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, Dr. Seuss, Sandra Cisneros, Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling, Gene Luen Yang, Beatrix Potter, C. S. Lewis, and Madeleine L’Engle. Following a “What Makes a Writer?” introduction, each chapter is five pages long and begins with a full-page spread with a portrait of the featured author, a simple timeline including dates of publication of some of their best-known books, and a quote from a book. Cartoon panels provide information about the authors’ childhoods including books that they loved to read as well as their paths to becoming published authors and images of their books. Back matter includes source notes and a bibliography.

The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars. Carole Boston Weatherford. Ill. Frank Morrison. 2019. Little Bee.

The Roots of RapFrom “Folktales, street rhymes, spirituals—rooted in spoken word. / Props to poets Hughes and Dunbar; published. Ain’t you heard?” to “From Atlanta to Zanzibar, youth spit freestyle freedom sounds. / Hip-hop is a language that’s spoken the whole world ‘round,” Carole Boston Weatherford’s 16 rhyming couplets and Frank Morrison’s stunning mural-like double-page spreads provide a moving history of the hip-hop movement based on its four “pillars”—graffiti, breakdancing, rapping/MCing, and DJing. Extensive back matter includes notes by Weatherford and Morrison, a glossary, and a “Hip-hop Who’s Who” with brief biographical notes on the creative artists and others who influenced the development of the hip-hop culture.

Ages 15+

The Great Nijinsky: God of Dance. Lynn Curlee. 2019. Charlesbridge Teen/Charlesbridge.

The Great NinjinskyBorn in Russia, Vaslav Nijinsky (18901950) was a shy dance prodigy who transfigured into a mesmerizing and sensational dancer on stage. Transforming the field of ballet through his unique dance moves and costuming, he became one of the world’s greatest dancers of the 20th century before he was 30. Later he wrote storylines and choreographed ballets. Although Nijinsky was incapacitated by mental illness later in life, his legacy lives on in ballet today. Nijinsky was a creative genius who lived a tumultuous life with complicated professional and personal relationships during a time in which bisexuality was not accepted by society. Narrative on different phases of Nijinsky’s life and program notes on ballets he performed or choreographed (The Firebird, Scheherazade, Carnaval, Afternoon of a Faun, and other classics) are accompanied by beautiful paintings and archival photographs. Back matter includes an author’s note, a list of Nijinsky performances, “Ballet Performances Online” notes, source notes, a bibliography, and an index.

All Ages

Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration. Leonard S. Marcus. 2019. Candlewick.

Helen OxenburyIn this substantial and inspirational tribute to Helen Oxenbury (born in Ipswich in 1938 and lives in North London), one of the world’s most famous children’s authorillustrators, Leonard S. Marcus’ study of her life and work shows how Oxenbury immerses herself in people watching and expressing humanity’s need to accept each other’s imperfections in her evolving artistic creations for children. Oxenbury’s first book, Numbers of Things (one of the first board books starring babies), was published in 1967, and she has published more than 100 children’s picture and board books up to now. After an introductory interview with Helen Oxenbury, the book is divided into seven time periods, each with biographical narratives, photos, and illustrations (including covers along with some double-page spreads and excerpts from her books). Back matter includes a “Postscripts” section with testimonies from colleagues and collaborators; a “Bibliography” section with 88 of Oxenbury’s books listed by publication dates; a “The Walker Bear” section about the logo Oxenbury drew for her UK publisher, Walker Books, and her contribution to Walker Books and Candlewick Press; and a “Significant Awards” section.

Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English, Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.

These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily. 

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