First Books

Fictional Art Books

by Kathie Johnson

In my last column, I suggested some books that could be used to get children interested in fine art—especially books that introduced them to paintings and artists. There is another group of books that I include in the art section of my children's library, but they are fictional books. Reading these may be a different way to approach the subject, especially for the imaginative child.

Most of these are picture books, so they may not immediately appeal to the older reader, but they tend to be fun and attractive, so perhaps older readers can enjoy them by reading them to younger siblings.

Stories About Real Masters

I have long enjoyed sitting in front of a painting and imagining myself "in" the painting and exploring. I guess that's why I like James Mayhew's several books in which a child "steps into" a painting and gets acquainted with it from the inside. In Katie Meets the Impressionists, a girl visiting an art museum feels she can smell the flowers in a garden painted by Monet. Soon she is in the picture and moving around in that world. She is able to do this in several of the paintings by Impressionists, getting a feel for the times and style in a special way. In Katie's Picture Show, Katie goes to a London art museum and visits five famous paintings, becoming immersed again in wonderful adventures. Other books in the series include Katie's Sunday Afternoon, which involves her in the famous pointillist painting by Seurat as well as works by Paul Signac and Camille -Pissarro, and Katie and the Sunflowers, which involves her in paintings by Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne.

Laurence Anholt also has done several fictional art books. These are less fantastic and based on real events, each one about a young person interacting with an artist. So Picasso and the Girl with a Ponytail tells of a girl who becomes a model for Picasso, and then—with his encouragement—an artist with her own style. Van Gogh and the Sunflowers tells of a time when the artist needed to be in a quiet place and a young boy and his family befriend him. One day the boy brings Van Gogh a bouquet of sunflowers, inspiring one of the artist's most famous paintings. Degas and the Little Dancer tells the story of the ballet student behind Degas' famous sculpture The Little Dancer.

A few of the many other books that tell stories about actual artists are: Bijou Le Tord's A Blue Butterfly, a book about Claude Monet illustrated with beautiful watercolors; Michelle Lord's Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin, the story of a young Cambodian dancer who meets the artist at an exhibition in Paris; Johnny Alcorn's Rembrandt's Beret, another story of a child's adventures with paintings that come alive; Mary Arrigan's Mario's Angels, a story about a boy who watches Giotto paint a fresco of the Nativity and suggests that angels be added; and Jen Bryant's Georgia's Bones, which tells about Georgia O'Keeffe's fascination with shapes and her unique way of looking at the natural world.

Stories About Aspiring Artists

As I am still very much a learner about art, I have been pleased to make friends with a woman who started taking art classes several years ago. Going to an art museum with her has been a revelation, as her work in learning "how to do" art has increased her understanding and appreciation—and therefore mine—of what the artist is doing in a painting.

So here are some books that may encourage kids in creating their own artwork. Among the classics are Crockett Johnson's "Harold" stories, in which a small boy, drawing with a purple crayon, is then able to have adventures with the objects he has drawn. In Barbara McClintock's beautiful book The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle, a photographer father and his artistic young daughter try to make a living in Paris. When her father becomes ill, Danielle goes out to take pictures, but despairs. Then, a woman artist who knows the father invites Danielle in and, upon discovering the girl's great interest in art, asks her to be her assistant.

Eric Carle's very simple The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse tells the story of a child who doesn't use traditional colors in his paintings. The book is based on the work of a real artist—Franz Marc. Carle has also written I See a Song, a book with no words except the few that introduce it—a song in bright pictures. His Draw Me a Star is a bit like Genesis, with each part of the world being drawn into life. Donald Carrick's Morgan and the Artist tells of an artist who finds himself drawing the same small figure in each painting. Then the figure comes to life and claims to be the artist's inspiration. Several complications result. The book offers a good opportunity to discuss fame, self-discipline, and trust in oneself.

A favorite author, Cynthia Rylant, has written All I See. A boy spends summers at a lake, where he encounters an artist who alternately paints by the lakeside and drifts dreamily in a canoe. Gradually the boy overcomes his shyness and the two become friends. Eventually they paint side by side, each in very different ways painting "all I see." Another favorite author/illustrator, Allen Say, has written Emma's Rug, a somewhat mystical story. A girl has a shaggy little rug that somehow gives her ideas of things to draw or paint, and she becomes a well-known artist at an early age. When her mother, not knowing her secret, washes the rug and accidentally ruins it, the girl loses her motivation to draw and becomes withdrawn. The story tells how her "visions" finally come back and she begins again to draw.

The well-loved author/illustrator Tomie dePaola wrote The Art Lesson about a young boy (maybe himself?) who loved to draw and was encouraged by his cousins to practice and never to copy. When he starts school, he is excited about learning from a real art teacher, but then is disappointed when he is expected to copy a drawing, and to follow certain rules, like being limited to eight colors. Eventually, a satisfactory compromise is found. A lovely book by Eleanor Schick is called Art Lessons and tells of a boy who likes to draw and his neighbor, who is an artist. When the neighbor discovers the boy's interest, she offers to give him lessons. Through her, he comes to look at the world as an artist. She also teaches him an important lesson: that "the artist must never forget his painting of a bird may be called great, but the bird itself is greatest."

There are many more such books, but these can get your children started on a wonderful journey with art.  

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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