Visual Artists, Part 1

With declin­ing fund­ing for arts edu­ca­tion in schools1,2 and lim­it­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties for school-spon­sored class vis­its to art muse­ums, Calde­cott Award-win­ning pic­ture books invite chil­dren to explore var­i­ous media and styles of art deemed “dis­tin­guished.”3 Indeed, as pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and children’s lit­er­a­ture spe­cial­ist Philip Nel observes, “Good pic­ture books are portable art gal­leries.”4

A num­ber of Calde­cott award books extend the art enrich­ment expe­ri­ence by intro­duc­ing chil­dren to the lives and works of visu­al artists. Here, five pic­ture books are con­sid­ered, each fea­tur­ing a sig­nif­i­cant creator.

Part 1: Dave the Potter, Wilson Bentley, Vasily Kandinsky, Frida Kahlo, and Jean-Michel Basquiat
Dave the Potter (1801?-187-?)5

Dave the PotterDave the Pot­ter: Artist, Poet, Slave, a 2011 Calde­cott Hon­or book, calls atten­tion to a remark­able 19th cen­tu­ry pot­ter. Born enslaved near Edge­field, South Car­oli­na, Dave learned to read and write, like­ly by one of his first own­ers.6,7  This is note­wor­thy since, at that time, teach­ing a slave to write was ille­gal. When Dave was sold to an own­er of a small pot­tery yard in 1832, he became an astute mak­er of stoneware pots, some with capac­i­ties from twen­ty-five to forty gal­lons.8 Much of Dave’s work is dis­tin­guished by his sig­na­ture, the date, and some­times an orig­i­nal poem.

Dave the Potter
illus­tra­tion © Bryan Col­lier, Dave the Pot­ter: Artist, Poet, Slave, Lit­tle, Brown, 2010

His­to­ri­ans refer to the artist as Dave, Dave the Slave, or Dave the Pot­ter since slaves weren’t per­mit­ted to have fam­i­ly names.9,10 Upon the abo­li­tion of slav­ery, Dave chose the sur­name Drake, that of his first own­er, and stayed in the Edge­field Dis­trict until his death.11 Giv­en the time and cir­cum­stances of his life, there are no known images of Dave, leav­ing Col­lier to find a mod­el who he felt “reflect­ed the spir­it of Dave.”12 This spir­it is fur­ther revealed in the book’s back mat­ter, with a brief biog­ra­phy, includ­ing six addi­tion­al poems, as well as author’s and illustrator’s notes.

Wilson Bentley (1865−1931)

Snowflake BentleyUsing the medi­um of pho­tog­ra­phy, Wil­son Bent­ley is best known for his ground-break­ing work doc­u­ment­ing snowflakes. Snowflake Bent­ley, the 1999 Calde­cott Medal book, intro­duces Willie, a boy intrigued by the nat­ur­al world in Jeri­cho, Ver­mont. Through­out his youth, Willie’s pas­sion for snowflakes and his resolve to pho­to­graph them per­suad­ed his par­ents to spend their sav­ings on a sophis­ti­cat­ed cam­era when the boy was seventeen.

Jacque­line Brig­gs Martin’s text fol­lows Willie through­out his life, paint­ing him as self-moti­vat­ed, with a curios­i­ty not always under­stood by oth­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly those in his com­mu­ni­ty. Mary Azarian’s wood­cuts, hand-tint­ed with water­col­ors,13 meld real­ism with folk art. The prints are gen­er­al­ly sta­t­ic and posed, much like ear­ly pho­tographs. One marked excep­tion is the dou­ble-page spread where Willie suc­ceeds in cap­tur­ing the first micropho­to­graph ever tak­en of a snowflake and dash­es out the door of the barn.

illustration from Snowflake Bentley
illus­tra­tion © Mary Azar­i­an, Snowflake Bent­ley, Houghton Mif­flin, 1998

The side­bars com­ple­ment the sto­ry, pro­vid­ing a broad­er view of Bentley’s life. While this con­ven­tion is not uncom­mon today, Snowflake Bent­ley was among the first pic­ture books to employ the fea­ture. The text for the side­bars was not includ­ed in Martin’s man­u­script; rather, the idea was pro­posed by vision­ary edi­tor Ann Rid­er.14

Because Bent­ley was large­ly a self-taught sci­en­tist, many of his stud­ies of var­i­ous forms of water were not wide­ly rec­og­nized in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty15 until after his untime­ly death at age 66. In fact, Snow Crys­tals, pub­lished just weeks before he died, remains in print today. Martin’s and Azarian’s pic­ture book homage to Wil­son Bent­ley con­cludes, appro­pri­ate­ly, with four pho­tographs, one of the sci­en­tist-artist with his cam­era and three of his snowflake prints.

Vasily Kandinsky (1866−1944)

Noisy Paint BoxAs Bent­ley was learn­ing to cap­ture snowflakes in micropho­tographs in Ver­mont, Vasi­ly Kandin­sky was also in his for­ma­tive years, spent most­ly in Rus­sia. The 2015 Calde­cott Hon­or book The Noisy Paint Box: The Col­ors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art hon­ors the life of a pio­neer in the abstract art move­ment. Author Barb Rosen­stock defines this book as his­tor­i­cal fic­tion since “[t]he dia­logue is imag­ined, although the events are true,”16 recount­ing the artist’s life in rich and evoca­tive text.

When read­ers meet young Vasya (the boy’s nick­name), he is “learn­ing to be a prop­er Russ­ian boy.” In the open­ing spreads of the book, illus­tra­tor Mary Grand­Pré uses a cool blue palette and rigid lines to show Vasya, bored in his “well-off world” until an aunt gives him a small wood­en paint box. Unex­pect­ed­ly, Vasya hears sounds emerge when mix­ing and apply­ing the paint. Biog­ra­phers believe that he had synes­the­sia, in which “one sense trig­gers a dif­fer­ent sense,”17 although at the time there were no tests to diag­nose this genet­ic con­di­tion. Read­ers learn that as a young adult, Vasya also saw shapes and col­ors in his mind when attend­ing an opera.

illus­tra­tion © Mary Grand­pré, The Noisy Paint Box: The Col­ors and Sounds of Kandin­sky’s Abstract Art,
Knopf Books for Young Read­ers, 2014

After study­ing law and teach­ing in Moscow,18 30-year-old Vasya changed course, mov­ing to Munich to pur­sue his pas­sion for art. There, his work divert­ed from his teach­ers’ more tra­di­tion­al expec­ta­tions as he paint­ed orig­i­nal can­vas­es of abstract shapes and vivid col­ors. Grand­Pré shows this trans­for­ma­tion through a shift to warmer col­ors and curved lines. Paint­ed words and flour­ish­es rep­re­sent­ing sounds dance across the spreads as Vasya works in his stu­dio and the pub­lic views his work. Grand­Pré explains she doesn’t attempt to copy Kandinsky’s style; rather, she strikes “a bal­ance between hon­or­ing the artist and let­ting my own artis­tic expres­sion come through.”19 Her style ranges from car­toon-like depic­tions of young Vasya to more real­is­tic por­tray­als of an old­er Vasya, with expres­sion­is­tic images of adults, all ren­dered with acrylic paint and paper collage.

In 1910, Kandin­sky com­pletes his first abstract paint­ing “spark[ing] a rev­o­lu­tion”20 among crit­ics and artists. The sto­ry con­cludes at this point, with Kandin­sky con­fi­dent in his artis­tic direc­tion. In his life­time, he cre­at­ed hun­dreds of paint­ings21 and also wrote two books on art the­o­ry.22 Four of his paint­ings, from 1913 – 1922, are includ­ed with the Author’s Note.

Frida Kahlo (1907−1954)

Viva FridaAnoth­er inno­v­a­tive artist of the 20th cen­tu­ry lived and worked on the oth­er side of the world. Fri­da Kahlo, con­sid­ered one of Mexico’s great­est artists, is best known for her sur­re­al­is­tic self-por­traits. She explains, “I paint self-por­traits because I am so often alone, because I am the per­son I know best.”23 Kahlo faced phys­i­cal chal­lenges through­out her life. At age six, polio caused her right leg to with­er. At age eigh­teen, she was seri­ous­ly injured in a bus acci­dent, frac­tur­ing her spine and pelvis. Dur­ing her long con­va­les­cence, Kahlo began paint­ing from her bed and devel­oped her dis­tinc­tive, often unset­tling, style.

In the 2015 Calde­cott Hon­or book Viva Fri­da, author-illus­tra­tor Yuyi Morales offers a lov­ing trib­ute to the artist. The spare bilin­gual text affirms dis­cov­ery and play, dreams and cre­ativ­i­ty. Morales’ remark­able sur­re­al­is­tic illus­tra­tions draw read­ers into a won­drous world. The ini­tial series of stun­ning spreads include hand-craft­ed three-dimen­sion­al pup­pets made from steel, poly­mer clay, and wool;24  these are posi­tioned on col­or­ful sets, then pho­tographed by Tim O’Meara. Per­spec­tives shift in each dou­ble-page, full bleed spread. Dur­ing a dream sequence, the medi­um changes to ethe­re­al acrylic paint­ings in pas­tel col­ors as Fri­da flies across the pages, free from pain and worries.

illustration from Viva Frida
illus­tra­tion © Yuyi Morales, Viva Fri­day, Roar­ing Brook Press, 2014
illustration from Viva Frida
illus­tra­tion © Yuyi Morales, Viva Fri­day, Roar­ing Brook Press, 2014

The art­work expands upon the text to reveal details of Kahlo’s life. Read­ers see icon­ic images from her paint­ings: a pet mon­key, dog, par­rot, and hum­ming­bird. La Casa Azul, where Kahlo lived much of her life, and hus­band Diego Rivera also make appear­ances. The spread of Fri­da with an injured deer is a ref­er­ence to Kahlo’s paint­ing “The Wound­ed Deer.” A bilin­gual author’s note sheds more light on the artist, as well as Morales’ chang­ing per­cep­tion of her work. A four-minute word­less video doc­u­ments Morales’ metic­u­lous process of build­ing the pup­pets, cos­tumes, and sets to pro­vide insight into the cre­ation of the illus­tra­tions of this note­wor­thy biography.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960−1988)

Radiant ChildLat­er in the 20th cen­tu­ry, ground­break­ing artist Jean-Michel Basquiat cap­tured the atten­tion of the New York City art scene and well beyond in his short, dri­ven life. In the 2017 Calde­cott Medal book Radi­ant Child, author-illus­tra­tor John Step­toe brings Basquiat’s sto­ry to a young audience.

Born in Brook­lyn to a Hait­ian father and Puer­to Rican moth­er, Basquiat began draw­ing at an ear­ly age, find­ing a kin­dred spir­it with his moth­er Mathilde. Basquiat’s reflect­ed, “[M]y moth­er gave me all the pri­ma­ry things. The art came from her.”25 This quote led Step­toe to “cre­ate a sto­ry about love between a moth­er and her son.”26 To that end, the author-illus­tra­tor focus­es on key moments in their rela­tion­ship: draw­ing togeth­er on the floor, vis­it­ing art muse­ums, por­ing over a copy of Gray’s Anato­my when the sev­en-year-old was recov­er­ing from being hit by a car. The most poignant scene shows Mathilde leav­ing the fam­i­ly lat­er that year, strug­gling with men­tal illness.

illus­tra­tion © Java­ka Step­toe, Radi­ant Child: The Sto­ry of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lit­tle, Brown, 2016

The sto­ry moves for­ward with Basquiat’s deter­mi­na­tion to make art, leav­ing home at sev­en­teen to hit the streets of the Low­er East Side, find­ing friends will­ing to give him space to sleep and make art. His co-cre­at­ed SAMO© graf­fi­ti art evolves into solo unnerv­ing, neo-expres­sion­ist27 paint­ings, draw­ings, and col­lages that ulti­mate­ly take the art world by storm. As the book con­cludes, Basquiat’s suc­cess is linked to his moth­er who holds “the place of hon­or…, a queen on a throne.” The final dou­ble-page spread is dom­i­nat­ed by a Basquiat-style pho­to col­lage, yet on the far right rests a nar­row, paint­ed pan­el of the adult artist and his mother.

Basquiat’s life was cut short when he died of a drug over­dose at age twen­ty-sev­en. While the artist’s tribu­la­tions were known by many, Step­toe focus­es on the artist’s unyield­ing moti­va­tion to find affir­ma­tion and suc­cess as a “famous artist.” Step­toe was com­pelled to under­take the book because “you can­not dis­cuss mod­ern art with­out Basquiat.”28 Address­ing his choice to write a children’s book about a “con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure,” Step­toe explains, “…we live in a com­pli­cat­ed world, and children’s books can open spaces for young peo­ple to learn lessons that help pre­pare them for it.”29

Steptoe’s expres­sion­ist illus­tra­tions, mixed media col­lage with acrylic paint and oil pas­tels on wood,30,31 emu­late Basquiat’s work, none of which is includ­ed in the book. For the tex­tured can­vas­es, Step­toe repur­posed dis­card­ed wood from var­i­ous loca­tions in New York City. The wood also pro­vides a nat­ur­al frame for the most­ly dou­ble-page spreads. The illus­tra­tor includes many of the motifs com­mon in Basquiat’s work: eyes, cars, skulls, bones, and his ubiq­ui­tous crowns. The blue end­pa­pers are filled with these and oth­er motifs and words, drawn and paint­ed in white. Steptoe’s biog­ra­phy hon­ors the “Radi­ant Child” whose work con­tin­ues to influ­ence con­tem­po­rary artists and remains rel­e­vant today.

The artists high­light­ed in these pic­ture book biogra­phies left a wide-rang­ing body of work that is still appre­ci­at­ed and stud­ied. While con­fronting many hur­dles, from enslave­ment and pub­lic dis­dain, to phys­i­cal ill­ness and men­tal health chal­lenges, the artists remained devot­ed to their call­ing. These Calde­cott-win­ning biogra­phies share their endur­ing con­tri­bu­tions with a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers and aspir­ing artists.

Read Part 2 of Visu­al Artists

Works Cited

Bent­ley, W. A., and W. J. Humphreys. Snow Crys­tals. New York: Dover, 1962.

Hill, Laban Car­rick. Dave the Pot­ter: Artist, Poet, Slave. Illus­trat­ed by Bryan Col­lier. New York: Lit­tle, Brown, 2010.

Mar­tin, Jacque­line Brig­gs. Snowflake Bent­ley. Illus­trat­ed by Mary Azar­i­an. Boston: Houghton, 1998.

Morales, Yuyi. Viva Fri­da. Pho­tographed by Tim O’Meara. Boston: Roar­ing Brook, 2014.

— – . “Mak­ing Viva Fri­da,” Yuyi Morales. 4 Sep­tem­ber 2014. Video, 3:56. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mu8mZLmewI.

Rosen­stock, Barb. The Noisy Paint Box: The Col­ors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art. Illus­trat­ed by Mary Grand­Pré. New York: Knopf, 2014.

Step­toe, Java­ka. Radi­ant Child: The Sto­ry of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York: Lit­tle, Brown, 2016.

  1. Kevin Tutt, “U.S. Arts Edu­ca­tion Require­ments,” Arts Edu­ca­tion Pol­i­cy Review 115, no. 3 (July 2014): 93 – 97, doi:10.1080/10632913.2014.914394.
  2.  “State of the Arts,” Edu­ca­tion­al Lead­er­ship 70, no. 5 (Feb­ru­ary 2013): 8.
  3. Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC), Ran­dolph Calde­cott Medal Com­mit­tee Man­u­al. ([Chica­go, Ill.: The Asso­ci­a­tion], 2009): 10, accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021.
  4. Philip Nel, “A Man­i­festo for Children’s Lit­er­a­ture; or, Read­ing Harold as a Teenag­er,” Nine Kinds of Pie (blog), 28 April 2013, accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021.
  5. SCIWAY: South Carolina’s Infor­ma­tion High­way, “Dave the Pot­ter — Pot­tersville, Edge­field Coun­ty, South Car­oli­na,” SCIWAY, 2013, accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021.
  6. SCIWAY.
  7. Tom Mack, “Dave the Pot­ter,” Uni­ver­si­ty of South Car­oli­na – Aiken, Octo­ber 5, 1999.
  8. Mack.
  9. SCIWAY, “Dave the Potter.”
  10. Laban Car­rick Hill, Dave the Pot­ter: Artist, Poet, Slave, illus­trat­ed by Bryan Col­lier (New York: Lit­tle, Brown, 2010).
  11. SCIWAY, “Dave the Potter.”
  12. Hill, Dave the Potter.
  13. Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC), The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards: A Guide to the Medal and Hon­or Books (Chica­go: Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, 2017), 110.
  14. Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin, con­ver­sa­tion with author, Feb­ru­ary 1, 2020.
  15. Dun­can C. Blan­chard, “The Snowflake Man,” Weath­er­wise 23, no. 6 (1970): 260 – 269.
  16. Barb Rosen­stock, The Noisy Paint Box: The Col­ors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, illus­trat­ed by Mary Grand­Pré (New York: Knopf, 2014).
  17. Rosen­stock.
  18. The Biog­ra­phy,” Kandin­sky, wassilykandinsky.net, accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021.
  19. Bet­sy Bird, “2019 Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Blog Tour: Through the Win­dow — Talk­ing with Barb Rosen­stock and Mary Grand­Pré,” A Fuse #8 Pro­duc­tion (blog), 10 Feb­ru­ary 2019.
  20. Rosen­stock, The Noisy Paint Box.
  21. The Biog­ra­phy,” Kandin­sky.
  22. Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky and his Paint­ings,” Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky: Biog­ra­phy, Paint­ings, and Quotes, Wassily-Kandinsky.org, accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021.
  23. Fri­da Kahlo Quotes,” Fri­da Kahlo: Paint­ings, Biog­ra­phy, Quotes, FridaKahlo.org, accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021.
  24. Yuyi Morales. Viva Fri­da, pho­tographed by Tim O’Meara (Boston: Roar­ing Brook, 2014).
  25. Java­ka Step­toe, “Calde­cott Medal Accep­tance,” Horn Book Mag­a­zine 93, no. 4 (2017): 66.
  26. Step­toe, 66.
  27. Chronol­o­gy,” Jean-Paul Basquiat, The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021.
  28. Step­toe, “Calde­cott Medal Accep­tance,” 66.
  29. Step­toe, 67.
  30. ALSC, The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards, 92.
  31. The Mag­i­cal and Messy Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Con­ver­sa­tion with Java­ka Step­toe,” School Library Jour­nal Dig­i­tized Edi­tion, School Library Jour­nal, 20 August 2016.

Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC). The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards: A Guide to the Medal and Hon­or Books. Chica­go: Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, 2017.

— – . Ran­dolph Calde­cott Medal Com­mit­tee Man­u­al. [Chica­go, Ill.: The Asso­ci­a­tion], 2009. http://www.ala.org/alsc/sites/ala.org.alsc/files/content/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecottcomm/caldecott_manual_august2020_current%20on%20website%20%281%29.pdf.

The Biog­ra­phy.” Kandin­sky. wassilykandinsky.net. Accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021. https://www.wassilykandinsky.net.

Bird, Bet­sy Bird. “2019 Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Blog Tour: Through the Win­dow – Talk­ing with Barb Rosen­stock and Mary Grand­Pré.” A Fuse #8 Pro­duc­tion (blog). 10 Feb­ru­ary 2019. http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2019/02/10/2019-sydney-taylor-book-award-blog-tour-through-the-window-talking-with-barb-rosenstock-and-mary-grandpre/.

Blan­chard, Dun­can C. “The Snowflake Man.” Weath­er­wise 23, no. 6 (1970): 260 – 269. https://snowflakebentley.com/snowflake-man-bio.

Chronol­o­gy.” Jean-Paul Basquiat. The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021. http://www.basquiat.com/artist.htm.

Fri­da Kahlo Quotes.” Fri­da Kahlo: Paint­ings, Biog­ra­phy, Quotes. FridaKahlo.org. Accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021. https://www.fridakahlo.org/frida-kahlo-quotes.jsp.

Hill, Laban Car­rick. Dave the Pot­ter: Artist, Poet, Slave. Illus­trat­ed by Bryan Col­lier. New York: Lit­tle, Brown, 2010.

Mack, Tom. “Dave the Pot­ter.” Uni­ver­si­ty of South Car­oli­na – Aiken. Octo­ber 5, 1999. https://polisci.usca.edu/aasc/davepotter.htm.

The Mag­i­cal and Messy Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Con­ver­sa­tion with Java­ka Step­toe.” School Library Jour­nal Dig­i­tized Edi­tion. School Library Jour­nal, 20 August 2016. https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=the-magical-and-messy-art-of-jean-michel-basquiat-a-conversation-with-javaka-steptoe.

Morales, Yuyi. Viva Fri­da. Pho­tographed by Tim O’Meara. Boston: Roar­ing Brook, 2014.

Nel, Philip. “A Man­i­festo for Children’s Lit­er­a­ture; or, Read­ing Harold as a Teenag­er.” Nine Kinds of Pie (blog). 28 April 2013. https://philnel.com/2013/04/28/manifesto/.

Rosen­stock, Barb. The Noisy Paint Box: The Col­ors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art. Illus­trat­ed by Mary Grand­Pré. New York: Knopf, 2014.

SCIWAY: South Carolina’s Infor­ma­tion High­way. “Dave the Pot­ter — Pot­tersville, Edge­field Coun­ty, South Car­oli­na.” SCIWAY. SCIWAY, 2013. http://www.sciway.net/afam/dave-slave-potter.html.

State of the Arts.” Edu­ca­tion­al Lead­er­ship 70, no. 5 (Feb­ru­ary 2013): 8.

Step­toe, Java­ka. “Calde­cott Medal Accep­tance.” Horn Book Mag­a­zine 93, no. 4 (2017): 64 – 68.

Tutt, Kevin. “U.S. Arts Edu­ca­tion Require­ments.” Arts Edu­ca­tion Pol­i­cy Review 115, no. 3 (July 2014): 93 – 97. doi:10.1080/10632913.2014.914394.

Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky and his Paint­ings.” Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky: Biog­ra­phy, Paint­ings, and Quotes. Wassily-Kandinsky.org. Accessed 17 Jan­u­ary 2021. https://www.wassily-kandinsky.org.

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