Art Adventures for Children

New releases range from traditional picture books to hands-on, do-it-yourself kits.

Book publishers are continually finding new means to connect young minds to the multiple rewards of engaging with art, artists, and art making. Whether it’s by building a model, discovering a forgery, or simply looking at reproductions, there are now more paths than ever to learning about art—as well as more kinds of art to study. As museums have begun to reach beyond Western European and North American audiences, publishers have followed suit, embracing other cultures and histories. Here is a roundup of some of the latest publications aimed at enlightening and delighting children of elementary- and middle-school age.

Fandex’s cutout guide: From left: Frida Kahlo, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol.
Courtesy Workman Publishing

Fandex Family Field Guide: Masters of Western Art: Painters

By Carolyn Vaughn (Workman Publishing, 50 die-cut cards, $9.95) In a chronology from Giotto to Frank Stella, 47 painters fan out on die-cut cards, their multifarious faces derived from self-portraits or depictions by contemporaries. Tiny but legible images of one significant work by each artist are also included. The cards form an extended royal flush of genius, whose accomplishments are described in fewer than 1,000 words that manage to capture each painter’s time and contribution to art history, as well as create an overarching sense of continuity and change through the centuries. In such compressed territory, only three women gain entry—Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Nonetheless, the Fandex, appropriate for children ten and older, is a kinetically and visually enticing reference with smart content that is often more to the point than that of many longer guides.


Art Fraud Detective

By Anna Nilsen (Kingfisher, in association with the National Gallery of London, 48 pages, $15.95) With magnifying glass in hand, a “catalogue” of famous works in London’s National Gallery, and a “tip-off” that four gangs have replaced most but not all of the paintings with fakes, readers are charged with learning about the works and looking closely enough to spot the counterfeits and restore the real art to the museum. Art purists may complain that none of this is related to either real forgery techniques or to connoisseurship.

But easy-to-understand directions, challenging clues, a clever and interactive format, good reproductions of works from Jan van Eyck to Berthe Morisot, motley gang members, and clear answers at the end ensure a lively, satisfying experience for the 8- to 14-year-old set—proving that learning about great art and having a bit of fun are not mutually exclusive.


Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance

By Andrew Langley (A Running Press Treasure Chest, $19.95); Museum of Art Masterpieces By Ruth Thomson (A Running Press Discovery Kit, $19.95) These delightful interactive learning kits open many doors to learning about art, from hands-on model building to drawing with perspective grids to discovering more facts and images in miniature, smartly packaged reference books. The Leonardo kit, for children ages 8 to 14, is part of the publisher’s “Treasure Chest” series and includes materials to construct models of Brunelleschi’s cathedral in Florence and Leonardo’s flying machine, a cartoon sketch plus charcoal to start their own fresco, and a facsimile Leonardo sketchbook. Andrew Langley’s 32-page booklet, with gemlike reproductions, sets Leonardo in the context of his era. The museum discovery kit includes a match-the-sticker time-line album of works from 1200 to 1900, a reusable-sticker gallery to create changeable exhibitions, and a miniature Mona Lisa to be restored (cleaning fabric and paint included.) Ruth Thomson’s 64-page booklet provides tips on visiting an art museum, suggests activities, and makes insightful observations while she sweeps through art history from Cimabue to Seurat. These kits are seductive introductions that are sure to woo youngsters to the pleasures of art and museums.


Leonardo’s Horse

By Jean Fritz. Illustrated by Hudson Talbott (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 41 pages, $16.99) Leonardo’s great bronze horse commissioned by the duke of Milan in 1490 never came to be. A full-size, 24-foot-tall clay model was destroyed by the invading French army in 1499. Though Leonardo is said to have mourned the horse until his death, the work was largely forgotten for nearly 500 years, until an American art lover, Charles Dent, read about it and decided to re-create it and give it to Milan as a gift from America. The story of how this monumental vision arose in Leonardo’s fertile mind and was resurrected and completed five centuries later is told by Jean Fritz with a liveliness and eloquence intended to engage children ages 9 to about 13. Hudson Talbott’s illustrations smoothly and wittily transport readers through time and include panoramic views of Renaissance Italy and a ten-step depiction of the horse’s final casting. Best of all, Talbott uses the book’s unique dome shape to, by turns, echo Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence (Leonardo’s early home), form the dome of Dent’s studio and gallery in Pennsylvania, embrace a globe of the world, and allow the final monumental sculpture to swell to its full extravagant glory.


The Yellow House: Vincent van Gogh & Paul Gauguin Side by Side

By Susan Goldman Rubin. Illustrated by Jos. A. Smith (Harry N. Abrams, in association with the Art Institute of Chicago, 32 pages, $17.95) This book tackles the story of the volatile two months in 1888 when van Gogh and Gauguin tried to live and paint together in Arles—the subject of an intriguing exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago through the 13th of next month called “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South.” Simple, clear writing calms this complex tale and allows elementary-school youngsters to focus on how the painters shared ideas and on the different ways they approached their art—van Gogh painting directly and passionately from life, Gauguin working thoughtfully from memory. Good reproductions of works by each artist vividly demonstrate the contrasting results. The real fun of the book, however, is in the illustrations, where the two men spring to life as colorful personalities working and arguing in settings documented in their paintings. Making no effort to imitate or compete with the artists’ great works, the illustrations nonetheless help art and life blend.


Art Around the World: In the Time of Michelangelo

; Art Around the World: In the Time of Renoir By Antony Mason (Copper Beech, 48 pages each, paperback $8.95 each); Art for Fun Projects By Sue Lacey (Copper Beech, 128 pages, paperback $14.95) The first two titles in a new “Art Around the World” series, directed at children ages 9 to 13, are marked by clear, succinct writing and good design, though their average-quality reproductions are useful mainly as reference points. The claim to look at world art is exaggerated, as the material covered is chiefly Western European, taking only brief glances at other cultures, such as Japan and China and the Mughal empire of the 16th century. Offering a different approach, Art for Fun Projects provides step-by-step activities in painting, sculpture, collage, assemblage, and other techniques used in famous works of art, from the Greeks to Picasso. Occasional examples from Asian, African, and Australian Aboriginal art add to this handy resource for
art teachers and their students.

Adventures in Art: Do You See What I See? The Art of Illusion

Text and picture selection by Angela Wenzel; Paul Gauguin, A Journey to Tahiti Text by Christopher Becker; One Day in Japan with Hokusai Text and picture selection by Julia Altmann (Prestel, 28 pages each, $14.95 each) These three volumes, the latest in a well-known series aimed at upper-elementary- and middle-school students, provide vivid resources for any child who is fascinated by faraway places and visual ingenuity. The book on illusionary painting invites children to contemplate visual mysteries, puzzles, and mazes in works by artists ranging from Raphael to Escher, René Magritte to Bridget Riley. The book on Hokusai follows the artist’s two grandchildren as they travel through the streets of Edo (now Tokyo), over the River Sumida, past markets, fishermen and traders, dancers, servants, and guests of the emperor—all portrayed through the vivid woodblock prints of the Japanese master. Gauguin’s familiar adventures in Tahiti are told simply, illustrated with sketches from notebooks and photographs, as well as with his glorious paintings. Brief biographies at the end of each book confirm the basis in fact of these individual tales. Despite some awkwardness in the translation of the texts from German to English, the books’ compelling layouts allow the art to excite young imaginations.

I Dreamed I Was a Ballerina

By Anna Pavlova. Illustrated with art by Edgar Degas (The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 32 pages, $16) Addressed to young girls, ages 7 to 12, in love with ballet, this book elegantly joins the rich Degas resources of the Met with edited excerpts from the memoirs of the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Although, as brief biographies of the artists disclose, the two never met, their passions were mutually ignited by the spell of ballet and are united here like long lost lovers. The Pavlova story of how attending her first performance shaped her life is captured in Degas’s brilliant evocations of the ballet dancers of the Paris Opera, from the delicate drawing Little Girl Practicing at the Bar to the glowing pastel of Dancer in Green. The union of dance and art is complete and a spur to the souls of devotees of either art form. Surprisingly, however, the reproductions are not of the quality one would expect in a book put out by the Met.


By Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Ana Juan (Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic, 32 pages, $16.95) Without reproducing a single image of Frida Kahlo’s work, this brilliantly written and illustrated book evokes her life and painting with remarkable power. The author focuses gently but unflinchingly on Frida’s difficult childhood and youth, when she learned to paint to overcome the physical pain and isolation that resulted first from polio at age 7 and then from a monstrous accident at age 18 that nearly killed her and left her crippled. The illustrator captures for young children, ages 5 to 10, the themes of courage and creativity through delightful images inspired by traditional Mexican folk art, as well as the motifs and high color of Kahlo’s own work. Juan is an award-winning illustrator from Spain, and this is her first book for children. The compelling, well-presented tale will surely inspire children to learn more about Kahlo, and they will have no trouble recognizing her work when they encounter it.

Smart About Art: Edgar Degas: Paintings That Dance

Written and illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler; Claude Monet: Sunshine and Water Lilies Written and illustrated by True Kelly; Vincent van Gogh: Sunflowers and Swirly Stars Written and illustrated by Joan Holub (Grosset & Dunlap, 32 pages each, paperback $5.99 each) This learning series, playfully designed to appeal to children in the first through fourth grade, presents each book as if it were a young student’s class report, interweaving full-color photos and reproductions with childlike drawings and hand-scrawled commentary. The modest quality of the reproductions is offset by charming humor and factual accuracy. The emphasis is on the story line, not the visual power of the work. But, as they say, first you have to get their attention. This light approach may well work when others fail.


Bonnie Barrett Stretch is a contributing editor of ARTnews and writes frequently on children, education, and the arts.

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