If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, ARTNews may receive an affiliate commission.
Visiting a museum is a tried and true diversion for children, but that very first visit isn’t guaranteed to be an unmitigated success. You’ll likely face one of three possible outcomes: 1) The child hates it and wants to leave immediately; 2) the child is mostly indifferent but sees a few things he thinks is cool, and that—plus a trip to the museum cafeteria for an overpriced burger—salvages the effort; or 3) the child loves it and doesn’t want to go when it’s time to leave. Obviously, the latter is the most desirable scenario, and the most likely to suggest a budding art lover. But what’s the best way to keep the kids engaged and wanting to head back for more—or better yet, to persuade recalcitrant youngsters to give art another try? The answer is easy: Get them a book on art history written for kids. There are loads, aimed at every age group from toddler to teen. We’ve assembled a list of the best bets with an eye toward cultivating a taste for art.
Joan Holub and Daniel Roode, This Little Artist: An Art History Primer Board book
If you want to stimulate an interest in art from the get-go, this vividly colorful introduction to the subject is perfect for tykes ages one through five. Part of a series of board books focusing on important historical figures such as presidents, explorers, and scientists, This Little Artist features icons of art history, rendered as kids themselves. It’s an all-star lineup of figures who changed history, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, Michelangelo, Picasso, and Andy Warhol, among others, all rendered by illustrator Daniel Roode in crisp midcentury-style graphics. Each artists gets a spread with short rhyming texts and explanatory captions by Joan Holub, an author of more than 180 books for children. The large-type layout makes it simple and fun to follow for kids who are just starting to read.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum ABC
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York contains more than two million works spanning 5,000 years of world culture, so there were plenty of treasures to choose from for this book, which uses objects found in The Met’s vast holdings to teach the alphabet to little kids. Each letter is assigned a word that’s illustrated on an opposing page by details from four different art-historical masterpieces. “A is for Apple,” for example, is accompanied by Roy Lichtenstein’s Red Apple (1983) and Paul Cézanne’s Apples (1878–79), while “N is for Nose” is matched with a schnoz-prominent Giorgio de Chirico self-portrait in profile. Works by luminaries such as Chagall, Degas, Hiroshige, and Monet are also here, along with antiquities and historical pieces from China, Egypt, Greece, India, Persia, and more. Altogether, Museum ABCruns to 60 pages packed with 104 color reproductions.
Sharna Jackson, Black Artists Shaping the World
Only in the past several decades have artists of color received the serious notice due them. In this book from 2021, award-winning children’s author Sharna Jackson offers a concise introduction to 26 contemporary artists from Africa and the African diaspora who work in drawing, ceramics, installation art, painting, performance, photography, and sculpture. The artists featured represent a who’s who of important names from the last 50 years. Selected by Jackson with the aid of Zoé Whitley of the Tate Modern (co-curator of the landmark exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983”), the roster includes Black artists from Britain and America, such as Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili, Kerry James Marshall, and Faith Ringgold, along with artists from Africa like South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Their stories are told in images and easy-to-follow texts set in a brightly colorful layout. For ages nine to twelve.
Stephen Farthing (editor), Art: The Whole Story
This book offers a beginner’s entrée to art history to anyone interested, but it makes our list because it also provides a great introduction to the subject for older kids. Weighing in at 576 pages with more than 1,100 color reproductions, Art: The Whole Story takes a period-by-period approach to art history with succinct analysis of individual objects, offering details on technique, subject matter, and the artist (where known). The text covers every genre, from painting and sculpture to conceptual art and performance art and includes a timeline providing historical context. Assembled with the help of the field’s leading scholars and curators, the book serves as a reference guide that can be used without being read cover to cover. Spirited and accessible, Art: The Whole Story will become your kid’s go-to volume on art.
Jacky Klein and Suzy Klein, What Is Contemporary Art? A Guide for Kids
The Museum of Modern Art’s collection of works from the past 60 years provides the grist for this explainer, intended for ages eight and up. Organized thematically by kid-friendly subject headings such as “Light Fantastic,” “Black Holes and Moon Rocks,” and “Playing Games,” the book ranges across all mediums and genres (including painting, sculpture, film, photography, performance, and installation) and takes an eclectic approach to making sense of a field that regularly leaves adults flummoxed, betting that the kids will get it. John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol are just some of the artists whose works (some 70 in all) are reproduced in full color within this generously oversized and beautifully designed volume. Co-authored by a former curator at London’s Hayward Gallery, What Is Contemporary Art? is stuffed with more than enough information to answer the titular question.
Ferren Gipson, The Ultimate Art Museum
This kid-oriented intro to art history from Phaidon is organized as a fantasy museum complete with a floor plan that young readers can navigate to learn about art from prehistory to the present. The book divides its imaginary institution into three wings, 18 galleries and 129 rooms, which readers can “stroll” through to find objects spanning 40,000 years. The numbered map also serves as table of contents, with headings like “Postmodern and Contemporary Art” split into subsections such as “Girl Power,” which covers feminist art, and “Hall of Selfies,” which reproduces self-portraits by Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman as cell phone images. While this imagined museum isn’t meant to resemble any real-world institution, author Ferren Gipson, an American living in London who wrote the book during the Covid lockdown, was inspired by previous trips to The Met in New York, the Louvre in Paris, and other great museums. For ages 8 to 12.
Anthony F. Janson, History of Art for Young People
Usually found in the backpacks of college freshmen on their way to Art History 101, H. W. Janson’s History of Art was first published in 1962 and soon became the ur-introductory text on the subject. In 1987 Janson’s son Anthony recast his father’s magisterial tome for young readers. Now in its seventh edition, the book takes the same encyclopedic approach as the original, covering achievements in art from cave murals to performance art. Masterpieces from ancient Egypt, Classical Greece, and Renaissance Italy are just some of the works making up the 600-plus illustrations that stud the pages of the book, which spans all mediums, including architecture, drawing, painting, photography, and sculpture. Much like his father, the author takes a Eurocentric view of art history. But despite this bias, History of Art for Young People serves as a vital and highly accessible reference volume for beginners.