A Song For Gwendolyn Brooks (Alice Faye Duncan)

Hello, friends! Our book today is A Song For Gwendolyn Brooks, written by Alice Faye Duncan and illustrated by Xia Gordon, an appropriately poetic look at the life and work of the famed Pulitzer Prize winner.

Gwendolyn is a shy young girl, growing up in Chicago in the 1920’s. Other children her age play and yell and live out loud, but Gwendolyn is content to read, to observe, and most of all, to write. She fills journals with poems, challenging herself to compose one each day, reworking the ones she likes and burying the ones she doesn’t in her mother’s garden. Her poems are so advanced for her age (and, it is implied, skin color) that her teacher accuses her of plagiarism. Her theretofore-quietly supportive parents protest this, her mother having Gwendolyn compose a poem on the spot to prove her talent. With the encouragement of her parents, then later friends and husband, Gwendolyn continues to compose, write, study, and create, her work winning awards and accolades wherever it is published. In 1950, she wins the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first black person to do so – the shy young bud having grown into a furious flower.

Beautiful. Exploring Brooks’s life and work through poems – mostly free-verse couplets – Duncan invites the audience to share Gwendolyn’s voice in the telling of her story. Several of Brooks’s own poems are included in the text as well, and readers get a real sense of how much work and effort went into perfecting her craft (an element that greatly appealed to me; picture books about artists don’t often explore the WORK that goes into being great, only the talent). The art is wonderfully done, using a minimalist eye with rich, folksy tones that evokes both the art of the time and Brooks’s work and personality. The length might be better for slightly older bookworms, though JJ was engaged throughout due to the beautiful art and passionate verse. A beautiful tribute to a brilliant artist, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

What If… (Samantha Berger)

Hello, friends! Our book today is What If…, written by Samantha Berger and illustrated by Mike Curato, an ode to the power of the creative mind.

With a pencil and paper, the unnamed protagonist can write stories and draw art to tell the tales that sing from within her. But what if the pencil was gone? Not a problem – she could fold the paper into origami sculptures to create her stories. And if the paper was gone? Not to worry, there is no end to the mediums she could use to create and express herself: wallpaper, wood, snow, song, dance, dirt, light and dark, on and on. There’s a whole universe of stories within her, and she will find a way to bring them to life by any means available: “As long as I live, I will always create.”

Delightful! A passionate look at the drive to express oneself through art, the charm is in the girl’s unflagging ability to find artistic outlet, and Curato’s fabulous mixed-media depictions of this. With each medium, her work grows more elaborate and fantastic: a life-sized paper airplane carved from a wooden table, a fire-breathing dragon of autumn-colored leaves, an igloo and snowman constructed of sugar cubes and marshmallows. Then even stripped down to basics – creating shadow puppets or singing into the darkness in the absence of light – she aims to artistic expression still. It’s a nice way of exploring creativity as a need, and the indefatigable drive artists have to make real the inspiration within them. For artistic young readers, this will feel like a book that speaks directly to them, and validates this drive. Otherwise, the length was fine, and JJ loved the colors and textures of the brilliant artwork. A lovely bit of encouragement for young creatives, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

Yayoi Kusama: From Here To Infinity (Sarah Suzuki)

Hello, friends! Our book for today is Yayoi Kusama: From Here To Infinity, written by Sarah Suzuki and illustrated by Ellen Weinstein, a visually striking picture book biography of the Japanese avant-garde artist.

Yayoi was born in Japan in 1929, into a world of natural beauty and color. As a child, she would paint and draw the world around her – her home city of Matsumoto, the plants in her family’s nursery, the streams and forests of her youth – represented as colorful dots. Not everyone understood her dots: her family tried to train her to become a proper lady, and her art school teachers tried to force her to paint in the traditional Japanese style, but Yayoi’s inspirations could not be contained. She set off on her own to the United States, and painted at every chance she could get, creating more and more paintings and sculptures of her dots. Then one day, she was invited to show her work at a gallery – and people went wild for it. Yayoi travelled the world, creating art, then returned to Japan and continues to create and innovate to this day.

Fascinating! I was somewhat aware of Kusama’s work before reading this, and it was wonderful to learn more about her art and the life that inspired it – though I wish some mention might have been made of her long relationship with mental illness, and how she used art to channel her emotions and struggles. Still, the story is brief yet engaging, and the stylized art (inspired by Kusama’s work, naturally) is bold, vivid, and gorgeous. In fact, JJ especially loved the illustrations, and there were many pages that elicited a “Wow!” or “Oooo!” from both of us. The length is fine, and it was a fun and educational read. A pretty awesome portrait of a intriguing artist, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

Frida Kahlo And Her Animalitos (Monica Brown)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Frida Kahlo And Her Animalitos, written by Monica Brown and illustrated by John Parra, a lovely storybook primer on the beloved artist.

Frida Kahlo had many passions, and two of them were painting and animals. She had many pets throughout her life: a parrot, spider monkeys, two turkeys, three dogs, a black cat, an eagle, and even a baby deer. The animals reflected much of Frida’s nature and history: she was curious and clever like a monkey, independent and resilient like a cat, and loved growing up in a lovely blue home the color of her parrot’s feathers. Even through sickness, injury, and loneliness, Frida took comfort in her animals and her art. And even today, her home is a sanctuary for the animals that inspired her.

This was a unique and sweet way to introduce Frida to a younger audience, and mostly succeeded in doing so. The layout of the story – introducing the animals first, then connecting them to various times, events, and themes of Kahlo’s life – is very engaging for little ones, and feature a loving look into Frida’s relationships with her family, her pets, and her culture. The art is lovely, combining a vintage storybook style with Frida’s own color palette. However, one quibble: not ONE of Kahlo’s painting was featured! The backmatter includes a photo and recommendations for paintings to look into, but no samples of Kahlo’s actual art can be found. It was a noticeable omission, and a disappointing one. Otherwise, the length was fine, and JJ enjoyed the illustrations, so we’re still going to recommend this one, but perhaps as a supplement to a fuller lesson on Kahlo and her work. Baby Bookworm approved!

Radiant Child: The Story Of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Javaka Steptoe)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Radiant Child: The Story Of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe, a loving biography of the singular artist and the childhood that inspired him.

From the very start, Jean-Michel dreamed of being a famous artist. He would draw and draw and draw, filling pages and sheets of whatever paper he could find with the pictures in his head. What he drew was often strange, even ugly, odd and misshapen, but somehow also beautiful. His stylish, art-loving mother encouraged this passion, drawing with him, reading him poetry, and bringing him to museums so he could be inspired. Even after his mother became mentally ill and was committed, Jean-Michel would visit her, bringing his artwork and promising that he would be a famous artist one day. When he was old enough, he struck out, making his canvas the streets of Manhattan and whatever blank walls he could find. He drew strange and wondrous things that were scary, chaotic, powerful, and beautiful. He eventually became a famous and beloved artist, and was nicknamed what his parents had known him to be from boyhood: the Radiant Child.

Really gorgeous. This is a very admiring biography that captures the style and stories behind Basquiat’s standout artwork. The story focuses on his drive and motivation, yet is honest enough to not shy away from difficult details (with the exception of Basquiat’s death by heroin overdose, which is covered in the appendix). It’s a lesson in how we learn and make art from pain, and well done. The art is gorgeous, using practical backgrounds and employing many of Basquiat’s signature styles to show his journey as a boy and an artist. The length is fine, and JJ especially loved the colorful art. A great introduction to a troubled yet brilliant artist for little readers, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)