Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harve, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Published by Henry Holt

Summary:  Maya Lin grew up surrounded by nature, books, and parents “who never told her what to be or how to think”, having left China to escape that kind of doctrine.  Maya loved to create, inspired by her artist father and poet mother.  In college, she decided to study architecture, combining her love of art, science, and math.  When she was a senior, she entered a contest to design a memorial for the Vietnam War.  Her entry was selected from 1,421 others.  When the judges found out how young she was, they were shocked, and many felt that another design should be chosen.  Maya persisted, however, and her dream of a beautiful black wall with the names of those who died in the Vietnam War became a reality. It was the first of many art-architecture installations that Maya continues to create today.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about Maya Lin and the memorial.  32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  A quiet, beautiful work about a talented artist who persisted in bringing her creation to fruition.  The digital watercolors by first-time illustrator Phumiruk perfectly capture tone of the book and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Cons:  This only touches on details of Lin’s life, and is not a complete biography.

What’s Your Favorite Color? by Eric Carle and Friends

Published by Henry Holt

Summary:  As a follow-up to What’s Your Favorite Animal?, Eric Carle and 14 other children’s book illustrators tell what their favorite color is and why.  Carle favors yellow, which should surprise no one familiar with his bright suns.  He also finds it the most challenging color to work with because it can easily become muddy.  Other illustrators cite a hue that evokes a memory or a mood.  Surprisingly, gray is the only color that was chosen twice (by Rafael Lopez and Melissa Sweet, who clarifies that it is “Maine morning gray”).  Each illustrator has created a picture to go with his or her choice.  Uri Shulevitz concludes the collection by choosing all colors.  One color may be lonely, but all together they will have a colorful party! The last two pages have thumbnail photos of each artist as a child, along with a brief biography.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This book could be used in many ways–to introduce illustrators, as an art book, or to prompt kids to write about their own favorite colors.

Cons:  Kids might not appreciate this book as much without some adult guidance.


The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  Is it a mistake or an opportunity to be creative?  When an artist draws a girl with two different-sized eyes, glasses fix the problem.  When her feet don’t quite meet the ground in the picture, the addition of a pair of roller skates makes it look better.  A strange frog-cat-cow animal becomes a nice-looking bush.  Before long, the page is filled with an imaginative collection of people and animals doing all kinds of activities in a gigantic tree house.  Gradually, the artist moves away from the scene until it appears to be incorporated into the glasses girl’s head…and that girl is starting all over with a new picture.  56 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The beautiful and intricate illustrations convey the message that it’s okay to make mistakes.  There is always a way to fix them, often making the new product better than the original.

Cons:  I found the last few pages confusing.

Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  From the time he was born, Johann Sebastian Bach was surrounded by music (and also, apparently, by people named Johann).  His whole family–many of whom, incidentally, were named Johann–made music, so much so that in his part of Germany, musicians were called bachs.  His parents died when he was young, and he went to live with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph (traveling with another brother, Johann Jacob).  There, he learned by copying music and playing a great variety of instruments, until he was able to express his many deep emotions through his own compositions.  The final two pages of the book show the music coming from his organ as beautifully colored floating designs, traveling through time to contemporary listeners.  An author’s note gives additional biographical information.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Spare text, told in Bach’s voice, is gorgeously accompanied by illustrations which also convey information about his life.

Cons:  Too many characters named Johann.

Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal, illustrated by Laura Freeman


Published by Bonnier Publishing

Summary:  Growing up in Alabama, Ann Cole Lowe loved to watch her mother sew beautiful dresses for women to wear to fancy parties.  When Ann was 16, her mother died, and Ann took over the business.  A few years later, a customer from Florida sent her to design school, where Ann had to study in a separate classroom, due to segregation.  After graduation, she moved to New York and opened her own shop.  Although she never made a lot of money, her gowns became well-known.  Her most famous design was Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress and bridesmaid gowns.  Less than two weeks before the wedding, a pipe in Ann’s shop burst, and ten of the sixteen dresses were ruined.  She rallied, hired extra help, and got the job done, even though she lost any profit.  She continued designing and sewing well into her 70’s, her primary motivation, “to prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer.”  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  An inspiring story of a little-known woman.  The repeating refrain of the story is, “Ann thought about what she could do, not what she couldn’t change.”  Beautifully illustrated, with some of Ann’s designs gracing the endpapers.

Cons:  My constant search to find Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum lurking in the illustrations indicates I have been watching too much “Project Runway”.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Published by Little, Brown, and Company 

Summary:  Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up in Brooklyn with a mother from Puerto Rico and a father from Haiti.  His childhood was filled with art, both his own works and what he saw around him.  His mother was artistic and regularly took him to art museums.  There were also difficult times for Jean-Michel.  He was in a serious car accident at the age of eight, and spent months recovering.  During that time, his mother brought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which helped him learn to draw the human figure.  A few years later, his mother’s mental illness drove her to leave the family.  Jean-Michel left school and moved to New York City, where he continued to pursue his art in a number of unconventional mediums, including graffiti.  He lived his dream of being a famous artist until his tragic death in 1988 at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose. An author’s note gives more biographical information. 40 pages; grades 1-5. 

Pros:  The story of Basquiat’s life is told in brief, lyrical text, illustrated with beautiful collages inspired by the artist’s work.  The artwork is sure to receive some Caldecott consideration.

Cons:  There are some pretty adult topics covered in this book targeted for elementary students.  Also Basquiat’s work isn’t included anywhere in the book.

Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song written by Cynthia Grady, concept and art by Michele Wood

Published by Millbrook Press

Summary:  Coretta Scott King Award winner Michele Wood has created beautiful paintings inspired by thirteen African American slave songs, such as “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Go Down, Moses”.  There is a one-page introduction that begins with the question, “What does a bird have to do with American slave songs?”  Each two page spread includes the song with music, a painting, and a paragraph or two of text giving some background about the song.  The bird motif in the title and introduction is carried out through the book, with a white dove appearing in every painting.  The last several pages include lyrics to all the songs, a glossary, bibliography, and a list of books and websites for additional reading.  40 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  This unique book would make an excellent addition to music and art libraries.  The beautiful paintings express both pain and hope, and contain interesting and symbolic details.  The words and music make the songs accessible to all readers.

Cons:  Listening to way too many “Wee Sing” cassettes in my children’s early years caused those versions to spring into my mind as soon as I saw many of these song titles.