Bringing Them to Life: Artists, Musicians, and Authors

Book Links: May 1999 (v.8 no.5)

by Carla Ketner

A good biography must "animate its subject, infuse it with life," says biographer Russell Freedman. Sometimes, however, a fictional work brings a well-known person to life even more effectively than a traditional biography. When writing fiction, authors have the freedom to approach their subjects from a unique perspective. Some effective approaches that diverge from standard biography include viewing the person through the eyes of a neighbor child, focusing on a significant event from the subject's childhood or a specific period of his or her life, inventing letters written by a real or fictional character, or using art or poetry to tell the story of a creative life. Through such devices, the person portrayed becomes someone real who has believable flaws as well as incredible talents. When famous individuals can be brought to life and infused with character, readers gain insight into the personality of the individual profiled, who becomes more than simply a list of dates and accomplishments.

Although some of the books listed include fictional characters or fictionalized accounts of actual events, they also provide much factual biographical information about their famous subjects, and many contain detailed notes on sources used and fictional liberties the author took. Intrigued by the distinctive glimpses of the artists' lives, young readers want to find out more and study the subjects' artwork, listen to their music, or read their books. When used to supplement biographies in more traditional formats, these books are valuable resources for classroom teachers, as well as music teachers and art teachers. They can be integrated throughout the curriculum in many different ways, since they include interesting details about the culture in which the subject lived, leading to further study of historical times and unfamiliar places.


Bjork, Christina.
Linnea in Monet's Garden. Translated by Joan Sandin. Illus. by Lena Anderson. 1987. 53p. Farrar, $13 (91-29-58314-4).

Gr. 2-5. Linnea, who is even named after a flower, loves flowers and the paintings by Claude Monet more than anything else. Much to her delight, she and her neighbor Mr. Bloom take a trip to Paris to visit Monet's home and garden. Readers are introduced to important landmarks and museums throughout Paris from Linnea's perspective, and to Monet's life and work through Mr. Bloom's explanations and descriptions to Linnea. When they visit Monet's home in Giverny, Linnea and Mr. Bloom meet Monet's step-great-grandson, who tells them about Monet's family. In addition to Anderson's illustrations, photographs of Monet and his family accompany the text. Many of Monet's most famous works are also reproduced and described throughout the book. Following the story of Linnea's visit to Paris, the author has included a section describing Paris' museums and attractions, a bibliography of books about Monet, a time line of important events in the artist's life, and a family tree showing Monet's children and stepchildren. The book was originally published in Sweden.

Dionetti, Michelle.
Painting the Wind: A Story of Vincent van Gogh. Illus. by Kevin Hawkes. 1996. 32p. Little, Brown, $15.95 (0-316-18602-3).

Gr. 1-5. Claudine's mother works as the housekeeper for the unconventional artist Vincent van Gogh, and Claudine regularly accompanies her to his yellow house to help with the cleaning. "Stay out of the painter's way," warns Claudine's mother. "He is crazy. The mistral [raging wind] has blown away his mind." So Claudine works quietly, but as she does, she grows to love and wonder at the paintings stacked all around her in the little house. Soon Claudine begins to see the world as Vincent sees it and to attempt her own drawings. The townspeople are frightened of van Gogh, especially after he cuts off his own ear during an argument with Paul Gauguin. They eventually ban him from the neighborhood, but Claudine continues to admire his work. The illustrations are bold paintings, many in bright colors reminiscent of van Gogh's works. Several of van Gogh's paintings are recognizable in the backgrounds of illustrations. An author's note explains the source of the fictionalized story.

Duggleby, John.
Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence. 1998. 64p. Chronicle, $15.95 (0-8118-1242-1).

Gr. 1-5. The paintings of Jacob Lawrence, a renowned African American artist who migrated to the North with his family and grew up in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, tell vivid stories. Full-color reproductions of Lawrence's work are brilliantly paired with Duggleby's well-researched text in this engaging glimpse of Lawrence's world and art. A bibliography of books illustrated by the artist, and of works about his life and artistic career, is also provided.

Everett, Gwen.
Li'l Sis and Uncle Willie: A Story Based on the Life and Paintings of William H. Johnson. 1994. 32p. Hyperion, paper, $4.95 (1-56282-693-3).

Preschool-Gr. 3. This story is based on events in the life of the African American painter William H. Johnson and is illustrated with his paintings. Important events in his life are revealed from the perspective of Li'l Sis, who enjoys a visit from her Uncle Willie when she is five and corresponds with him for many years, until he enters a mental institution where he will spend the last 20 years of his life. Through Uncle Willie's stories and bright, bold paintings, Li'l Sis learns about New York and Europe in the years before and after World War II, as well as about her heritage as an African American. A final note in the text gives further information about the painter and the real "Li'l Sis," and provides the titles of all the paintings that illustrate the book.

Goffstein, M. B.
An Artist's Album. 1985. 48p. HarperCollins, $12.95 (0-06-021994-7).

Gr. 1-4. In this volume, as in her previous work Lives of the Artists, Goffstein uses poetry to introduce readers to five artists. Each artist's biography begins and closes with a photograph of one of his or her works, and a short poem reveals important aspects of the artist's life, work, and personality. Artists profiled include Jan Vermeer, Paul Cezanne, and Claude Monet; also included is artwork created by Woodland and Ojibwa Indian women. The simple, unrhymed poems, as well as the artwork that accompanies them, encourage readers to find out more about the artists profiled.

Le Tord, Bijou.
A Blue Butterfly: A Story about Claude Monet. 1995. 32p. Doubleday, $15.95 (0-385-31102-8).

Preschool-up. Through lyrical free verse and paintings that recall the palette and style of Monet, Le Tord represents Claude Monet's life as a painter. The simple, short, almost reverential text and accompanying illustrations show Monet in his garden, in the winter snow, and at the seashore. "He painted, dazzled by the light he held on his brush, just for an instant, like a blue butterfly," concludes the verse. An author's note lists museums in the United States and France where Monet's paintings are displayed, and also provides a description of the artist's creative process.

Littlesugar, Amy.
Marie in Fourth Position. Illus. by Ian Schoenherr. 1996. 32p. Philomel, $15.95 (0-399-22794-6).

Gr. 1-5. Marie, an unknown young ballerina in Paris, posed for Edgar Degas for many months for what became one of his most well known works, the statue called La Petite Danseuse or The Little Dancer. While telling the story of a dancer who was forced to pose for an artist with a frightening reputation because her family needed the money, the book also highlights the process through which The Little Dancer was created and reveals much about Degas' personality and his work. The text is simple and clear, and the soft, muted illustrations, reminiscent of Degas' own style, are well suited to this story. An author's note provides more information about the sculptor, the sculpture, and the author's thoughts on the real Marie.

Willard, Nancy.
Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch. Illus. by Leo, Diane, and Lee Dillon. 1991. 32p. Harcourt, $22 (0-15-262210-1).

K-up. The paintings of the fifteenth-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch teem with images of bizarre objects and creatures. In this imaginative tale, Willard explores the surreal world Bosch depicted, through the experiences of a fictional housekeeper who must cook, clean, and care for the artist and his outlandish household filled with pickle-winged fish and recalcitrant furnishings. Clever, rhyming text and sumptuously silly paintings in elaborate frames animate Bosch's amazing inner world. An author's note provides factual information on the artist's career.

Winter, Jeanette.
Cowboy Charlie. 1995. 34p. Harcourt, $15 (0-15-200857-8).

Preschool-up. At age 15, Charles M. Russell, an American artist of the Wild West, left his home in St. Louis to realize his dream of becoming a cowboy in Montana. Through bold, vivid illustrations and engaging text filled with interesting details, Winter tells the story of Russell's cowboy years, during which he painted and sketched everything he saw. Winter's story ends when Russell gives up his work as a cowboy to become a full-time painter and sculptor, but a brief afterword provides an overview of his later career. The book includes one panoramic fold-out illustration of Russell's work.

Composers and Musicians

Isele, Elizabeth.
Pooks. Illus. by Chris L. Demarest. 1983. 32p. HarperCollins/Lippincott, $8.95 (0-397-32044-2).

Preschool-Gr. 2. "This is a true story about Pooks, a miniature dachshund, and her special relationship with the great maestro, Mstislav Rostropovich," begins this tale, told from Pooks' viewpoint, of her life and travels with the great conductor and cellist. Pooks loves her life and her master, but longs to play an instrument like the other musicians. In very clear, concise language, Isele shows readers what life is like for a famous musician through the eyes of an appealing companion. The black-and-white line drawings with a touch of red complement the simplicity of the text.

Kalman, Esther.
Tchaikovsky Discovers America. Illus. by Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson. 1995. 40p. Orchard, $14.98 (0-531-06894-3).

K-Gr. 3. Through the fictional diary entries of Eugenia Petroff (Jenny), the daughter of Russian immigrants living in New York City, readers share two exciting weeks during which Jenny attends a concert at Carnegie Music Hall and has several opportunities to visit with the great conductor and composer Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. Jenny's chronicle of these encounters depicts Tchaikovsky as a real person who misses his homeland and suffers severe stage fright. The text is accompanied by beautifully detailed, historically accurate oil paintings, several of which are double-page spreads. Jenny and her family are fictional characters, but Kalman has based her diary entries on Tchaikovsky's own diaries and letters detailing his trip to America in 1891.

Ketcham, Sallie.
Bach's Big Adventure. Illus. by Timothy Bush. 1999. 32p. Orchard, $16.95 (0-531-30140-0).

K-Gr. 4. In this fictionalized story based on an incident from Johann Sebastian Bach's childhood, we view the arrogance and boastfulness of the young prodigy, as well as his determination to be the "greatest organist in all of Germany and all the world." Although Sebastian is the most gifted musician in his family of accomplished musicians, when his older brother tells him that there is a better organist in Hamburg, Sebastian walks to Hamburg to hear Jan Adam Reinken play the organ in St. Catherine's Church. Humbled in the face of true greatness, the young virtuoso plays alongside the master, in this very human portrait of the boy who became history's most celebrated composer.

Monceaux, Morgan.
Jazz: My Music, My People. 1994. 64p. Knopf, $22 (0-679-85618-8).

Gr. 4-up. Monceaux, a musician as well as an accomplished painter, has created a series of biographical sketches that tell the history of jazz music. "With this book," he says in the introduction, "I wanted to put my emotional response to music into paintings. And I wanted to tell the stories of the performers who brought their own experiences and emotions as Americans and African Americans to their concerts and jam sessions and recordings." Monceaux's mother was a jazz singer, and as a child he met many of these great jazz artists, and his personal memories are included in the biographies, as well as significant information about each musician. Each biography is accompanied by a bold, vividly colored painting, which might be either an abstract representation of jazz music or a portrait of one of the musicians. For most subjects, additional text incorporated into the portrait provides further information about the individual. Musicians profiled include such jazz greats such as Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and Lena Horne. This attractive work also includes a foreword by Wynton Marsalis and a glossary of jazz terms.

Nichol, Barbara.
Beethoven Lives Upstairs. Illus. by Scott Cameron. 1993. 48p. Orchard, $15.95 (0-531-06828-5).

Preschool-Gr. 3. After his father's death, 10-year-old Cristoph's mother decides to rent out his father's office in their house in Vienna. Much to Cristoph's dismay, Ludwig van Beethoven moves in, and, as Christoph complains, "Every morning at dawn Mr. Beethoven begins to make his dreadful noise upstairs." The story of Beethoven's life from 1822 through 1825, the years during which he wrote his Ninth Symphony, unfolds through letters between Cristoph and his Uncle Karl. Through compassionate, insightful text and beautiful oil paintings, readers come to know the great composer as a lonely, deaf man-with many idiosyncracies and a horrible temper-whose music is full of joy.

Orgill, Roxane.
If I Only Had a Horn: The Young Louis Armstrong. Illus. by Leonard Jenkins. 1997. 32p. Houghton, $16 (0-395-75919-6).

Gr. 2-6. Growing up in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong heard music everywhere, but the sound of blues on Joe Oliver's cornet captured his dreams. Orgill's rhythmic text and Jenkins' dramatic paintings set the tone for this story of a boy with a passion for music despite the poverty in which he lives, and who grows up to be a jazz legend. An author's note documents the sources for this episode in Armstrong's life.

Raschka, Chris.
Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. 1992. 32p. Orchard, $15.95 (0-531-08599-6).

Preschool-Gr. 2. Charlie Parker was a great American jazz musician and a leader in developing bop music. Raschka plays with text styles, words, pictures, and rhythms as he attempts to re-create the sounds and attitudes of bebop, using written language and illustrations. While the text is simple and appropriate for young children, reading it aloud effectively requires practice and some familiarity with this type of music. With older children, the book could be used to supplement an introduction to jazz music and could lead to interesting discussions of the techniques the author uses to re-create musical rhythms through text and illustrations.

Raschka, Chris.
Mysterious Thelonious. 1997. 32p. Ochard, $13.95 (0-531-30057-9).

Gr. 2-up. As in Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, above, Raschka attempts to portray a jazz musician's music through paintings and text. Watercolor paintings and hand-lettered text work together to represent the music of Thelonious Monk, African American jazz pianist and composer of "Misterioso." Seemingly a simple book at first glance, with few words and blocks of color forming the background to images of Monk and his piano, Raschka's concept rewards careful attention. Young readers can be guided to discover that the 12 color values of the color wheel are matched to the 12 musical tones of the chromatic scale, so that the placement of the colors and the words on the pages depicts Monk's music. For older readers, the book would be the perfect introduction to Monk and to a more formal study of jazz.

Winter, Jeanette.
Sebastian: A Book about Bach. 1999. 40p. Harcourt/Browndeer, $16 (0-15-200629-X).

K-Gr. 2. This accessible, if somewhat idealized, overview of Johann Sebastian Bach's life introduces very young readers to the work and passion of the great composer. Simple, lyrical text that relies heavily on metaphor and hyperbole, and brightly hued illustrations filled with fanciful images, evoke the grandeur of Bach's music and the spirit of the time and place in which he lived. A very brief endnote supplies dates and facts and offers children insight into the scope of Bach's work and his place in the world of music.


Bedard, Michael.
The Divide. Illus. by Emily Arnold McCully. 1997. 32p. Doubleday, $16.95 (0-385-32124-4).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Willa Cather moved with her family to a farm in Nebraska in 1883, when she was nine. Told from her perspective as a young girl, this story focuses on the family's journey across the country, and the slow process through which she came to appreciate the Nebraska farm and the other settlers who lived nearby. The simple but richly descriptive text is accompanied by paintings that capture the delicate beauty of the prairie land. The text and paintings do not, however, reveal the potential harshness and hardship also faced by the early settlers. Nor does the book reveal much about Cather as a person or about her relationships with other family members. Bedard has included an afterword giving additional factual information about Cather's life and writing career.

Bedard, Michael.
Emily. Illus. by Barbara Cooney. 1992. 40p. Doubleday, $16.95 (0-385-30697-0).

K-Gr. 3. Readers are introduced to the poet Emily Dickinson in this story of a young neighbor who goes with her mother to visit the Dickinson home. Emily has invited the girl's mother to play the piano for her, and together they visit the house of "The Myth," as the poet is called. As her mother plays, the young girl steals up the stairs, meets Emily, and exchanges gifts with her. Emily's gift to the child is a poem. Caldecott Medal-winning artist Cooney's soft, rich-colored paintings accompany Bedard's almost poetic text. The incident depicted, as well as an afterword by Bedard, gives readers a glimpse into the mysterious life of the reclusive poet.

Curry, Barbara K., and James Michael Brodie.
Sweet Words So Brave: The Story of African American Literature. Illus. by Jerry Butler. 1996. 64p. Zino, $24.95 (1-55933-179-8).

Gr. 3-up. "Please tell me a story. Write it down so I can put it in my pocket and carry it around," a young African American girl begs her grandfather in the story that frames the biographies of African American authors from the time of slavery through the present. Intermingled with the facts of each writer's life are rich details about the times during which he or she lived and wrote. The informative, readable text is accompanied by photographs, selections from the works of various authors profiled, and striking paintings filled with additional details. This is a book to revisit many times and to read slowly. Included are a glossary organized by chapter, and a bibliography of suggested works by the authors profiled. These authors include Frederick Douglass and Phillis Wheatley, as well as more contemporary writers such as Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Nikki Giovanni.

Koscielniak, Bruce.
Hear, Hear, Mr. Shakespeare: Story, Illustrations, and Selections from Shakespeare's Plays. 1998. 32p. Houghton, $15 (0-395- 87495-5).

Gr. 2-up. While Shakespeare is tending his garden as a break from his writing, several neighbors pass by. All have something to say to the playwright, and he responds with quotations from his plays. Soon, a "merry troupe of players" on their way to London to perform for the queen stop to visit. Unfortunately, their play is washed away by a rainstorm, so Shakespeare quickly writes them a new one. The humorous text is accompanied by cartoonlike ink-and-watercolor illustrations. Quotations from Shakespeare's plays are woven through the story, and Koscielniak has provided the name of the play and act in which each can be found. Notes on several pages clarify difficult words and unfamiliar concepts. The endpapers list important events from Shakespeare's life, as well as the titles of all of his plays.

Krull, Kathleen.
Lives of the Writers: Comedies, Tragedies (and What the Neighbors Thought). Illus. by Kathryn Hewitt. 1994. 96p. Harcourt, $19 (0-15-248009-9).

Gr. 3-7. In this volume, Krull and Hewitt, who also collaborated on Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought) (Harcourt, 1993) and Lives of the Artists: Masterpieces, Messes (and What the Neighbors Thought) (Harcourt, 1995), profile the lives of 20 well-known authors. Each author is introduced through a short biographical sketch that reveals the author's hopes and successes, as well as some unusual habits and idiosyncrasies. The biography is accompanied by a caricature of the author and is followed by a section titled "Bookmarks," in which Krull provides more information about the best-known literary works by that author. Some of the authors included are accessible to young children (Robert Louis Stevenson, Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. B. White, and Langston Hughes, for instance). Others may be more familiar to older readers (William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and Edgar Allen Poe). The volume includes a glossary of literary terms, an index of authors mentioned throughout the text, and a bibliography of suggested reading about the selected authors. The title is also available as an audiobook (Audio Bookshelf, 1996). See "Writing Biographies for Inquiring Minds," p.21, for Kathleen Krull's comments on her approach to making biography intriguing.

Lewis, J. Patrick.
BoshBlobberBosh: Runcible Poems for Edward Lear. Illus. by Gary Kelley. 1998. 40p. Harcourt, $18 (0-15-201949-9).

Gr. 4-up. In this elegantly designed picture book, Lewis has successfully imitated the style of Edward Lear in poems that convey facts about Lear's life while they suggest his madcap style and penchant for nonsense. The placement of the poems on the page-sometimes simply framed on white backgrounds, sometimes sprawling over whimsical paintings in somber tones that hint at darker sides of Lear's life-mimics the erratic, zany nature of Lear's view of the staid Victorian world in which he lived. Lewis' prose introduction provides an affectionate entrée to Lear's language and his era, and endnotes offer a chronology and detailed explanations of the facts that inspired each of Lewis' poems, in this appropriately unconventional tribute.

Miller, William.
Richard Wright and the Library Card. Illus. by Gregory Christie. 1997. 34p. Lee & Low, $15.95 (1-880000-57-1).

Gr. 1-6. Richard Wright, best known for his novel Native Son, loved words and wanted to read books, but as an African American boy in the segregated South of the 1920s, he was not allowed to use the public library because of the color of his skin. Books were expensive, so his mother taught him to read using newspapers and discarded books they found in trash cans. At age 17, Richard found a job in Memphis, and a way to use the library. The books he read inspired him to become a writer himself and helped him to feel truly free. Miller presents a fictionalized, but not sentimentalized, account of an event from Wright's autobiography, Black Boy. The powerful, vivid paintings effectively convey the emotions of the story. The book concludes with an author's note giving additional details of Wright's life. Miller's other biographies of important African American authors include Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree (Lee & Low, 1994) and Frederick Douglass: The Last Day of Slavery (Lee & Low, 1995).

Wallner, Alexandra.
An Alcott Family Christmas. 1996. 32p. Holiday, $15.95 (0-8234-1265-2); Dell, paper, $5.99 (0-440-41489-X).

K-Gr. 4. In this book, Wallner provides readers with a look inside Louisa May Alcott's family's life as the Alcotts celebrate one special Christmas Day. Although the episode depicted is fictional, Wallner clearly conveys the spirit of Louisa and her family, and readers who are familiar with Little Women will recognize Louisa and her family in the characters in that book. An author's note provides additional information on Alcott's life and work and lists her best-known books.

Wallner, Alexandra.
Beatrix Potter. 1995. 32p. Holiday, $15.95 (0-8234-1181-8).

K-Gr. 3. Beginning with details of her unhappy, lonely childhood, Wallner chronicles the life and career of children's author and illustrator Beatrix Potter. The children of wealthy English parents, she and her only brother are raised by a governess in isolation from other children. Often in poor health as a child and young woman, Potter eventually became the phenomenally successful creator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and many other tales for young children. A concluding note lists all of Beatrix Potter's works. Bold and colorful, the illustrations are very different in style from Potter's own paintings for her books.

Carla Ketner teaches children's literature in the Elementary Education Department at the Uni-versity of Nebraska-Lincoln and is completing a doctorate in elementary education.