Sunday, March 6, 2011

Just the Facts, Ma'am: Nonfiction About Artists

We have the usual gender divide in our family: the girls and I read mostly fiction and my husband reads mostly nonfiction.  My girls have gone through phases where they are interested in certain nonfiction topics, particularly the human body and New York City, both of which I hope to write about eventually.  But generally, we stick to the fiction side of things.

Lately, however, a few nonfiction works have caught my older daughter's attention.  She's always been very interested in art so when I came across An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers by Natasha Wing, I immediately reserved it at the library for her.  Josef Albers, an artist whom I'd never heard of before, made the study of color his life's work.  My daughter was intrigued to learn that he spent years painting different colored squares to see how the various colors play off each other.  Just days later she received her issue of Click Magazine and found that this entire book had been reprinted in the magazine, along with colored squares of different sizes for the reader to cut out and experiment with.  Of course, you can try this yourself with colored construction paper.

On another note (pun intended), the self-described mockumentary, The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven by Jonah Winter is a wacky exploration of why Beethoven lived in thirty-nine different apartments during his adult life.  Although the parody aspect of it was a bit over my five-year-old's head, she understood it once I explained it.  The book also describes the artistic process and how Beethoven dealt with its inherent frustrations, including by pouring water over his own head!

In Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan's Ballet for Martha: Making of Appalachian Spring, Martha Graham appears to be Beethoven's spiritual heir, as she throws her own tantrums (and shoes!) while choreographing Appalachian Spring, leading me to believe that the stereotype of the temperamental artist has a kernel (or more) of truth.  This book shows not just the inspiration but the effort, the editing, the back-and-forth which go into making a work of art, whether it's a musical composition, a sculpture, or a ballet.  The illustrations by Brian Floca show how dancing requires not just physical prowess but acting skills as well.  The authors end by explaining how, every time the ballet is performed, there is a new interaction between the dancers, the music, the set - and the audience - and that it is never the same twice.

This book was crammed wtih facts that were new to me.  I had no idea that Martha Graham asked Aaaron Copland to write the music for the ballet; I always thought the music came first.  Nor did I know that Isamu Noguchi, whose work I've admired and enjoyed (I highly recommend the The Noguchi Museum in Queens), was the set designer for the ballet. 

What are your favorite nonfiction children's books about artists?

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