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Kit & Willy’s Guide to Art; How to be an Art Rebel; Through Georgia’s Eyes; The Noisy Paintbox; vintage art books
I sometimes worry that maybe I’ve brought in too many books that are too far ahead of the kids’ grade levels. And then I remember the excitement of reading-up I felt as a kid. I was lucky to be able to experience this not only at the public library but also at home, and one of my favorite collections to peruse at home was my mom’s vast trove of art books, which she has allowed me to steward since about 15 years ago. Among them are three series of monographs focused primarily on modern painters, but also including notable “old masters.” There’s something about turning children loose on art that feels slightly illicit. I suppose it depends on where you live. Here and now in San Francisco, maybe not so much, but in the Central Valley, in the 1980s, this was pretty much total subversion. I was probably about the same age as my eldest (third grade) when I really got into these books. They were great because many of them were really huge and heavy with giant image plates, and they included all kinds of wild biographical details and just mind-blowing world history ish that I certainly was not yet learning in school. These details were such an excellent reward for the time I spent sprawled out on the floor reading the small print and poring over the lush images. Nowadays, of course, there are many art history and art biography books written specifically for kids. They’re pretty cool too, and I have a few to recommend. But I’m super glad to have these delicious old tomes about as well. Even if they mostly serve my own nostalgia. Does reading general-audience art books constitute reading up? I think it renders the question irrelevant. Art is everyone, and a lot of art is challenging for everyone, regardless of age.
Kit and Willy’s Guide to Art and How to be an Art Rebel are both picturebook overviews of art. Kit and Willy’s is very playful and fairly short, but readers will get a sense for the broad distinctions. It’s perfect for my kindergartener (thank you, Chen ❤️). Art Rebel gives more detail and vocabulary - perfect for my third-grader. I’m very glad to have both.
Through Georgia’s Eyes and The Noisy Paint Box are picturebook biographies of Georgia O’Keefe and Vasily Kandinsky. Both do a lovely job of invoking their subject’s distinctive styles to illustrate the rough arcs of their lives and their inspirations. As with most historical fiction, both books have a couple pages at the ends giving more detail on the artist’s lives and further reading.
Among the old art books, the three monograph series I have are Funk & Wagnalls’ The Great Artists, Crown Publishers’ Q.L.P. Art Series, and Eyre Methuen’s Little Library of Art. The last of those is a bit like the bound collections of postcards you’ll commonly find at museum gift shops – very pocket-friendly with only a very short essay at the beginning. The Crown series is much heavier on analysis and context, and each book feels like a fairly representative retrospective. In Funk & Wagnalls’ series, each book begins with 5-ish giant pages of biography, and then each plate is accompanied by an object label that includes commentary on the subject and the form. The F&W series is 25 books strong, and although the pages are very large, each book is quite thin (and softbound). All of these series were first published LONG ago, between 1956 and 1979. Also in the mix here is The Whitney’s O’Keefe exhibit catalog from 1970. You’ll find all of these on Abe Books and the like, or check your local used bookshop, antiques mall, flea market, or rummage sales.
Left: Through Georgia’s Eyes. 2007, Rachel Rodríguez, Julie Paschkis. Right: O’Keefe. 1970, Whitney Museum.
Top: Kit & Willy’s Guide to Art. 2017, Zebedee Helm. Bottom left: How to be an Art Rebel. 2021, Ben Street, Jay Daniel Wright. Bottom right: Miró. 1979, Gaston Diehl, Crown Publishers.
Left: El Greco. 1979, Funk & Wagnalls’ The Great Artists. Right: The Noisy Paint Box. 2014, Barb Rosenstock, Mary GrandPré. Bottom left: Picasso: Blue & Pink Periods. 1968, Eyre Methuen.