Picture-Book Roundup: Art and Artists

Three picture-book biographies introduce children to the work of three very distinct artists: Ben Shahn, Judith Scott, and Winslow Homer.

The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Evan Turk. Abrams, 2021, 48 pages.

Reading Level: Picture book, ages 4-8

Recommended for: ages 6-10

The little boy growing up in Lithuania learned to draw by tracing Hebrew letters with a finger. He learned to care about justice when his father was exiled to Siberia after agitating for worker’s rights. After his father escaped and found his way to America, the family followed. Life wasn’t easy there, but with the encouragement of sympathetic teachers Ben was able to develop his artistic skills. He was a little too rough around the edges to follow a traditional path to painting, though. Not until the turbulent 1920s, when a controversial murder trial inspired a series of paintings, did his lively style reach a wide audience. The illustrations of this biography are as vivid as Shahn’s own work.

The man who emerges from the text is a warm, if slightly cranky, grandpa figure, and so he may have been. But he was also a socialist. The Saccho-Vanzetti murder trial that made him famous is still controversial. That said, we can have our own opinions about Shahn’s politics, while appreciating his bold and passionate style.

Overall Rating: 3.75 (out of 5)


Unbound: The Life and Art of Judith Scott by Joyce Scott with Brie Spangler, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Knopf, 2021, 38 pages.

Reading Level: Picture book, ages 4-8

Recommended for: ages 4-12

Judy and Joyce are twins. They dress together, play together, sleep together “under the sun, and the moon, and the stars. It’s all we know, and we are happy.” But as they grow, Joyce far outpaces Judy, physically and mentally. Judy can’t go to school because she doesn’t talk. She has Down Syndrome, which in the 1950s isn’t well understood. Her parents are advised that Judy belongs in a “special school”—which turns out to be a state institution where she doesn’t learn anything. The sisters are not reunited until years later, when Joyce is married with children and living in California. Creative Growth Arts Center in Oakland seems like a good place for Judy to spend her time and perhaps discover a creative outlet. Nothing catches her interest until the day she chooses some willow twigs and weaves them together with yarn. That begins her career as a fiber sculptor, with artwork exhibited around the world.

Judy died in 2005 at the age of 62—a much longer life than anyone predicted for her. No one could have predicted the artistic flair and vivid sense of color and texture she displayed as a sculptor of found objects, either. But her life is a testimony to the creative spirit bequeathed to all of us by our Creator—and the inherent value of every human. Melissa Sweet uses a mixed media approach to the illustration, well-matched to the subject.

Overall Rating: 4.5


Breaking Waves: Winslow Homer Paints the Sea by Robert Burleigh, illustrations by Wendell Minor. Holiday House, 2021, 38 pages.

Reading Level: Picture Book, ages 4-8

Recommended for: ages 8-12

Splash! Sea spray flying up into mist!

Look!

There we are on the rocky Maine coast, gazing out at the restless sea with Winslow Homer. He’s one of America’s premier painters—largely self-taught, honed as an illustrator, increasingly drawn to the sea. In every season, he studies it, locating its chief character: Shimmer (spring), Calm (summer), Roar! (fall). Then he retires to his studio and mixes colors, applies the paint, scrapes away mistakes, rethinks, tries again. His motto: “When you paint, try to put down exactly what you see. Whatever else you have to offer will come out anyway.”

This picture book is less a biography (you’ll find biographical information in the appendix) and more a stream-of-consciousness look at the painter’s creative process. As such, young readers may be less entranced with the text. But the water-color illustration, which consciously imitate Homer’s style, will help them see through a painter’s eye. The best art helps us see the world more clearly. As Winslow Homer (generously quoted in the text) advised, “Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.”

Overall Rating: 4

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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