The water lilies look splotchy up close

The artist is the hero in these sensuous children's books that will inspire a passion for painting and provide insight into some secrets of artmaking. In her monthly children's book column, Polly Shulman reviews 'Yellow and You,' by Candace Whitman; 'Chuck Close Up Close,' by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan; 'Little Girl In a Red Dress With Cat and Dog,' by Nicholas B.A. Nicholson, illustrated by Cynthia Von Buhler; 'The Artist's Friends,' by Allison Barrows; and 'Linnea in Monet's Garden,' by Christina Bj

By Polly Shulman
Published April 7, 1998 10:54AM (EDT)

What do you want to be when you grow up? An astronaut? A nurse? A firefighter? An attorney? Judging by the number of picture books with painters for heroes, book-buying parents hope their children will answer, "an artist." Or perhaps the propaganda is coming from a different source: not the parents, who think a CPA or a chemical engineer would make a much better addition to the family, but the books' illustrators, who want to lure youthful innocents into their sinister siblinghood.

Mothers and fathers hoping to raise C++ programmers should view with suspicion such books as "Yellow and You," by Candace Whitman, the latest addition to the "My First Colors" series. Aimed at very young children, this sensuous book will inspire a passion for yellow even among those who still pronounce it "lellow." Whitman assembles the collage illustrations from thick, fuzzy paper painted with watercolors, then torn or occasionally cut. The technique allows her to layer yellow upon yellow, building giraffes and buses, lions and brown-eyed Susans against a yellow sky. Her soft, lemon-shaped paintbrushes pull color across the page. It's so intense, it looks as if it might stain your furniture.

Of course, even future accountants have to learn to distinguish between, say, black and red, so many parents will feel safe supplying them with the "First Colors" series. More dangerous are artists' biographies, which could inspire copycat careers. (After my brother and I received biographies of Leonardo and Michelangelo, for instance, we spent a lot of time writing backward and lying on our backs with brushes, paint dripping down our wrists. Michelangelo, I figured out later, didn't do the Sistine Chapel in poster paints.)

"Chuck Close Up Close," by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, is particularly inspiring. The book explains how the big-hearted portraitist overcame tremendous obstacles, not once but twice. "At school Chuck's learning disabilities made studying an ordeal. But instead of giving up he figured out his own way to concentrate. 'I filled the bathtub to the brim with hot water. A board across the bathtub held my book. I would shine a spotlight on it. The rest of the bathroom was dark. Sitting in the hot water, I would read each page of the book five times out loud so I could hear it. If I stayed up half the night in the tub till my skin was wrinkled as a raisin, I could learn it. The next morning I could spit back just enough information to get by on the test.'" Clearly not cut out for a scholarly career, Close was lucky enough to have parents and teachers who encouraged him to pursue what he was good at, which turned out to be painting faces, often on canvases so large he needed a forklift to reach the top. "Almost every decision I've made as an artist is an outcome of my particular learning disabilities," he says in the book. "I'm overwhelmed by the whole. How do you make a big head? How do you make a nose? I'm not sure! But by breaking the image down into small units, I make each decision into a bite-size decision ... The system liberates and allows for intuition. And eventually I have a painting."

Ten years ago, the painter had a spinal artery collapse that left him paralyzed from the neck down, but his discipline stood him in good stead once again. He learned to use his arms, though not his fingers, painting from a wheelchair with a brush strapped to his hand. (I saw him in a restaurant last Saturday afternoon lifting his glass between his palms.) Children are sure to respond to the aliveness of his faces and to the magic way he constructs them out of fingerprints, or colored blobs, or paint so finely textured you seem to be looking at the subject through a microscope.

As Close knows, there's something mysterious about any portrait. Artists' young models often inspire children's books, whose authors can't seem to resist a direct, childish gaze across the centuries. "Little Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog," written by Nicholas B.A. Nicholson and illustrated by Cynthia von Buhler, imagines how a little girl from a New York state farm ends up the subject of a portrait in the 1830s. Von Buhler's enchanting pictures rescue a lame narrative. Like the best folk art, they combine stiffness with play -- in one scene, the heroine turns a formally posed handstand, her dress and pantaloons sticking straight into the air against all rules of gravity. The man who paints her -- tall, dark and handsome in a ruffled shirt -- couldn't be more romantic. Who wouldn't want to be like him?

Once filled with creative ambitions, career-minded children can turn to Allison Barrows' "The Artist's Friends" for practical guidance. The narrator, who looks about 6, knows she wants to be an artist like her father. But what kind? To find out, she visits a caricaturist, a graphic designer, a digital illustrator, a sculptor and so on. The book's characters, drawn in a style reminiscent of Japanese cartoons, contrast pleasantly with the art they make from oils, pastels, charcoal, clay or whatever.

Christina Bjvrk and Lena Anderson use this sort of contrast to greater effect in my favorite artist bio for 8-year-olds, "Linnea in Monet's Garden" (published in Sweden in 1985, translated into English by Joan Sandin and published here in 1987). Linnea, an exuberant child painted in watercolors, loves flowers. She's even named for one. So naturally she enjoys visiting her upstairs neighbor, Mr. Bloom, a retired gardener, and reading his illustrated biography of Claude Monet. She likes to pretend she's standing on Monet's Japanese bridge looking down at the lily pond. When she tells Mr. Bloom about her fantasies, he suggests they take a trip to France to see the real garden.

Like Linnea, readers get to know the garden gradually, first through Monet's oil paintings in Paris museums, then through the authors' sharper, more prosaic, friendly watercolors and finally through photographs, which are startling when they appear, as Monet's garden must be to visitors. Linnea tucks souvenirs such as postcards, pressed leaves and Metro tickets into her story, which she fills with information about Monet's paintings and complicated family life. No goody-goody, she occasionally pesters or whines, usually to good effect (she gets herself and Mr. Bloom into a closed exhibit by bursting into tears). And she's as single-minded and curious as any computer scientist. "The water lilies are beautiful from a distance ... but splotchy when you get up close!" says a caption. "How could he know how to paint like that? He had to stand near the canvas to paint, so how did he know what it would look like from a distance?" Linnea asks. She speculates, "Maybe he tied the brush to a long stick." Chuck Close, you want to field this one?

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Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

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