10 Great Picture Books About Art by Elizabeth Dillow
“We must guard against the tendency to suppose that our national well-being is served primarily by advances in technology, however important and timely these may be. …And the social sciences and the humanities and fine arts are as important to the quality of our culture and eventually to the strength of our nation as are engineering and the physical sciences, upon which now so much obviously depends.”
—Sterling McMurrin, U.S. Commissioner of Education, 1961
I’ll begin by disclosing an important fact: I am not an expert in any way, shape, or form on the intricacies of Common Core standards or their adoption, because I have not been a classroom teacher in over a decade. But I am a mother of three school-aged children (who have attended schools in six states since 2006) and a regular reader of the news, so I have an inkling of what may or may not be a trend: art education is unequally implemented in the U.S. An hour a week here, a volunteer-staffed program funded by PTO dollars there, or in the worst-case scenarios: never. Whether the time crunch to meet Common Core standards in STEM and Language Arts is simply too much or district budgets are shifting for other reasons, art education is not a given.
So what are we to do? What we readers always do: help fill the void with books. Books out loud, books in hands, books on display—it might not be The Answer, but it’s definitely an answer. It’s up to all of us to encourage both the creation of and communion with art in our communities to contribute to the strength of our nation. Here are ten great picture books to get you started!
My Pen by Christopher Myers
Kids have so many decisions made for them every day—but as Christopher Myers demonstrates, a blank sketchbook and a simple pen puts the power back in their hands. He doesn’t prescribe what to draw, but rather offers the invitation to dig deep and figure it out for yourself.
Sky Color by Peter H. Reynolds
You could pick up just about any Peter H. Reynolds book and find it speaks to the power of art, but one of my favorites is Sky Color because it so beautifully handles the very real fear of creative doubt and how to trust in the transformative ability to see things differently.
The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Grandpré
It might seem like the story of Russian-born painter Vasya Kadinsky’s life and art would be a hard sell, but this book presents an absolutely fascinating look at how utterly absurd abstract art seemed to his “well-off, perfectly polite world.” It also provides an introduction to the rare genetic phenomenon of synesthesia. The author’s note and examples of Kadinsky’s artwork at the end are a great starting point for further discussion.
What’s Your Favorite Animal? by Eric Carle and Friends
This isn’t exactly a book about art, but I’m including it here because of the important lesson I’m hoping will be absorbed by every reader’s subconscious: there are many ways to make art. We live in a golden age of children’s book illustration—and because of that quality, quantity, and diversity of artwork, it’s easy to find a different style anywhere in the shelves. This book brings many of those styles together in one charming collection. Bonus: all royalties from the sale of this book are donated to The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
Bridget’s Beret by Tom Lichtenheld
Tom Lichtenheld spins the delightful tale of Bridget, a prolific artist with je ne sais quoi, even if she doesn’t really know what that means. That is, until she loses her beret and acquires a huge dose of artist’s block. The “How to Start Your Art” section in the back is so much fun, pairing famous works with kid-friendly ideas for experimenting with their own artwork.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Melissa Sweet-illustrated books are always works of art no matter what the subject, but this one packs the extra punch of telling the story of American artist Horace Pippin. Pippin loved art from a young age, sharing his work freely until a terrible injury in World War I put a temporary end to his avocation. The story of how he learned to paint again is an inspiring one no matter how old the reader is, and it provides a way for children to connect with a historical figure in a physical way. (I don’t want to give away how—you’ll have to read it for yourself!)
Grandma In Blue With Red Hat by Scott Menchin, illustrated by Harry Bliss
This book asks the question: why is art valuable? The answers are diverse, and not without a sense of humor. As the protagonist considers what is most valuable to him, readers are reminded that at its core, art is personal. It’s a delightful surprise to discover how he interprets his own answer!
100 Pablo Picassos by Violet Lemay
It is no easy feat to create a picture book that covers the entire body of work of one of the most famous artists of all time, but Violet Lemay’s unique format somehow manages to do just that. With cleverly labeled illustrations of Picasso in different stages of his life, kids have the chance to learn interesting facts about him while studying images of his artwork. Picasso’s curiosity and love of experimentation will get everyone thinking!
Seen Art? by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Seen Art? is another book that brings kids close to images of original artwork housed at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, relying on a gag throughout that readers may or may not catch until the very end. It’s fun (aren’t all Scieszka/Smith collaborations?) and educational, too, introducing modern art in a way that might surprise kids (that counts as art!? Cool!).
The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated by Bruce Ingman
Ahlberg and Ingman create a silly world with a powerful lesson similar to Christopher Myers’ My Pen: your imagination and your pencil are inextricably linked. The story reads like an improvisational skit where the question is always “what’s next?” Linking drawing to creative writing might not speak to every child, but it’s a compelling tool to explore expression and divergent thinking. That’s a tool worth using.
Elizabeth Dillow is a photographer, writer, and designer who still has her first big set of fancy colored pencils from the early 1980s. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her husband, three daughters, and about two tons of books. She blogs at A Swoop and a Dart.