Spotlight on Musicians and Fine Artists | Focus On

Here's a collection of picture-book biographies that introduces musicians and fine artists to children. The authors and illustrators have created engaging, child-friendly profiles that will hopefully lead readers to explore and seek out other materials about these amazingly talented individuals.

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For additional information: Digital Picks Media Picks

Many baby boomers loved the inspiring narratives of the “orange biographies” (“Childhood of Famous Americans” Series) as children but those who became librarians were later influenced by professional standards to rail against invented dialogue and fictional scenarios in their workplace collections. How delightful that the burgeoning format of the last two decades—picture book biographies—presents a satisfying solution to this dilemma. Although we expect our informational picture books to be fact-based, to have a bibliography (and possibly citations), to contain back matter and some sense in the author’s note where liberties were taken, this is a format through which freedom rings. It is the role of the creator(s) to imagine the parts of a life not known and to add to the truth of the interpretation through photographs, reproductions of art, realia, or original illustrations.

The work of visual artists is particularly suited to this format, and because children are innately drawn in by intriguing images, these books are pathways to any time period. They are also appealing to a wide range of ages and abilities. Authors and illustrators have to work harder to convey the core of a musician’s life, because the melody, harmony, timbre, rhythm, and the rest of the musical vocabulary are missing. The word choices, size and placement of fonts, style and mood of the art, and other visual elements have to convey the essence of how, for example, the music of Handel and Hendrix differs. In addition to being captivating introductions to a diverse range of talented individuals, these titles offer avenues to address the Common Core State Standards, whether students “…describe the relationship between illustrations and the text…” (RI.K.7), “Compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts” (RI.5.5), or undertake myriad other critical thinking skills.


ANDERSON, M. T. Handel, Who Knew What He Liked. illus. by Kevin Hawkes. Candlewick. 2001. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9780763665999; pap. $4.99. ISBN 9780763666002.

Gr 1-6 –A wry, tongue-in-cheek narrative highlights Handel’s naughty, self-indulgent, flamboyant persona from childhood on, while simultaneously showcasing his genius. Enhancing the child appeal with more funny business, Hawkes’s acrylics also conjure the beauty of snowfall in Hamburg or the moonlit Water Music performed on the Thames. Insets define musical terms.

CAPALDI , Gina & Q. L. Pearce, adapts. Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Ša, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist. illus. by Gina Capaldi. Carolrhoda. 2011. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780761352570.

Gr 2-6 –Paraphrased from semiautobiographical Atlantic Monthly articles, this longer-than-average picture book text depicts an extraordinary Sioux life, from childhood in a tipi to a violin performance for a president (1900). Zitkala-Šaă applied musical, journalistic, and advocacy talents toward advancing Indian rights. Mixed-media compositions include newspaper clippings and her opera score.

CHAMBERS , Veronica . Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa. illus. by Julie Maren. Dial. 2005. RTE $15.99. ISBN 9780803729704; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780142407790.

K-Gr 3 –Acrylic and collage depictions of Cuba’s songbird employ a sizzling palette and snippets of music to show Cruz’s childhood, career with a popular band, and momentous decision to leave home for a Hollywood club. Pair with Monica Brown’s Tito Puente: Mambo King/Rey del mambo (Rayo, 2013), a bilingual biography of the drummer, bandleader, and frequent collaborator. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

CLINE-RANSOME, Lesa . Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George. illus. by James E. Ransome. Random/Schwartz & Wade. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780375836008; lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780375936210.

Gr 1-5 –The dramatic use of light and shadow heightens this fascinating account of the mixed-race son of a West Indies plantation owner and his slave. Boulogne was afforded a privileged status that led to education, violin lessons, residency in Paris, and a musical career rivaling his contemporary, Mozart.

GOLIO , Gary . Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix. illus. by Javaka Steptoe. Clarion. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780618852796.

Gr 2-8 –“Could someone paint pictures with sound?” From his imitation of the “plink” of rain with a childhood ukulele to later experimentation with guitar and amplifier, Hendrix’s life and innovations are orchestrated around this question. Reclaimed wood, psychedelic background collages, and contrasting ghost figures capture the electricity of a rock star.

GOLIO , Gary . When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan. illus. by Marc Burckhardt. Little, Brown. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316112994.

Gr 1-4 –Acrylic and oil panoramas of the Midwest and portraits of musical inspirations such as Hank Williams and Odetta surround a youthful Bob Zimmerman. Trains, miners, and strikes dominate his landscape, until he falls under Woody Guthrie’s spell. Singing by his folk hero’s hospital bed transforms the young man’s fledgling career.


K’NAAN & Sol Guy. When I Get Older: The Story Behind “Wavin’ Flag.” illus. by Rudy Gutierrez. Tundra. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781770493025.

Gr 1-5 –This first-person account describes rapper/songwriter K’naan’s childhood in war-torn Somalia and adolescence as a refugee in Toronto. His grandfather’s poetry, particularly the piece alluded to in the title (which became a world anthem during the 2010 World Cup), gave him strength. Art combining photorealism and surreal distortion adds emotional depth.

PARKER , Robert Andrew. Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum. illus. by author. Random/Schwartz & Wade. 2008. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780375839658; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780307983558.

K-Gr 4 –Warm colors present cameos of the legendary jazz pianist’s parents and reveal their support as he struggles with failing vision but succeeds at the piano. Writing in the first-person and ultimately moving to cool, impressionistic scenes, Parker builds a world experienced through smells, sounds, and feelings. Evocative and effective.

PINKNEY , Andrea Davis with Scat Cat Monroe. Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa. illus. by Brian Pinkney. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun. 2002. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780786805686.

K-Gr 5 –Feisty narrator Scat Cat takes the swing and bebop queen from Yonkers to Carnegie Hall. The high-octane text is alliterative and sassy, driven by internal rhymes, similes, rhythm, and period vocabulary. Pulsating scratchboard scenes show the performer swinging in a battle of the bands and flying with Dizzy Gillespie. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

RYAN , Pam Muñoz. When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson. illus. by Brian Selznick. Scholastic. 2002. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780439269674.

K-Gr 5 –Anderson’s journey, beginning in a church choir, blocked at Constitution Hall, and culminating at the Metropolitan Opera, is presented as performance and symbolic triumph. Spirituals punctuate Ryan’s heartfelt and historically accurate text, soaring with meaning when layered with Selznick’s coppery acrylics of Anderson, eyes closed, her faith deeply felt in song.

SHEFELMAN , Janice. I, Vivaldi. illus. by Tom Shefelman. Eerdmans. 2008. Tr $18. ISBN 9780802853189.

K-Gr 5 –Fact and fiction (distinguished in an endnote) combine to pit a mother’s vow during childbirth (that her son will become a priest) against his adolescent wish—becoming a musician. Against a painterly backdrop of Venetian canals, cathedrals, and palaces, the ordained violinist ultimately conducts an orchestra of orphans playing heavenly compositions.

SÍS , Peter . Play, Mozart, Play! illus. by author. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. 2006. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780061121814; lib. ed. $17.89. ISBN 9780061121821.

K-Gr 5 –Whimsical ink and watercolor compositions contextualize the child prodigy’s “play” (practicing and performing)–and his lack of play (frivolity with other children). Clever designs imagine his exterior and interior worlds. Pair with Elizabeth Rusch’s For the Love of Music (Tricycle, 2011) to compare Wolfgang to his talented sister, Maria Anna.

STANBRIDGE , Joanne . The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives: The True Story of a Famous American Composer. illus. by author. Houghton Mifflin. 2012. RTE $16.99. ISBN 9780547238661.

Gr 1-5 –Stanbridge juxtaposes watercolor and ink renderings of the 1915 Lusitania with the unconventional musical ideas flowing to an American composer working in Manhattan, with all its cacophony. Following the disastrous news, Ives and fellow commuters find comfort in a hurdy-gurdy’s hymn. That melody mingles with street sounds in the resulting composition, “From Hanover Square North.”

STRINGER , Lauren . When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary Riot. illus. by author. Houghton Harcourt. 2013. RTE $16.99. ISBN 9780547907253.

K-Gr 3 –An alliterative and onomatopoeic text intersects with the colors and styles of contemporaries Matisse and Picasso for a book that is musically and visually sensitive to its subjects. From the humorous-sounding title to the notion that a ballet (The Rite of Spring) could provoke fistfights—this entertains as it informs.

WINTER , Jonah . The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. illus. by Richard Egielski. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978 0439930505.

Gr 1-4 –Opera leaps to life in this factually based narrative. Arguments, a miniature stage, wooden dolls, kimonos, swords, and silly names (“Titipu” and “Yum-Yum”) invite interest in the Victorian librettist’s and composer’s relationship and work, specifically The Mikado. Watercolor and ink characters promenade in the foreground against ever-changing scenery.

Visual Artists

ASTON , Dianna Hutts. Dream Something Big: The Story of the Watts Towers. illus. by Susan L. Roth. Dial. 2011. RTE $17.99. ISBN 9780803732452.

PreS-Gr 3 –Italian immigrant Simon Rodia’s single-handed construction of 100-foot towers and a boat in Los Angeles is described in blank verse through the eyes of a (fictional) young neighbor. Mixed-media mosaics portray him stirring cement, bending iron rods, and pressing “a jigsaw of jewels” (shells, mirrors, tiles) into today’s national landmark. Photographs included.

BRYANT , Jen . A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. illus. by Melissa Sweet. Knopf. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780375867125l lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780375967122.

Gr 1-4 –Childlike, mixed-media collages are the perfect medium to chronicle the self-taught, African American painter’s lifelong interest in creating art, despite a paucity of supplies and, later, a crippling war injury. Quotes are presented graphically, adding to the inspirational effect of his progress and eventual success. Pippin’s works appear on the endpapers.

CLOSE , Chuck . Chuck Close: Face Book. illus. by author. Abrams. 2012. RTE $18.95. ISBN 9781419701634.

Gr 4-8 –Triumphing over dyslexia and paralysis through art, Close’s life has been an inspiration to anyone who struggles. His answers to fifth graders (accompanied by photographs) comprise the text, while 14 self-portraits, cut into thirds, can be mixed and matched to explore his grids and media. An exceptional marriage of design and subject.

FRITZ , Jean . Leonardo’s Horse. illus. by Hudson Talbott. Putnam. 2001. Tr $21.99. ISBN 9788811580478.

Gr 2-6 –The book’s curved top carves the vaulted ceilings of Renaissance Florence and the 1990s Pennsylvania dome under which the plans for da Vinci’s 24-foot bronze horse were finally realized. The first half profiles the multifaceted artist; the second shows the lengths to which an art collector went to make a 15th-century dream come true.

GREENBERG , Jan & Sandra Jordan. Action Jackson. illus. by Robert Andrew Parker. Roaring Brook. 2002. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9780761316824; lib. ed. $22.90. ISBN 9780761327707; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780312367510.

Gr 1-4 –Research informs this account of Jackson Pollock’s process and motivation as he conceived his famous drip painting Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)—reproduced at the climax. Loose, dappled watercolors imagine the enormous canvas spread across the floor and the moment the artist “begins his dance.” Meticulous notes expand the text.

HARVEY , Jeanne Walker. My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey. illus. by Elizabeth Zunon. Marshall Cavendish. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780761458104; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780761460633.

PreS-Gr 3 –Told in the rhyme scheme and three-line structure of a blues song, this narrative shows the artist reflecting on his childhood move from Charlotte to Harlem during the Great Migration. An authentic work featuring his favorite motifs—trains, chickens, North Carolina, guitars—is incorporated into Zunon’s oil and mixed-media collages. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

LEACH , Deba Foxley. Grant Wood: The Artist in the Hayloft. (Adventures in Art Series). Prestel. 2005. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9783791334011.

Gr 1-6 –The cover image of rolling hills, stylized trees, and a farmhouse is indicative of Wood’s regional style. Numerous reproductions are arranged in a dynamic design, while short paragraphs with well-chosen information and questions engage and guide readers in closer inspection. This title exemplifies the strengths of an outstanding series.

NOVESKY , Amy . Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased. illus. by Yuyi Morales. Houghton Harcourt. 2012. RTE $16.99. ISBN 9780152054205.

K-Gr 4 –O’Keeffe makes a deal with the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1939: three months on the islands for two paintings of pineapples. Heated disagreements arise and are ultimately resolved. Lush acrylic and digital compositions of flowers, water, and landforms, rendered in brilliant fuchsias and greens, are inspired by the artist’s style and subjects.

PENROSE, Antony. The Boy Who Bit Picasso. photos by Lee Miller. Abrams. 2011. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9780810997288.

K-Gr 5 –Readers are treated to a fresh view of Picasso—as family friend; the male narrator’s mother was a photographer. Through her marvelous images, readers see the home, studio, and art of a fun-loving man who provided masks for guests, kept a goat outside his bedroom, and liked to roughhouse. Delightful.

SÍS, Peter. The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. illus. by author. Farrar/Frances Foster. 2007. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780374347017.

Gr 4 Up –Layers of text—short, third-person sentences from Sís’s perspective, factual statements accompanying sequential panels, diary excerpts—build an impression of home and community life in Cold War Prague. Black-and-white scenes are punctuated with Communist red and fragments of color as the young artist experiments with forbidden self-expression.

STANLEY , Diane . Michelangelo. illus. by author. HarperCollins. 2000. Tr $15.95. ISBN 9780688150853; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780060521134.

Gr 3-7 –With a longer text than usual for a picture-book biography, this title offers lucid social and historical commentary about a Renaissance man, from birth through death. Through clever digital manipulation, Stanley’s paintings portray Michelangelo at work on the Pietà, David, Sistine Chapel, and other famous pieces. Processes, from dissecting cadavers to designing frescoes, are explored.

STONE , Tanya Lee. Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder. illus. by Boris Kulikov. Viking. 2008. RTE $16.99. ISBN 9780670062683.

K-Gr 4 –While Stone’s focus is the creation of and performances surrounding the mechanical circus crafted from wire, fabric, cork, and found objects, the author shows how Calder’s upbringing encouraged such play and how his skills, education, and experience ultimately led to the invention of mobiles. Mixed-media collages emphasize big hands manipulating delicate wonders.

WINTER, Jonah. Frida. illus. by Ana Juan. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine. 2002. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780590203203.

PreS-Gr 3 –Fanciful, folkloric creatures—a cuddly skeleton, jaguar, and devil—accompany this Mexican girl who escapes the pain of polio and a bus accident through drawing and painting. Juan’s magical realm conveys the spirit of Kahlo’s art. Pair this with Duncan Tonatiuh’s Diego Rivera: His World and Ours (Abrams, 2011) to learn about her husband.

WOLF, Gita. Following My Paint Brush. illus. by Dulari Devi. Tara Books. 2010. Tr $18.50. ISBN 9789380340111.

PreS-Gr 3 –Simple, first-person sentences narrate Devi’s life in an impoverished Indian village and the impact of discovering art. Her employment as a “cleaner woman” for an artist and the consequent tutelage led to transformation. Intricate patterns dominated by small black lines and flat colors depict people, animals, and domestic life.

YOUNG, Ed. The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China. illus. by author. Little Brown. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316076289.

Gr 3-8 –Cricket battles, rooftop roller-skating, and silkworms contrast with bombs, fighter planes, and food rationing in Young’s account of childhood in China during the 1930s and ’40s. Postcards, maps, magazine images, family photographs, and acrylic portraits make each page turn a surprise, while gatefolds extend the scale of Baba’s (Young’s father) expansive fortress.

Wendy Lukehart is the Youth Collections Coordinator at the District of Columbia Public Library.

Digital picks

For Students

Alexander Calder’s Circus (Part 1). The Anthony Roland Collection of Films on Art. Société Nouvelle Pathé Cinéma. (Accessed 11/20/13).

Gr 1-6- -This nine-minute excerpt presents Calder performing with his miniature circus in Paris. The artist sets up a ring and uses ingenious mechanical devices to manipulate a belly dancer, sword thrower, lion tamer, acrobat who flips onto a running horse, and other amazing spectacles. A marvelous blend of art and engineering.

Marian Anderson: A Life in Song. Curated by Nancy M. Shawcross. University of Pennsylvania. (Accessed 11/20/13).

Gr 3 Up –Building on a 1994 exhibition, this site breaks Anderson’s life into logical segments. Each has several informative paragraphs and revelatory photographs, musical scores, programs, recordings, and video clips, including the performance at the Lincoln Memorial. Comprehensive and accessible.

Note to Self: Artist Chuck Close Pens Note to Fourteen-Year-Old Self. CBS Interactive. (Accessed 11/20/13).

Gr 4 Up –Part of a news series in which successful people write to their teen selves, Close describes how he overcame his hurdles and offers some of the lessons he’s learned. Viewers see how he navigates his studio in a wheelchair, manipulates the large canvases, applies paint, and finds fulfillment in art.

Tito Puente—“Mambo Birdland.” National Geographic. (Accessed 11/20/13).

K Up –This five-minute segment features close-ups of the high-energy Latino drummer playing percussion for a mambo in a 1950s New York ballroom. The camera pans the room, capturing the precision of the brass musicians and the fancy footwork and costumes of the dancers. A video for Celia Cruz is available on the same page.

For Teachers

Classical Kids Musical Education. (Accessed 11/20/13).

Long respected for introducing children to composers’ lives and music through their fact-based, award-winning CDs and DVDs, such as Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, this organization now offers a touring repertoire (complete with actors, costumes, musical scores, props, and sets) to perform these stories with local orchestras. Educator resources relate to the media and concerts.

Smithsonian American Art Museum. Institution. (Accessed 11/20/13).

From “African American Artists” to “Latino Voices in American Art,” this presents a wealth of resources for educators who wish to use art across the curriculum. Topics are explored through images and interpretation, biography, video interviews with artists, and top-notch lesson plans. The target audience is K-12.

MoMA Learning. Museum of Modern Art. (Accessed 12/11/13).

Customizable and downloadable resources, including slideshows, work sheets, and video clips featuring curators and museum educators discussing MoMA’s collections, offer myriad possibilities for classroom instruction in modern and contemporary art education. Search by theme or artist, or browse through movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Dada.

Media Picks

By SLJ Staff

Listen to the Birds: An Introduction to Classical Music. CD. 26 min. with book. The Secret Mountain. 2013. ISBN 9781923163895. $16.95. K-Gr 2– The London Symphony Orchestra, The Radio Symphony Orchestra of Moscow, and the Toronto Chamber Orchestra are among the groups that perform excerpts of 20 classical pieces, all of which represent the voices of birds. Music from Peter and the Wolf, The Carnival of Animals, Swan Lake, and The Magic Flute is all part of the melodic mix. The accompanying book includes notes about the composers, a glossary of musical terms, and a time line.

Pete Remembers Woody. 2 CDs. range: 57:42-53:56 min. Prod. by Appleseed Recordings. Dist. by 2012. ISBN unavail. $20. Gr 9 Up– Pete Seeger, who is himself now 90, talks about Guthrie, with whom he performed and traveled. Along with these reminiscences are vocal and instrumental renditions of Woody’s songs, performed by various stellar folksingers and bands. This outstanding tribute album is an important piece of American music history.

My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey. By Jeanne Walker Harvey. Cassette or CD. 15 min. Recorded Books. 2012. Cassette ISBN 9781464002090, CD ISBN 9781464002069. $15.75; hardcover book ISBN 9780761458104. $17.99. K-Gr 3– Narrator Kevin R. Free reads Harvey’s lyrical account of the artist’s life and gives the rhyming lines the cadence of a blues song. This stirring blend of words and images is a perfect introduction to Bearden, the Great Migration, and the Harlem Renaissance.

Blues in All Flavors. CD. 42 min. with booklet. Prod. by Hot Toddy Music. Dist. by NewSound Kids. 2012. ISBN unavail. $14.98. PreS-Gr 4– Singer Gaye Adegbalola presents a variety of original songs about childhood concerns delivered with a bluesy flavor. Her themes include getting outside and dancing, interpersonal relationships, and the importance of kindness, and the selections include jump blues with boogie-woogie, doo-wop, Chicago blues with stop time, and reggae rhythm.

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Thanks for this list. I'll have to add a few of the artists to my collection.

Posted : Feb 21, 2014 12:59