Picture Book Biographies for Kids who Love Modern Art

So you have a budding artist in the house. Or maybe you just want to expose your kiddo to the great modern masters from an early age. Whatever your motive, introducing your children to modern art is a great way to get them expressive.

If nothing else, artists can teach us all a lesson or two in perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and following your passion. Modern art allows kids to be daring – to take risks and push the boundaries of creativity. And reading real life stories of pioneers in art teaches kids that it’s ok to be different.

There are a number of great series out there (and we do encourage you to pick them up as well)...Smart About Art does a nice job. So does the Who Was . . . ? series and Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists. And Laurence Anholt’s books are about children making a pivotal impact in various artists’ careers.

But don’t overlook these lovely picture book biographies that are practically a work of art themselves!

Action Jackson

by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

Looking for a glimpse into the real life of an artist? This book focuses on a two-month period in Jackson Pollock’s life that leads up to the creation of his painting, No. 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). From insight into daily routines, inspirations, and techniques, the lyrical text weaves in Pollock’s own quotes as well as comments from his inner circle – making it almost as energetic as his paintings.

Lively watercolors burst off the page and capture the spirit of the artist. Pollock swoops, curves, and gets extremely physical – splattering paint in his uniquely choreographed style of action painting. Full of energy and grand gestures, this book is truly dazzling.

Diego Rivera: His World and Ours

by Duncan Tonatiuh

Ever wonder what a famous artist would paint if he or she were alive today? This picture book biography takes little ones on Diego Rivera’s artistic journey and beyond. From an early age, Diego was mischievous. He loved trains. And he loved painting.

Tonatiuh nicely depicts the artist’s key defining moments while introducing little ones to ancient Mexican civilizations – and giving them a lesson in art history. A tall order indeed. But one that he executes perfectly.

As a bonus, the latter half of the book is dedicated to imaging what Rivera might paint today, if he were alive. Then and now comparisons are fun and thought-provoking . . . a nice format to get those critical thinking skills working.

An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers

by Natasha Wing

Colors and shapes aren’t just for preschoolers . . . you can base an entire career on studying them! As a child in Germany, Joseph Albers loved watching his father paint doors as if they were canvases. As a young man in the States, he pursued experiments in art. But when he visited Mexico, he fell in love with...color!

Joseph studied color meticulously like a scientist. He reduced art to a simple form – nothing more than a square. But he played with the shape endlessly, mixing up colors and changing the mood of each piece accordingly.

The book does a great job of showing how Joseph forever changed the way we understand color and the way we look at art. It includes a color wheel and plenty of incredibly vibrant, interactive illustrations to get kids experimenting themselves. 

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Ever thought you could 1) calm your child’s scariest thoughts 2) get them begging you to read them poetry and 3) expose them to some super hip modern art all with one picture book? Life Doesn’t Frighten Me pairs Maya Angelou’s lyrical verse with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s edgy art for a real lesson in fearlessness.

Angelou’s poem explodes off the page: "Dragons breathing flame / On my counterpane / That doesn't frighten me at all. / I go boo / Make them shoo / I make fun / Way they run / I won't cry / So they fly" – words of defiance and courage. And Basquiat’s paintings? Well, they’re raw and visceral, capturing childhood fears through intense imagery.

Brief biographies on both the poet laureate and the renowned artist are included in the book. A truly stunning read!

My Name is Georgia: A Portrait

by Jeanette Winter

At some point, every child has to make one very important decision . . . whether to follow the masses or do their own thing. Georgia O’Keefe decided to do the latter. She refused to wear a sash or stockings. She never braided her hair. And she decided to be an artist.

This book chronicles O’Keefe’s journey as an artist from a little girl playing by herself to a debutant discovering the steel canyons of NYC, an artist painting the vast plains of New Mexico, and on to the ripe, old age of ninety-eight. The text is sparse and includes quotes from the artist’s own writings. The illustrations are bright, folksy, and full of color – including famous sky, flower, and skull paintings in Winter’s signature style.

Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder

by Tanya Lee Stone

Think Alexander Calder and you’re probably seeing a variety of elegantly minimalist mobiles in primary colors. But did you know that he owned an entire circus?

As a little boy, Sandy would tinker with odds and ends, making toys and trinkets for his friends. And as an adult, he couldn’t stop. He paraded around Paris with wire and pliers, ready to create something fabulous on the spot.

When Sandy made a little lion out of wire, a circus was born! Before long he had acrobats, lion tamers, a strongman . . . . a motley of big top characters crammed into five suitcases. And he traveled the world, putting on an animated circus performance for cheering crowds.

The book is fast-paced and the illustrations are really spectacular. Besides, what little kids aren’t going to love the idea of a circus of their own?

Uncle Andy’s

by James Warhola

What would it be like to have the world’s hippest uncle? Just ask James Warhola, Andy Warhol’s nephew. Better yet, read the true story of his encounters with the famous artist.

Warhola grew up on his father’s junkyard, with trash and treasures strewn all about. But on surprise visits to see his uncle in NYC, life couldn’t be more different. There, the streets were lined with sublime buildings and even cooler cars. There, Warhol’s house was filled with wigs and paintings and 25 cats all named Sam. But most important, there, junk could be turned into art.

Illustrations pull little ones into 1960’s NYC and offer up nice reproductions of Warhol’s work, as well as cutaways of his amazing house. With all the off-beat antics, kiddos will truly fall for the king of Pop Art.

Do your little ones have a favorite artist biography they just can’t put down? Share your best-loved books with us!

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Tags : books   picture books   biography   art   

Nikki Mateo
I want all these books for our library.
Maya Slavin
These books look great!
Elodie Nilsson
Great selection!