For years it was my pleasure to work in the New York Public Library’s Central Children’s Room, located in the Donnell Library. The Central Children’s Room was the crown jewel of children’s literature in the city, and amongst its many treasures (which included a parrot-headed umbrella owned by Mary Poppins/P.L. Travers and the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys) were N.C. Wyeth’s original paintings from the book Robin Hood. I might be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure we owned them all. Certainly we didn’t put them all on display, but a fair number of them were available for the public and they turned out to be quite a draw for the local illustrators. Since those days the Donnell has been sold and the paintings transferred to the main branch of NYPL where they now grace the walls of the President of the library’s office. If you would like to see them it is not out of the question, but it is also not as easy as it once was. I, for my part, haven’t seen them in years. With that in mind, I think it makes perfect sense why I was drawn to Susan Goldman Rubin’s latest artistic picture book biography Everybody Paints! Not content to tell merely the story of one famous painter, Rubin dares to encapsulate the lives of three generations, with a particular focus on one painter in each. N.C., Andrew, and Jamie are presented to kids here in a clear-cut way that honestly displays their very interesting work.
Meet the bronco buster. That’s one name you might give to N.C. Wyeth. Born to parents that thought he’d be better suited as a farmhand than as an artist, N.C. set about to prove himself. Before long he was apprenticed to the great Howard Pyle and became his star student. Wyeth became adept at cattle round-ups as well as painting scenes of action and adventure. His talents brought his lucrative illustration projects like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Robin Hood. Along the way he sired talented offspring, each of whom had some kind of talent. Andrew Wyeth pursued his art with the same fervor as his dad, but while the fine art community had never officially accepted his father, Andrew was embraced almost immediately. In his footsteps followed Jamie, a painter who could work on everything from picture books to portraits of presidents. This is their story.
Writing a biography of the Wyeths for children isn’t as fraught with potential peril as writing a biography of other artists might be. Having cut her teeth on bios about Diego Rivera (Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People) and Andy Warhol (Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter) the Wyeths must have struck Ms. Rubin as a true relief. This is not to say that there haven’t been rumors floating around them for years, but vague rumors are far easier to elide than numerous confirmed affairs and “The Factory”. The content is presented in a very nice, straightforward style. We meet each Wyeth in turn, and the narrative will slip from one to another without so much as a herk or a jerk. The sections are not particularly long. Indeed, the book itself is infinitely readable at just a scant 112 pages. That means that if a kid wants to do a bit of serious research they may need to find some additional books to cover the material more extensively. That said, Rubin provides the basic overview and allows the reader to fill in gaps on their own. Nothing wrong with that when you’re dealing with children’s book biographies.
It was a Kirkus review of this book that sniffed that this particular book is “undersized and overdesigned.” The “undersized” criticism strikes me as particularly silly, perhaps in light of the fact that as a librarian I’ve seen too many art books rejected by child readers because they were “too big” to comfortably carry home. I’m a New York City librarian, so kids in my town have to lug and tote every book they take from the library themselves. There is no helpful waiting car to dump the load into. With that in mind our little patrons become quite savvy in the ways of pick up and retrieval. Imagine, if you will, that you are attempting to woo a kid with the assignment to read a book about a famous artist into reading this book. I can attest that there’s nothing worse than being cut off mid-spiel by a child who points out, quite logically, that the book is “too big”. I mean there’s no comeback to that! So yes, it’s true that the images in this collection aren’t the size that they are in real life. But that is more than made up for when it comes to the sheer number of images present.
To the second criticism, that of being “overdesigned”, the book actually one in a series of artistic biographies done in a “gift book” style. Some of you may recall the rather gorgeous Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz that came out a couple years ago by Beverly Gherman. Like this book it wasn’t afraid to play around with an eclectic design. Lots of large fonts, different colored pages, and images, images, images. In this book Rubin skillfully alternates between photographs of her subjects and their families and their paintings. To an adult, I suppose the layout of this book might feel jarring but I’m quite fond of it. It kept me awake, allowed my eye to travel from text to image and back again freely, and best of all when Rubin mentions a famous photograph it’s right there for you to look at.
You see, one complaint I’ve heard fielded at artistic biographies is that they don’t contain enough images of their subject’s work. How are you supposed to care about someone if you can’t see what it is that they themselves cared about? When Ms. Rubin wrote Diego Rivera I adored it. Some librarians, however, wanted a lot more images. Full paintings would be described but never seen. One might point out that in an internet age it’s fairly easy to see pictures of things whenever you want to, but the point stands. A book about an artist should do its duty and give its subject proper due. With that in mind, Everybody Paints! fairly pops with pictures. I don’t know enough about the rights to reproduce painted images in the way Rubin presents them here. What I do know is that she’s done a stand up and cheer job of it. Nothing major feels like it’s missing.
In spite of the fact that there’s been a real push to promote great nonfiction books with kid readers, it can be a hard sell. Adults that are my age or older have a hard time remembering any particularly great books of nonfiction from when we were young (and no, the Childhood of Famous Americans series does NOT count). Few of us are aware that we’re in a golden age of great children’s informational titles. What Everybody Paints! does is typify this kind of book. It’s a hard subject that requires a deft hand. And with her abundance of experience in this particular area, Susan Goldman Rubin does her subjects proud. As beautiful as you would expect, and three times as fun as you might think to read.
On shelves February 4th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People by Susan Goldman Rubin
- Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close
- Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz by Beverly Gherman
Professional Reviews: Kirkus