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Before They Were Artists: Famous Illustrators As Kids | Review

Before They Were Artists coverBefore They Were Artists: Famous Illustrators As Kids
Writer/artist: Elizabeth Haidle
Etch/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $17.99

Elizabeth Haidle’s composite biography focuses on a half-dozen influential artists whose work should be well known to most readers; in fact, so preeminent are her subjects that at least a few of them are likely belong on almost any reader’s list of favorite artists: Wanda Gág, Maurice Sendak, Tove Jansson, Jerry Pinkney, Yuyi Morales and Hayao Miyazaki. Much separates each of them, from where and when they were born and worked to the medium they are best known for, but all are famous and inspiring artists and, perhaps most importantly for a book like this, all have particularly fascinating stories regarding how they came to and mastered their crafts.

All of them were also, obviously, kids at one point, and that seems to be the focus of Haidle’s book, certainly based on the sub-title. In her illustrated introduction, Haidle asks, “What Makes An Illustrator?” and then asks and answers questions about kids who will grow up to be artists in general, questions that apply to her subjects.

“In all cases,” she writes of them, “inspiration from someone else helped pave the way: another artist, animator, cartoonist, or painter whose books, films, or paintings moved hearts and imprinted themselves on minds. These heroes and mentors made a path of possibility to walk down.” While each of her subjects had a hero or mentor who helped them on their path to success in art, so too does each of them serve as a hero to folks like Haidle, and hundreds of others besides.

Each biography begins with a two-page spread—a technique, we learn, pioneered in children’s picture books by Gág—featuring the artist as a young person near the cover of their most famous work, and on a background filled with images done in Haidle’s version of their style. A quote emanates from each in an enormous, colorful dialogue balloon, while a timeline of their career snakes along the bottom of the pages.

With a turn of the page, the format than switches to comics, and we see a baby picture of sorts of each artist in a little circle, dividing a large square into two triangular images showing aspects of their childhood homes. While the telegraphed focus is on their childhoods, and, indeed, the stories of their lives as kids are told, the stories naturally continue to cover the rest of their lives…until either their deaths (or just after their deaths), or until today, in the cases of those still alive.

Each artist gets just eight pages devoted to their biography, although so efficient is Haidle in her storytelling that it is a perfectly sufficient page count. Surely much is left out of each artist’s life story, but in all of the cases all of the most important aspects of their careers are included, from their accomplishments to their individual creation stories, with plenty of room left to focus on their childhoods.

Haidle is able to accomplish so much in so little space via the comics format, in which her drawings do the heavy lifting that words might otherwise do in a different kind of biography, and her diligent use of space—each page is packed with information, giving it the appearance of the density of prose, but in the more appropriate for the subject matter look and feel of illustration. It’s hard to imagine this book working so well, if at all, in any format other than the comics one Haidle adopts.

Taken collectively, these half-dozen lives reveal that being an artist has less to do with where you were born, what kind of family you were born into, and when you decide to embark upon a career in the arts than it does with a desire to be an artist, the perseverance to work hard at it and everything else and, of course, lots and lots of practice drawing. Having someone in your life to mentor you, whether they be a family member or someone who comes along and notices you, also seems fairly essential, as does being inspired by other artists. Here, then, are six such artists to inspire young readers. Seven, if you count Haidle herself.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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