Blogger Suzi Wackerbarth

Ablaze with Artists: Mack, Haring, and Thomas

Picture book biographies about artists are a-plenty. And so far I haven’t come across a bad one. Generally, when people choose to write about art for kids, it is because they care deeply about art and kids. (Isn’t that one of the reasons we work in libraries under the auspices of “children’s services”?) You can’t get around the fact that kids want paper and more paper or boxes and more boxes, to make things, to draw things, to color in or outside the lines.

A little girl with a million questions about how to make art becomes an art history lesson in Time to Make Art by Jeff Mack. The prolific author/illustrator takes us on a journey with a little Black girl who wants to know what art is. “Does it have to be perfect?” And instead of saying yes or no, the artists that Mack introduces us to just point to art that illustrates a point around her first question and her next question, and yes, her next question. The reader sees all types of art and meets all types of artists, who are named with tiny biographies at the end of the book. This could be a read-aloud to a first or second grade class, attached to a lesson on art or biographies, or both. Talking about the front cover, the cover beneath the dust jacket, and the endpapers would all be great conversation starters.

a page full of famous artists (illustrations) encouraging a little Black girl to make art.
from Time to Make Art, photo by Suzi Wackerbarth

Did someone say conversation starters? Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring, could be a part of many conversations. Yes to the cover. Yes to the endpapers. Yes to the story and the illustrations. Keith Haring, an artist who happened to also be a gay man in the 80s, who had AIDS and died from it, started drawing at the kitchen table when he was four, and he kept making art until he died at 31. Haring is actually one of the artists featured in Time to Make Art. My cousin recommended this book, which takes us from the kitchen table to Pittsburgh and New York and all the way to Pisa, Italy. It’s a journey you won’t want to miss.

abstract drawing in the style of Keith Haring, pink drawing against a red background.
End papers for Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring, by Jeff Mack
photo by Suzi Wackerbarth

Alma Thomas is still coming into her own, not quite a household name. She is currently one of my favorite artists. In March 2023, I worked with a local art therapy organization, Project Create, on a program using Alma’s art as a way to teach art techniques to young children. My purpose then was to highlight Alma for Women’s History Month, since she was a Black woman and a local Washingtonian. Alma is everywhere these days: she is featured in (at least) two children’s books, Alma’s Art, shelved usually in picture books, and Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas, shelved in picture book biographies. She currently has an entire exhibit dedicated to her works at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, (extended by popular demand through August 4!) One of the paintings in the exhibit usually hangs at the White House, chosen by Michelle Obama during Barack Obama’s presidency.

A painting of Alma Thomas that has light pink and darker pink stripes; a woman in an orange dress stands next to it. This is a selfie, so you only sese part of the painting and part of the woman.
Selfie of the author with “Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto, 1973.” Painting by Alma Thomas, Photo by Suzi Wackerbarth.

I hope you take a look at these picture books and the artists they depict. Who is your favorite artist? Do you have a picture book biography to recommend?


This post addresses ALSC competency IV. Collection Knowledge and Management.

3 comments

  1. Kary Henry

    I, too, am a huge Alma Thomas fan and loved seeing her art in D.C. and then offering a program on her! I’ve also used the biography A Life Made By Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa in a program, and I plan to use Mr. Pei’s Perfect Shapes in an upcoming program highlighting I.M. Pei’s architectural brilliance. Although it’s not an actual biography, I’m also going to use A Boy Named Isamu: A Story of Isamu Noguchi as well.

    1. Suzi Wackerbarth

      Lovely! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Aryssa Damron

    Love artist biographies! The What the Artist Saw series is really good–they have Faith Ringgold, Georgia O’Keefe, Vincent Van Gogh, Hokusai, etc.

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