Five New Picture Books About Women Artists

Sarah Harrison Smith on October 11, 2017

This season, new picture books about female artists highlight their strength, talent, and perseverance. In this first of two posts featuring these inspiring true stories, we include titles about a singer from South Africa, a Chinese-American architect, a Mexican painter, an American illustrator for Disney, and a Japanese artist whose vision stretched "to infinity."

Mama-AfricaSinger Miriam Makeba, or “Mama Africa,” as she became known, used her exceptional singing voice to support the anti-Apartheid movement in the 1960s. This colorful, painterly picture book, illustrated by Charly Palmer, follows Makeba from her childhood in racially-divided South Africa, through the horrors of Soweto, to her growing fame and activism. Writer Kathryn Erskine, whose Mockingbird won a National Book Award, enriches Makeba’s story with detailed history and snippets of Africaans. A glossary and bibliography make this book a good introduction to further research.

Maya-LinAArchitect Maya Lin’s career had an extraordinary start: as an undergraduate, she entered a competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her anonymous entry won, and her long, reflective stone walls, incised with the names of the dead and those missing in action, now stand in Washington, DC. This story, told by Jeanne Walker Harvey and illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, is not just about the early recognition of Lin’s abilities. Her vision for the memorial was controversial and she had to stand her ground against those who doubted her precocious talent.

FridaIllustrator John Parra gives this picture book about the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo a charmingly primitive look. The story (published simultaneously in a Spanish-language edition) focuses on Kahlo’s love for her “animalitos” – the cats, birds, monkeys, and dogs who lived with her in the Casa Azul, the childhood home she later shared with her husband, artist Diego Rivera. Those pets became subjects for her painting, and distracted her from childhood illnesses which left her with disabilities and discomfort. This is a girl who prevailed despite bullying and pain: as Monica Brown writes, “Frida painted when she was sick and hurting and Frida painted when she was happy.”

PocketWhen we think of Walt Disney’s movies, we think of extraordinary color. That impression was, in part, created by artist Mary Blair, who began working for Disney Studios in 1940. Though her vibrant vision eventually made its mark at Disney, her skills weren’t valued at first, and Blair struck out on her own, as a commercial artist, before Walt Disney himself convinced her to return. Brigitte Barrager’s swirling illustrations and Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville's color-rich narrative convey the wildness of Blair’s imagination, which was matched by her determination.

YayoiYayoi Kusama’s mesmerizing polka-dot paintings are tremendously appealing to children, and this picture book, illustrated by Ellen Weinstein, has a graphic, colorful punch that’s in keeping with Kusama’s sensibility. Growing up in Japan, Kusama’s desire to create art was at odds with her mother’s more conventional aspirations, and it took an act of rebellion – moving to New York – for Kusama to come into her own as a painter. Her dots, author Sarah Suzuki writes, “were a way of thinking about infinity.”

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