By Sujei Lugo and Lila Quintero Weaver
The year 2014 brought us three outstanding Latino children’s books celebrating art. Each book represents a distinct format: Draw! by Raúl Colón, is a wordless picture book; Viva Frida, by Yuyi Morales, is a poetic tribute to a beloved artist of worldwide importance; and Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life, by Catherine Reef, is a work of non-fiction geared toward upper-level grades. These releases came in a year already brimming with strong Latino titles in children’s publishing, along with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which challenges publishers and others in the book industry to question their views and roles regarding literature by and about people of color.
And guess what? Latin@s create art, too, so why shouldn’t they be celebrated in art-related books?
Children’s books that extol visual art serve to influence readers in significant ways. Through them, children can learn to appreciate art’s life-enriching power. They can also begin to see themselves as potential creators of art. Up to a certain age, most children freely produce drawings, collages, finger paintings, and other forms of artistic expression. But as kids reach the middle elementary years, inhibition seems to set in. Often, these kids stop making art because they have begun to see themselves as incapable. In fact, many great artists owe their success to a rediscovery of childlike abandon, to a time when the internal critic wasn’t peering over their shoulder. Also, Latin@ children are exposed to fewer artistic role models from within the community. What if good art books transmitted the opposite message–that anyone, from any culture, can create art? Great Latin@ artists already exist and kids need to become familiar with them. The following books make an ideal way to start delivering that message.
In this lovely picture book based on Colón’s childhood, readers are transported through a flight of fancy to golden views of the African savanna, where an adventurous drawing session takes place. Initially, we see a boy drawing in his bedroom. His focus is on animals of the African grasslands. Three pages later, the boy is on the ground, somewhere on the African continent, among his subjects, observing them at close range, and capturing their likenesses with deft pencil strokes. Colón achieves this flight of imagination without the aid of words. The paintings in this book display a tender vintage feel in keeping with much of Colón’s acclaimed work in illustration. In every sense, Colón demonstrates a masterful command. His compositions are striking. He nails the anatomy of both human and wild animal subjects, as well as a wide array of studio techniques. These include the use of expressive, swirling textures and a tawny palette of hues, fitting for the story’s era and setting. This gem of a book landed on quite a few “best of” lists for 2014, including:
For extensive views of interior pages, see this article in SLJ.
Viva Frida is Yuyi Morales’s love letter to Frida Kahlo. The depth of Morales’s admiration for the groundbreaking Mexican surrealist painter comes through in every expertly prepared page spread. Morales incorporates acrylic painting, stop-motion puppetry and other three-dimensional elements into a series of dioramas, photographed by her collaborator, Tim O’Meara. The result is eye-popping. Each spread bursts with jewel-like colors and captivating details, including Mexican textiles, bits of jewelry and animal fur. Clay figures representing Frida, her husband, Diego, and their animal friends are central to each diorama. Readers familiar with Kahlo’s work will recognize iconic elements in the injured fawn, the monkey, Frida’s famous eyebrows, her hand-shaped earrings and much more. A simple and brief poetic text in Spanish and English complements each page’s visual design. Viva Frida is a stunner that understandably caught the attention of important list-makers.
For interior views, see the book’s official page.
Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life, by Catherine Reef, is a complex and satisfying portrayal of two giants of twentieth-century art and the development of their storied careers. The book relies on primary sources and seldom-seen photographs to describe the individual lives and work of each artist, as well as their combined lives. Reef weaves into this dual biography fascinating views of the political and social history of Mexico. Readers learn about Frida Kahlo’s medical odyssey. A childhood diagnosis of polio left her with an atrophied leg. As a young woman, she also suffered a debilitating accident that resulted in many surgeries and long periods of painful convalescence. Reef includes details of the couple’s complicated and often troubled marital life. These are not gratuitous digressions, however, since Frida’s body of work is in many ways a reflection of her physical and emotional suffering. Diego Rivera’s work as a muralist captures the era of upheaval that he lived in and reveals much about his devotion to socialist causes. The book includes behind-the-scenes stories of murals he painted in U.S. cities, which often became entangled in political controversy and resulted in conflict between Rivera and his patrons.
These three books come from different perspectives, but their approaches overlap as they magnify works of art and what it takes to produce them. In his picture book, Raúl Colón uses imagination to portray the skills of a budding artist. Yuyi Morales’s tribute to Kahlo reflects the inner world of a powerfully emotional artist. Catherine Reef’s biography informs the reader of the complexity and suffering that composed Khalo’s internal make-up and that of her marital partner.
Draw! by Raúl Colón
Picture book, K-4
This picture book can be integrated into art and language-arts curricula. Teachers and librarians can use this book to encourage children to compose or tell their own illustrated stories. Art teachers will find a useful example of sound artistic practice in how Colón closely observes his subjects.
Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales
Picture book, K-3
Bilingual and ESL instructors can incorporate this book into their classroom to teach new vocabulary in English and Spanish. The text is brief and focuses on verbs. Teachers of language arts can employ the book’s model of short poetic sentences to suggest a story. In the art classroom, Viva Frida can inspire the creation of dioramas, costumed puppets and other three-dimensional works.
Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life by Catherine Reef
Non-fiction, grades 9-12
This book holds rich possibilities as a classroom text for Mexican American studies, art history, and social studies. One of the key lessons is the importance in an artist’s life of historical context. Students of social studies can create a timeline of historical events, paralleled by notable developments in Frida’s and Diego’s life. The book includes a brief selection of reproductions for each artist and a list of resources for further study, which teachers can use as a basis for assignments. Art history classes may want to explore the work of other muralists and female painters of the twentieth century or of Mexican artists throughout the ages.
For further information on the creators, see the following:
An interview with Raul Colon at Illustration Friday
An interview with Catherine Reef at Teenreads
And please don’t miss this spectacular video featuring Yuyi Morales demonstrating the creation of Viva Frida!