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Artist memoirs and biographies

The books recommended below were all published within the last several years and reviewed by The Horn Book Magazine. Grade levels are only suggestions; the individual child is the real criterion.

Picture Books

Suggested grade level listed with each entry.

Keep Your Eye on the Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton by Catherine Brighton (Roaring Brook/Flash Point)
Deadpan text and masterful comic-book design outline Keaton’s life from birth through his early days in Hollywood. An author’s note invites further exploration of the man and his movies. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan; illus. by Brian Floca  (Roaring Brook/Flash Point/Porter)
Choreographer Graham asked composer Aaron Copland and sculptor/set designer Isamu Noguchi to collaborate with her; the iconic Appalachian Spring was born. Concise sentences and an energetic line echo Graham’s approach to dance: nothing’s wasted, and in such exactness lies beauty. Grade level: K–3. 48 pages.

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) written by Barbara Kerley; illus. by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic)
Thirteen-year-old Susy Clemens’s biography of her father informs this account covering both biographer and biographee. Primary sources and small facsimiles of Suzy’s journal pages capture her process of observing her father. Grade level: 4–6. 48 pages.

Orani: My Father’s Village by Claire A. Nivola (Farrar/Foster)
In the 1950s, Nivola’s father’s Sardinian birthplace was a mind-opening place to visit. Orani and its people are lovingly evoked in watercolor and gouache paintings. It’s not a nostalgic picture, but one of children thriving in a close-knit community. Grade level: 4–6. 40 pages.

Monsieur Marceau written by Leda Schubert; illus. by Gérard DuBois (Porter/Roaring Brook)
Simple declarative sentences and vigorous illustrations artfully capture the essence of mime Marcel Marceau. An afterword provides background, sources, further reading, and tips for getting started in mime. Grade level: PS–3. 40 pages.

The Wall: Growing Up behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís (Farrar/Foster)
Sís, who grew up in Czechoslovakia under Soviet control, evokes the childhood of an artist in a country of growing restrictions. Brief main text describes his experiences; small captioned pictures portray conditions in the country. Grade level: 4–6. 56 pages.

Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime written by Gloria Spielman; illus. by Manon Gauthier (Kar-Ben)
At sixteen, Marcel Marceau fled the Nazis and became active in the French Resistance. Because of Marcel’s ability to entertain, he was tapped to smuggle Jewish children out of France. Softly colored line drawings capture the gentle spirit of the performer. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Shake, Rattle & Turn That Noise Down!: How Elvis Shook Up Music, Me and Mom by Mark Alan Stamaty (Knopf)
Cartoonist Stamaty’s account of how his eight-year-old self discovered rock ‘n’ roll is rich in character, incident, family dynamics, and period detail. Mark is driven wild by Elvis Presley’s music; his mom is driven crazy. Grade level: 4–6. 40 pages.

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw written by Don Tate; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Lee)
This biography describes artist Traylor’s life–born into slavery in 1854, he worked as a sharecropper after Emancipation–and how at the age of eighty-five he first began to draw on scraps of cardboard. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! written by Jonah Winter; illus. by Kevin Hawkes (Scholastic/Levine)
This energetic account traces the painter’s rise from prodigy through several controversial styles and from the furor over his “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” to his revolutionary cubist “Girl with a Mandolin.” Grade level: K–3. 48 pages.

The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young as told to Libby Koponen (Little)
In 1934, Ed Young’s father built a house in Shanghai’s “safest part,” and it became a wartime refuge for the family. Collages of textured materials and photos are interwoven with hand-drawn portraits, architectural diagrams, and gatefolds. Grade level: 4–6. 48 pages.


Suggested grade level for all entries: 4–6
Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close (Abrams)
In this Q&A–style narrative, Close clearly and directly answers questions supposedly asked by children. A central section shows fourteen of his self-portraits on heavy card stock cut into thirds so readers can mix and match. 56 pages.

Christmas Remembered by Tomie dePaola (Putnam)
DePaola recollects fifteen Christmases, from when he was three in Connecticut to a recent celebration in his New Hampshire farmhouse. The illustrations employ a variety of techniques and media. New edition. 88 pages.

A Gift from Childhood: Memories of an African Boyhood by Baba Wagué Diakité (Groundwood)
Malian artist Diakité’s ceramic tiles illustrate this autobiography. His story’s significance shines through the simplicity of its telling: Malian village life is revealed in authentic detail, and the cultural attitudes are mind-opening. 136 pages.

Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret (Whitman)
Juvenile mystery author Kehret relates the story of her bout at age twelve with polio. Kehret’s story is family-centered and heartwarming in a way that seems both old-fashioned and refreshing. New edition. 205 pages.

Music Was IT: Young Leonard Bernstein by Susan Goldman Rubin (Charlesbridge)
Leonard Bernstein made his conducting debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic at age twenty-five. This biography focusing on Bernstein’s youth and early adulthood succeeds with its engaging style and passion. 178 pages.

Drawing from Memory by Allen Say (Scholastic)
This rendering of Say’s adolescence — a coming-of-age story within the context of a long life and vocation — takes the form of an album. At the center of the book is Say’s relationship with his mentor, cartoonist Noro Shinpei. 64 pages.

Knucklehead: Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka (Viking)
Scieszka offers entertaining and allegedly true tales from his Michigan childhood, growing up in a family of six boys. Short, conversational paragraphs showcase his expertly timed delivery; family photos add to the book’s browsability. 112 pages.


Suggested grade level for all entries: 7 and up

More About Boy: Roald Dahl’s Tales from Childhood written by Roald Dahl; illus. by Quentin Blake (Farrar)
Eight new vignettes and some additional content constitute the “more” in this expanded edition of Dahl’s memoir. In autobiography the author reveals the identical sensibility celebrated in his fiction. Energetic drawings keep the silliness quotient high. New edition. 229 pages.

The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West by Sid Fleischman (Greenwillow)
This biography examines Twain’s early years, adventurous travels, writing career, and popularity as a lecturer. Narrative wit and judicious use of Twain’s sayings keep the tone light. Archival photographs are handsomely showcased. 224 pages.

Up Close: Harper Lee by Kerry Madden (Viking)
This straightforward biography covers Lee’s childhood, her college years, her persistent rewriting of To Kill a Mockingbird, and her friendship with Truman Capote. Clear documentation from an impressive group of secondary sources is provided. 224 pages.

Show Me a Story!: Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators by Leonard S. Marcus (Candlewick)
Eleven of these interviews appeared in Marcus’s Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book. Ten new interviews; a revised introduction; updates on the artists; and a succinct foreword by David Wiesner are original to this volume. 310 pages.

The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves edited by Sarah Moon (Scholastic/Levine)
Sixty-four gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers and  illustrators write to themselves at a younger age. The resulting letters combine advice, reminiscence, humor, and encouragement for readers struggling with their sexuality. 282 pages.

I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields (Holt)
This book, abridged from Shields’s 2006 adult release Mockingbird, relies on extensive secondary source material and a few interviews with Lee’s acquaintances. A readable ode to a determined, unconventional woman. 246 pages.

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