Arts and letters

STEM's great and all, but these picture-book biographies — about two fine artists, a musician, and a wordsmith — show that a career in arts and letters can be more than just a dream.

novesky_cloth lullabyIn Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois, Amy Novesky presents an exquisite portrait of modern artist Louise Bourgeois, who became most famous for her giant sculptures of spiders. Bourgeois also worked with textiles, and it's at her family's tapestry-restoration workshop in France that the book begins. Much focus is on Louise's close childhood relationship with her mother; after her mother's death, Louise, bereft, spends her life creating works tied to memory that soothe and heal. Gorgeous illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault are as stylistically and compositionally varied as the tapestries Louise's mother wove. (Abrams, 5–8 years)

herkert_mary cassattMary Cassatt was unconventional right from the beginning: "When Mary was a girl…she knew she'd be an artist one day. In 1860, proper girls weren't artists. They had polite hobbies — flower arranging, needlepoint. Not Mary." Barbara Herkert's brief, lyrical text for Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter captures both Mary's profound connection to art ("For Mary, art was life. Life was art") and her enduring significance in the art world. An author's note provides more details about her life, her time in France, and the lasting influence of her work. Gabi Swiatkowska's textured mixed-media paintings on saturated double-page spreads echo Cassatt's own painting style and palette. (Holt/Ottaviano, 5–8 years)

cline-ransome_just a lucky so and soAuthor Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrator James Ransome's picture-book biography Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong fills in some of the blanks in the great jazz trumpeter's childhood and early adulthood. While the illustrations maintain a consistently upbeat mood, the story is one of simultaneous challenge and optimism. At age eleven Armstrong was sent to the Colored Waif's Home for Boys; eventually, he convinced the band leader at the Home to allow him to join the band. He later set out for Chicago and points beyond to show the whole world who Little Louis Armstrong really was. Students are often introduced to the Jazz Age in elementary music classes, and this offering, with its many quotations from Satchmo (though they're undocumented) will add much to the study. (Holiday, 5–8 years)

fern_w is for websterTracey Fern's breezy picture-book biography W Is for Webster: Noah Webster and His American Dictionary introduces young readers to the man responsible for the American dictionary. A smart and serious student, he could also be a bit highfalutin, which Fern emphasizes using a lighthearted rhetorical pattern; for example, during the Revolutionary War, Noah was "'ill able to bear the fatigues of a soldier.' That was Noah's big way of saying he was a lousy soldier." Boris Kulikov's energetic illustrations put Webster at the center of every spread by making him larger or brighter than his surroundings. (Farrar/Ferguson, 5–8 years)

From the June 2016 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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