Christo and Jeanne-Claude Wrap the World

Artist-couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude made site-specific works — massive wrapped monuments and land-art spanning miles — which might seem unwieldy subjects for a picture book. But there is much in these artists’ adventures for children to love, and in G. Neri's Christo and Jeanne-Claude Wrap the World: The Story of Two Groundbreaking Environmental Artists, Elizabeth Haidle’s mixed-media illustrations convey the artists’ “what-if?” spirit with joy and verve.

On the cover, a cosmic scene beckons, framed by a bright, billowing fabric that both suggests a stage curtain and hints at the artwork to be discussed inside the book. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, lifting and tugging the cloth like circus performers, dispel any notion that they were the kind of artists who quietly toiled alone in a studio.

Under the jacket, the cover features a large question mark wrapped in brown paper and tied with a sinuous string also echoes the playful, mysterious appeal of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work. In an invitation to child readers, the opening endpapers depict a small girl stepping away from a busy crowd, noticing, with curiosity and surprise, an artwork that neither we readers nor the distracted adults have yet spotted. Something remarkable awaits us!

Moving into the book, what strikes me as particularly Caldecott-worthy is Haidle’s success in conveying, through visual language, the headier, conceptual aspect of these artists' collaboration. The couple are shown in constant dialogue, posing questions, sharing ideas, and leading each other to bigger and bolder ambitions. Speech bubbles capture the back-and-forth of these free-flowing conversations, emphasizing a spirit of collaboration-in-friendship that young readers will recognize.

Equally appealing to children is the way Haidle sets the artistic pair in motion, highlighting the interactive, physical nature of their art-making: they dance, backflip, and rollerskate through their world with acrobatic flair. In fact, the book is filled with expressive body language. Pay attention to the hands alone — wrapping and tugging objects; holding hands; exclaiming, wondering, arguing, and accusing hands — for particularly delightful examples of how Haidle’s visual choices reinforce the book’s theme of art as engagement.

As the book introduces the artists’ major works, softly layered surfaces and a cohesive color palette bear just enough detail to convey emotion and information without becoming too noisy. The earlier pages, in which the artists work in urban environments, are dominated by neutral shades; when they shift their focus to the natural world, the pages burst with vibrant color. This nonfiction book ventures into more imaginative territory, too. One of my favorite spreads features, on one side, a surreal, rainbow-filled paean to what creativity might feel like for both artist and viewer. On the facing page, a lovely sequence — which exists independent of any direct narrative — tenderly envisions the aging and deaths of these two artists who spent
their lives devoted to each other and their art. In the next spread, the artists reappear, floating in pale profile above their last realized work; convincingly and comfortingly, this image speaks to art’s capacity to extend its makers’ vision beyond death.

The scale, ambition, and public nature of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work evinced strong reactions. By foregrounding the role of the audience in “completing” their art, Haidle’s illustrations add a significant interpretive layer to the book. On nearly every page, onlookers demonstrate a myriad of responses. In the closing endpapers, the small child still stands transfixed, while nearly everyone around her has turned to look, too, transformed from their ordinary roles into those of observer, questioner, arguer, or wonderer. I hope that the Caldecott committee will take a close, careful look at Christo and Jeanne-Claude Wrap the World — a book filled with art that itself celebrates art as collaboration, freedom, and invitation.

[Read The Horn Book Magazine review of Christo and Jeanne-Claude Wrap the World]

Stephanie Ford

Stephanie Ford is a writer and editor living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She studied art at Grinnell College and received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan.

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