Review of the Day – Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People by Susan Goldman Rubin
National Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15th to October 15th. How many folks could tell you that off the top of their heads? Meanwhile, few awards are specifically earmarked for nonfiction books for children with Latino themes. There have, however, been quite a few articles in the popular news about the lack of books for children with Hispanic characters in them. So what about biographies of famous Hispanics? Surely those must be abundant in some way. The funny thing is that you can find bios for children of such fabulous folks as Tito Puente, Frida Kahlo, Celia Cruz, Sonia Sotomayor, and others. The catch? They tend to be picture book biographies. Get a little older and the only bios you can find are those dull as dishwater ones that tell a person’s statistics without getting within twenty paces of the person’s heart and soul. Dull boring affairs. I mention all this to point out how bloody rare a book like Susan Goldman Rubin’s biography Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People really is. This isn’t one of those bios that flaunts its Timeline and reads like it was written in a monotone. There is life to these pages, and breadth to its subject. Short enough to reward a wary reader but with enough context and clarity to bring Diego to life, Rubin takes a tricky guy for kids to know about and makes him precisely what he was: bigger than life.
From the very moment Diego could clutch a pencil his chubby little hands he was drawing. A boy with a natural talent, he was able to convince his parents to let him attend prep school during the day and the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts at night. As he grew more skill he learned, as everyone did at that time, from the European school of draftsmanship. It was only after he began to notice the works of street artists like Jose Guadalupe Posada that Diego recognized that European styles were not enough. He needed a style and a medium for the people. His people! As a muralist he was able to fulfill those very passions. Rubin tracks not just Diego’s life and commissions but also his thought process and where he heart lay as an artist. Full-color photographs complement the text. Backmatter includes a note about Mexico’s history, a note on Rivera’s influences, a listing of where to find his art, a Glossary of terms and names, Source Notes, Bibliography, and an Index.
My knowledge of South America in general has been coming in fits and starts over the years thanks to a smattering of films, television programs, and children’s books. It makes for an eclectic education, to say the least. And I have learned a thing or two about Mexican history, but if I’m completely honest most of it came from Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by Charles C. Mann. This isn’t as crazy a comparison as you might think since one of the nice things about Diego Rivera is Ms. Rubin’s willingness to delve a bit into that same pre-Columbus history. In the back of the book you will find “A Note About the History of Mexico, As Referenced in Rivera’s Artwork.” If the premise of the book is that Diego could not be who he was without a thorough knowledge of his own country’s history then it stands to reason that kids should have access to an abbreviated form of that same knowledge.
There’s a term my husband likes to pull out when we see a nice trim film that’s no longer than it needs to be: “handsome”. As in, “That was a nice handsome film.” I’d go so far as to apply that term to books as well. Take Diego Rivera here. Now this is a nice handsome biography. Plenty of chapters and backmatter and all that jazz, but at the same time it’s a svelte 56 pages. Less than 100. I love that. I admit that it’s not always ideal, since there are lazy teachers in this world who will tell kids to read something over 100 pages for a class assignment (if one were feeling particularly snarky they’d point out that the most recent Captain Underpants title is 192 pages). Those that take the time to look at the books their kids read, however, will find in this book a bit of a godsend. It’s long enough that it can offer a kid a pretty vast swath of its subject’s life, but not so huge that they’ll be intimidated by it. The size is akin to that of a picture book or a coffee table book. It’s a comfortable size for a handsome volume.
A small page count does mean that the author has to decide how much to say about a person. In that, Ms. Rubin has taken care to hit on the highlights, always making sure to show that Diego worked with an eye to the people. She gives more than adequate attention to the murals and what they meant to the poor as well as Diego’s ties to causes he believed in. She’s just as willing to show when he lied about those alliances too, as when he claimed to play a part in the revolt against Porfirio Diaz. By the same token, you see him hobnobbing with rich nobs and if you’re discussing this book with kids you could ask them such pertinent questions as whether or not they feel that Diego’s ties to the rich and influential hurt his credibility or if it cemented him as famous and is why he’s remembered today.
This all begs the obvious question: What the heck do you do with Mr. Rivera’s . . . ah . . . wandering eye, shall we say? The problem with writing about an artist who delved in drugs is how much to say. The problem with a lothario is pretty much an identical quandary. Rubin engages in the breezy, “He had always liked the ladies, and the ladies had always liked him,” following it up with a sly, “despite his bulk and his habit of rarely taking a bath.” In this way she limits herself to just reporting on those affairs Diego conducted that affected his various marriages and engagements. Those that didn’t are simply left unsaid. No one will miss them.
Considering the sheer number of ladies the man slept with, it’s funny to me that books about him for kids really have mostly stayed in the 4-8 year-old range until now. There was Diego Rivera: His World and Ours by Duncan Tonatiuh, Diego: Bigger Than Life by Carmen Bernier-Grand, and Diego by Jonah Winter. My Papa Diego and Me written by Diego’s daughter Guadalupe Rivera Marin was a rare exception of a chapter book on the man, and even that skewed a bit young. With her book Rubin at last gives us a chapter book biography that does credit to the artist himself. Respecting her audience to show Diego’s flaws as well as his triumphs, consider this nuanced portrait of a man every schoolchild should know. Worthy of its subject matter.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publicist for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- My Papa Diego and Me by Guadalupe Rivera Marin
- Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close
- Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by Charles C. Mann
Other Blog Reviews:
- Finally, I have a hard time thinking of Diego’s affairs without also thinking of this fabulous Hark, A Vagrant! comic piece. It’s the last on the page.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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