Review of the Day: A History of Pictures for Children by David Hockney & Martin Gayford
And now, a couple words about expository nonfiction. I . . . .
Hey! Hey, where the heck do you people think you’re going? Come right back here this instant! Right now. Sit! Siiiiiit. Sit sit sit!!
*huff* Really, people. I know they’re scary words when brought together, but you simply can’t just skip to Fiction all the time. And yes, I know that the spoonful of sugar you use to choke down nonfiction is to go for the narrative stuff all the time. You think it’ll be less painful if it’s in the form of a story. You may have convinced yourself that expository nonfiction (no story, just the facts, ma’am) is dull as dishwater. Well here’s the 411 on that, my darlings. Since I’m talking about a children’s book here, the fact of the matter is that you probably know some kids that like nonfiction. And what’s more, some of them probably aren’t huge fans of the narrative stuff. Shocking, I know! But you know that kid that memorized the names of all the dinosaurs? The one that knows every single breed of cat? The one that checks out the latest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records out of the library every month until the spine is cracked and the page with the world’s longest fingernails keeps constantly falling out? Those kids like expository nonfiction. They like it and relate to it and we darned well better give them some books with it! But after a while you can only do so many animal books or gross fact titles. History, being what it is, is infinitely flexible and adapts quite nicely to a variety of different writing styles. So it was with great pleasure that I encountered David Hockney and Martin Gayford’s A History of Pictures for Children. Based on their successful title of the same name for adults (sans the “for Children” part), this eclectic recap of pictures from cave drawings to shots taken on your phone is a charming, breezy, consistently engaging introduction to art history for young readers. It is by no means perfect, and has a couple egregious absences, but if you’re looking for expository art history for kids (and adults) of every reading preference, I can’t think of a better place to begin.
“This book isn’t written like a traditional history (in which you might expect to discover the order in which things happened)”. So say Hockney and Gayford in their Introduction at the start. Even so, there’s a rough chronological approximation to the way in which they separate out their information. Beginning with a question about why we even think about pictures, they transition smoothly into making marks on a surface, the use of light and shadows and space, how mirrors and reflections, both in art and to create art, have worked out, and then full-on painting, photography, and moving pictures. Illustrating the authors’ points throughout the book are the well-designed and laid out pages full of images of the art being discussed. To give it a kid-friendly kick, artist Rose Blake has also illustrated different sections, inserting the authors and their wiener dogs into the margins whenever possible. Back matter includes a Timeline of Inventions that aid in the creation of art, a Glossary, Endnotes, a Bibliography, a handy List of Illustrations by page number, and an Index.
I cannot think of many books about art that are made by actual working artists (that aren’t already children’s book illustrators, of course). Personally, I have a fondness for any book out there that proves that a person can actually make a living at something unusual. In the same year of publication of this book, for example, there’s a great narrative nonfiction title by Sy Montgomery called The Hyena Scientist. And like this book, it shows that it really is possible to have a job doing what you love. Hockney takes care to pepper this book with examples of his own work over the decades. He does this not because he’s trying to draw attention to himself (that’s just a nice plus) but because with each section he’s able to show how the technique or type of art was done in the past, and how a person could do it today. Another outcome of this is a point Hockney reiterates throughout the book: it’s not cheating. However you want to make your art, using whatever tools you prefer, that’s okay! He talks about his theory that Caravaggio used projections of his models to create his paintings and then shows the tools that he uses when he makes his own paintings. Hopefully the end result will be that kid readers will recognize that finding your own style doesn’t mean going in just one direction. Artists have options.
Because this book was based on a title written for adults, I walked in wary. I think a lot of us have seen the quick jobs done by popular titles like Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore’s Dilemma where the “young editions” are little more than a way of exploiting a new revenue stream. At their worst, these books dumb down the writing, adding little to nothing for the new intended audience. Not so this book. From the start, the creators seem to have been very precise in what art to highlight in a given section. As a result, they pretty much zero in on the cool stuff. For example, the grubby shoes from 1434’s “The Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan Van Eyck were something I’d never seen before. Likewise the 13th century painting “Six Persimmons” by Muqi where the painter created an image of six pieces of fruit with hardly any brushstrokes, “Yet he still managed to make each piece of fruit look different.” The authors don’t just make you interested in art because of what they find. They also clearly find this stuff interesting themselves. That kind of enthusiasm is contagious.
One surprise for me was the inclusion of both cinema and photography in the book. Photography in particular has a long history of getting short shrift in art history texts, and it was gratifying to see it exalted in this manner, in this kind of a book. I also very much enjoyed how the authors chose to explain how important light and shadow is in art. In one cool case they show the Tim Noble and Sue Webster piece “He/She”. In it, a pile of junk sits on the floor. A light behind the junk shines just so, creating the shadow of a woman in a crouch. Amusingly the photo neatly sidesteps the fact that the female shadow is supposed to be sitting on the toilet. Ah, but why gild the lily, eh? Kids will find this interesting enough as it is.
Now this book was originally published in the United Kingdom, and we cannot necessarily know what changes were made to the text as it wound its way across the Atlantic to our shores. What we can assume, however, is that nothing was added. And that poses a bit of a problem, because when you’re talking about the history of pictures in art, it seems a pretty big misstep to fail to include any work, and I’m talking any, by African-Americans. To not include any art from Africa or South America, aside from the usual Egyptian mentions, isn’t good either. Meanwhile we’re presented with images from Hopper, Walt Disney studios, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Fred Morley, and other 20th century creators. How difficult could it have been to include the works of Charles White when discussing figures and shadows or Basquiat when talking about collage? Frida Kahlo at the very least could have made a splash. The end result is that there isn’t a black face (and almost no brown ones) in this entire book. Women fare slightly better, and in this case it does appear that Hockney and Gayford made some kind of an effort to include them As a result I noted the inclusion of Clara Peeters, Sue Webster (inseparable from Tim Noble), Julia Margaret Cameron, and Hannah Höch. Even so, there was the occasional missed opportunity. For example, early in the book we learn about the ancient hand silhouette art of the Cueva de los Manos. In recent years there has been strong evidence to suggest that prehistoric women created these silhouettes. Alas, when illustrator Rose Blake depicts our ancestors making the images, she just shows men doing the art.
My disappointment with the authors’ choices is keen, but it does present art teachers everywhere with a unique opportunity to supplement what Hockney and Gayford are talking about here with a wider range of creators. And thanks in large part to its tone and manner, I’d have to say that this is probably the most enjoyable art history book for kids I’ve ever encountered. Any title that can make you consider distance and perspective in 15th century Italian paintings must be doing something right. There is much to build off of here, and perhaps the book’s creators will do us a favor of writing more books with a wider view in the future. For now, this is the book you hand to a young artist. Show them “He/She”. Talk about the prehistoric hand paintings, the Chinese handrolls, and whatever else flags your fancy. Odds are, that contagious enthusiasm I felt from the authors will travel through you, into the kids, and who knows? Maybe we’ll welcome another artist into the world. Not a thing wrong in any way with that.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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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