Teaching your kids about high art isn't as easy as it might seem. Maybe you're all for the celebration of the human form, but not totally comfortable viewing reclining nudes with your little ones. Maybe you want your kids to learn about the man behind those seemingly kid-friendly Campbell's Soup Cans, until you recall all the sex and drug-use going on in his art studio. With all of this in mind, we sussed out the best artist-oriented biographies (and one autobiography) for kids – and supplied warnings for any themes or images that may catch you by surprise.
"Andy Warhol, Prince of Pop" written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
Reading level: Age 12 and up
Most kids can't help but be drawn to Andy Warhol's bright, bold Campbell's Soup Cans and his Technicolor silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali. This fascinating read chronologically traces Warhol's life from his early years as the child of Eastern European immigrants to his years as a pop icon in New York City. Save this one for kids who are mature enough to hear about the racy material of Warhol's experimental films and the sex-and-drugs culture at his studio, the Warehouse . The authors don't shy away from addressing his lifestyle and explaining how it affected his work. They also offer insight into Warhol's insecurities, his originality, the controversy he stirred and the profound effect he had on American culture and art.
"Chuck Close: Face Book" by Chuck Close
Age Level: 8 and up
If you're looking for an artist who makes a good role model, Chuck Close is your man. This book's Q&A format is based on a real interview session with fifth grade students, and it gives him a chance to address all the hardships he faced – from a bedridden childhood, to a collapsed spinal artery that left him paralyzed in his late 40s, to the severe dyslexia and face blindness that he struggled with throughout his life. He didn't just jump hurdles – he managed to make a career out of them. His face blindness, a condition that makes it impossible for him to recognize human faces, actually inspired his famous larger-than-life portraits. Close continues to paint from his wheelchair with a paintbrush strapped to his arm, and the book showcases beautiful full-color reproductions of his work. As for warnings, the book does include a photo of Close smoking a cigarette, but it comes with a disclaimer that he kicked the habit when it was discovered that cigarettes are unhealthy.
"The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau" written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Amanda Hall
Reading level: Age 5 and up
Henri Rousseau, who is known today as an illustrious French Post-Impressionist Painter, spent much of his life earning a living as a toll collector. This is the story of an amateur painter who was able to shake off criticism and whole-heartedly pursue the art of doing it anyway. Illustrator Amanda Hall's vibrant acrylic and watercolor illustrations celebrate the joyfulness Rousseau's style without getting over-the-top cartoony. And in her version of "The Dream," one of Rousseu's most recognizable paintings, the focus is on the wide-eyed creatures of the jungle – with no sign of the vivacious naked woman gazing upon them.
"And Picasso Painted Guernica" by Alain Serres
Reading level: Age 9 and up
Though it hearkens all the way back to the doves that little Pablo Picasso painted when he was only seven years old, this biography focuses on his dark and sorrowful 1937 masterpiece, "Guernica." This painting exposes Picasso's pain and outrage when hundreds of defenseless civilians in his home country of Spain were attacked during the Spanish Civil War. The book shares a history lesson and explains how art can be an outlet for the pain of war. This is heavy stuff for a sensitive child, but it's a beautiful book, filled with drawings, photographs and full-color reproductions of Picasso's work.
"Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors" written by Jane O'Connor and illustrated by Jessie Hartland
Reading level: Age 5 and up
This scrapbook-style picture book introduces very young readers not only to Henri Matisse, but also to the joys of writing a grade-school report. It's presented from the perspective of "Keesie Johnson," a fictional kid who is writing a report on Matisse. Without delving too deep, Keesie sketches out his biography and shares a few photos of the artist as well as a few examples of his art. Be warned: there are some nudes in here, but nothing too explicit for any kid who has been to an art museum. The simple story touches on the Fauve movement and explains Matisse's artistic journey from paintings to cut-paper collages.