A BOY NAMED ISAMU
A Story of Isamu Noguchi
Written and illustrated by James Yang
ROOTS AND WINGS
How Shahzia Sikander Became an Artist
Written by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky
Illustrated by Hanna Barczyk
BEFORE I GREW UP
Written by John Miller
Illustrated by Giuliano Cucco
In general, I am not a fan of biographical picture books, especially when the subject is an artist. The illustrators often end up mimicking the style of the artist in question, with results that tend to look like unconvincing hybrids. Also, picture book biographies are prone to feel more like hagiographies, where events or personality traits that might be awkward or boring to explain to a child reader are sugarcoated or altogether omitted. There are exceptions, of course, and fortunately the authors of the three books presented here avoid those typical problems, each in their own way.
In “A Boy Named Isamu,” James Yang imagines an ideal, almost oneiric day in the life of the sculptor Isamu Noguchi as a young child. At the market, in the forest and on the beach, the solitary boy observes the things he encounters — stones, grass, sticks, leaves, sand and more — and asks himself questions about them. He feels textures, hears sounds, notices shapes and colors. Even though we don’t see Isamu carrying home all the objects he finds during his journey, with a delicate turn of the page they appear in his bedroom, as if waiting for him, implicitly suggesting they might be an inspiration for the sculptures he will make many years later.
The text, composed of brief, uncomplicated sentences, is as quiet and minimal as the digital illustrations. I sometimes wished for a more specific and varied treatment of all the different materials’ textures, which would have been a nice, subtle homage to Noguchi’s art. But Yang’s compositions are soothing, his palette is harmonious, and the protagonist is sweet and lovable. The overall feel is warm and comforting, especially for a child who might be as sensitive and imaginative as Isamu.
Shahzia Sikander moved to the United States from her native Pakistan as a young artist, trained in traditional miniature painting. In “Roots and Wings,” written in collaboration with Amy Novesky, she relates the story of her lively early years. She climbs trees, beats boys at cricket, trains pigeons with her cousins. Her big home is filled with books from all over the world and she watches Bollywood movies as well as American westerns. She travels with her family to Rome, where she is charmed by the Sistine Chapel. In the book’s most childlike line (my favorite), she tells us, “Michelangelo and I share a birthday.” We see her paint, first by herself at home and later in art school with the guidance of a miniature-painting master. “Art is my ritual, my ticket to new worlds” is the earnest clue to a dramatic and effective scene change; on the next page we see her on the streets of New York, ready to begin her life as an artist, far from home. The accomplished illustrator Hanna Barczyk, in her debut English-language picture book, gives the story a convincing, personal interpretation. I presume it was not an easy task to illustrate a book about a living painter who also happens to be the book’s author, but Barczyk manages to stay beautifully true to her own style. Her paintings — a digitally assembled mix of ink, gouache and acrylic — have an appealing fanciful quality even when depicting realistic scenes, and the carefully balanced blend of warm and cool colors gives the book a satisfying unity.
“Before I Grew Up” is a very unusual picture book compared to most produced by the current American children’s book industry. It tells the story of the Italian painter Giuliano Cucco’s childhood in the first person, but it is written by an old friend of his, John Miller. As Miller explains in a short afterword, the two had collaborated decades earlier on four books, none of which were published “because reproducing full-color illustrations was too expensive back then.” Fifty years later, when things had changed and Enchanted Lion was eager to publish their work, Miller tried to get in touch with Cucco to give him the good news, only to learn that he and his wife had been killed by a motor scooter in a pedestrian crossing in 2006. Looking through the late painter’s archive in Rome, Miller found a group of paintings related to Cucco’s childhood. He selected and arranged some of those pictures, complementing them with short, interpretive sentences.
The alluring result is the imaginary life of the artist as a young boy, told through a sequence of lyrical scenes, some more obviously interconnected than others. As the tale begins, we see the boy play an odd game with his “tall and very beautiful” mother, a game that involves a yellow rag doll and a mirror, while a group of eccentric relatives and a priest look on, seemingly annoyed. In the next spread, we see him in his room, where he makes paper boats that he lets “float away like dreams.” Dreams and boats are recurrent themes in the story, as is light. The father, we learn, is a scientist who studies light. We don’t know what kind of scientist he is, or what kind of light he is looking for when he rows his boat out in the ocean, but we don’t need to. What we know for sure is that when the boy successfully attempts to paint that same light, his father’s approval makes him certain he will “grow up to be an artist.” This is not an easy book to summarize, and there are a number of fascinating and unexpected situations that are best left to the reader to experience directly.
I am glad that all three of these books focus on the artists’ childhoods — real or imagined — and wisely steer clear of their adult lives, except for some information in the back matter. In his author’s note, Yang quotes Noguchi as saying, “When an artist stopped being a child, he would stop being an artist.” In his 1968 autobiography, “A Sculptor’s World,” Noguchi attributes that remark to the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi, who also said: “When we are no longer children, we are already dead.”