Celebrating Creativity: A Flight of Biographies

We’ve been itching to share examples of books on the lives of people who fascinate us–and we’ve also been finding ourselves immersed in books on the arts. . .So we decided to combine these passions this month with a focus on creative thinkers.  This flight looks at creativity through the lives of artists, inventors, scientists, naturalists, and more.  One thing we’ve discovered as we’ve explored these books on living the creative life is the power and importance of children seeing themselves represented in the books they read, imagining themselves to be that artist or scientist.  That’s one reason to start with a read-aloud picture book where the author is explicit about the power of one artist’s painting as an inspiration in his young life.  Creativity is also an area where the picture books are so rich they could almost all be for all ages.  So don’t feel restricted by the age group recommendations–dive into them all!


Grandma’s Gift by Eric Velasquez

A visit to the Metropolitan Art Museum with his Grandma is the key to young Eric discovering his fascination with art and artists–especially when he sees a painting by Diego Velasquez and realizes he could be an artist.  The story is a memoir of a Christmas visit by the author to his own Grandma in Spanish Harlem, and includes descriptions of warm and loving family gatherings, making traditional dishes, shopping together–and of course, discovering the world of art.  Grandma buys Eric his own first set of colored pencils and a sketchbook, the perfect gift for this young artist.  The illustrations are gorgeous–realistic oil paintings that celebrate the visual arts.  And the the special bond between generations.


Dave the Potter:  Artists, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier

Dave the Potter was a talented craftsman who lived and worked about 200 years ago.  A slave in South Carolina, we know little about his life except through his works–which are simply amazing.  As Hill writes, “Dave was one of only two potters at the time who could successfully make pots that were larger than twenty gallons.” He also inscribed strange, sophisticated poetry into the clay: “I wonder where / is all my relation / friendship to all— / and, every nation.”  This inspiring picture book celebrates Dave’s process, and craftThe gorgeous watercolor and collage illustrations help make this book one for the whole family–and a coffee-table book for visitors as well.

Young Children and Early Readers:

ManFish:  A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Eric Puybaret

What drove Cousteau to his passions to make underwater explorations possible?  This books is a wonderful introduction to children of one of the most creative people of the last hundred years.  His career as a pioneering oceanographer and film-maker began is rotted in his childhood on the French coast, where he delighted in the ocean and dreamed of breathing underwater.  The author also chronicles his early experiments with film-making.  We found it fascinating to learn about how he and his friends made the first fins, wetsuits, and scuba gear!  The rich descriptions are quite poetic, and the blue and green illustrations  draw readers into the marine world.


Summer Birds:  The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Julie Paschkis

Thirteen-year-old Maria was a young naturalist in the Middle AgesHer observations led her to disprove the centuries-old belief that “summer birds”–or butterflies–were evil creatures who appeared on earth through “spontaneous generation.”   The studies the habits and life cycles of butterflies and other insects, and carefully documents them in gorgeous illustrations.  This beautiful biography of a little-known creative genius from long ago Germany is a welcome addition with its themes of observation, art, and scientific discovery.


Odd Boy Out:  Young Albert Einstein by Don Brown

As a child, Albert Einstein was often the “odd boy out.”   The way he looked at and perceived the world was a puzzle to his teachers and family.  Much of his early life was unhappy, readers learn, but his fascination and intrigue with scientific concepts, and tools like a compass kept him engaged and making discoveries from early on.  There are very few picture book autobiographies of Einstein, and I don’t know of any others that focus on him as a child, rather than simply when he was a famous white-haired scientific genius.  It humanizes this 20th century giant to see him as a boy, one who doesn’t care for organized sports, builds huge houses of cards for his sister, and even has the occasional temper tantrum.


In the Belly of an Ox:  The Unexpected Photographic Adventures of Richard and Cherry Kearton  by Rebecca Bond

The true story of the nature-loving Kearton brothers, who became known as the most innovative bird photographers of their time.  To get their pictures, they often hid in animal skins ( hence the title!), crouched in haystacks, waded through muddy bogs–and managed to have high adventures along the way.  Their awe at the architectural wonders of nature is inspiring:  they marvel at the lattice work of spider webs, the structure of bird nests, and the chemistry of eggs. The writing is simple, but poetic, and the watercolor illustrations complement the descriptions.  The book closes with actual photographs and quotes of the brothers.

Tweens and Teens:

Building on Nature:  The Life of Antoni Gaudi  by Rachel Victoria Rodrigues, illustrated by Julie Paschkis

Though younger kids will enjoy this book, too, it’s really perfect for tweens and teens.  We are both art history lovers, and Antoni Gaudi has long been a favorite, with his creative architecture based on the shapes and colors of the natural world.  Rather than the popular Gothic style he was taught, he embraced early Art Nouveau, with its imaginative curves and simply charming designs.  This book is a gem, with its sparse but poetic writing, and gorgeous illustrations.As a young child, he was an observer, taking in light and form, and delighting in what he came to call “The Great Book of Nature.”  The author’s notes are a wealth of follow-up resources and websites.


Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer by Trina Robbins, illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh

People often need to draw on their creative spirit in order to survive in difficult times.  Lily Renee story is a testament to that undeniable spirit.  Not only did she escape from the Nazis during the Holocaust, she did so as a young girl traveling alone.  It’s especially fitting that her saga is told through words and illustrations in the format of a graphic novel.  Lily herself, once she came to America, was a pioneer in the comic book industry.  The story is told simply, complemented by the colorful graphics, German to English glossary, and rich appendices.


The Boy Who Invented TV:  The Story of Philo Farnsworth by Kathleen Krull

Most people would agree that the television is one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.  What is less well-known was that it was a boy of 14 who was the creative genius behind it.  It’s an amazing story of inspiration and science working together.  While plowing the fields in Idaho on his family farm, Philo had a brainstorm:  he saw in the parallel rows he had plowed “a way to make pictures fly through the air.”  Just 8 years later, he made it a reality  and transmitted the world’s first television image.  This biography is more than the story of this one invention, though, and chronicles Philo’s genius from the age of three drawing schematics of train engines to his teen study of the stars and inventors who had gone before him. The endnotes describe his later legal battles with RCAand documents his success in proving that he invented television years before RCA. Intriguing and little-known history!


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steven Jobs–famous as a creative entrepreneur who revolutionized computers, music, telephones, movies, and more.  Even if you’re not typically a fan of biography, you’ll find this a page-turning read.  At our house, it was a constant source of conversation and surprised exclamations as the pages turned quickly to reveal a true genius and his process, person life, triumphs, contradictions, and struggles Isaacson is an outstanding writer, meticulous researcher, and insightful interviewer.  Honestly, everyone we’ve talked to who has read it absolutely loved it.  Steve Jobs wanted to change the world–“put a dent in it,” as he put it.  He did thatand we have witnessed it in our lifetime. 

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