Saturday 10 September 2016

Art Baby: Best Art Board Books for the Very Young

In the last couple of years I've had numerous requests for recommendations for the best, most accessible and age appropriate art books for the very young. I thought I'd take the opportunity of celebrating the launch of a very welcome addition to this well thumbed pile, to share a round up of the most effective art board books we have discovered.

1. First stop, a brilliant book I bought at the Tate Modern called Art For Baby. I have become rather an evangelist for it (it's a much purchased new baby gift from us) as it is both beautiful and engaging. Containing monochrome images by famous artists, such as Ohana (1999) by Takashi Murakami (which was a definite favourite for both girls), this clever introduction to art (complete with additional wall frieze) gripped Culturebaby right from the start. In the first weeks of life babies see differently to us and are most attracted to people's faces, bold patterns (especially black and white) and contrasts between light and dark (that's why babies stare at windows). I've written about this further in this post. As Montessori from the Start notes: "The baby gradually develops focus on a moving object, tracking of an object, and perception of colour and depth." Step in the next two beautiful books in the series Art for Baby Faces (same format as the first title but with twelve striking and varied faces from contemporary and modern artists from Ofili to Picasso); and Art for Baby Colour. The latter is still a favourite in our household. The box contains four mini concertina galleries in each of red, blue, yellow and green and featuring 44 works by leading modern and contemporary artists. Whilst these little books are perfect for small hands, they have really come into their own in imaginative play. They can be easily set up into a whole art gallery for small characters and are regularly used by both girls.

2. The second set I bought were the beautiful little titles from Chronicle Books (USA) and Susan Goldman Rubin: Andy Warhol's Colors, Matisse Dance for Joy and Magritte's Imagination. The first two in particular have been extremely successful with the girls. We discovered Andy Warhol's Colours first online. This beautifully designed board book introduces colours through Warhol's animal art (for further suggestions on great animal themed art books see HERE). It is a perfect size for little fingers, feels shiny and beautiful to touch and has an engaging rhyme throughout. It was one of Culturebaby's first favourite books and came with us everywhere. The minute your baby is out of black and white books, I'd put this top of your to-buy list. We even included it, complete with colour activity, as a summer book exchange  (see the follow-on activity HERE).

The Matisse Dance for Joy is a perfect little introduction to the link between joy, art and movement. It's not only a book to read. It's a book to dance! This inspired little boardbook was a favourite for quite a while, particularly given Culturebaby's penchant for ballet. It takes a number of Matisse's cut-outs which involve dance and movement, and provides a simple text which directs the reader to recreate the movements and join in. It brings the images alive and gives a sense of the dynamism and energy of Henri's works, which were very much inspired by his love for music (he was a keen violinist). We took the book to the blockbuster Matisse show at Tate Modern a couple of years ago and it served both as a guide-book for the children to find favourite images in the galleries and helped to show this connection between movement and image in many of the works before them.

 3. At a similar time I also bought another set of titles from American publisher Sterling and authors Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo. I've never seen anything quite like these touchy feely art books, which invite the child to explore real art in a tactile way. Although the text of these books leaves a little to be desired, the concept is brilliant. We used the pop art edition Pop Warhol's Top as part of a project on Andy Warhol (see HERE). All the children loved popping the top of the Campbell's Soup can, fluttering Marilyn's eyelashes, pulling the lettuce out of Oldenburg's Two Cheeseburgers and, best of all, feeling the sticky sauce on Lichtenstein's Mustard on White.

We also particularly love Tickle Tut's Toes, included HERE in a post on Egypt for tots. 

Though this series is aimed at ages 4+ because it has parts that can unravel, I'd really disagree with this and say the best audience is a supervised 1-2 year old. Like the engaging 'That's not my...' series, the appeal of these books are the touchy-feely elements. Little paws can explore mummy wrappings, sandy sarcophagi and corrugated pyramids, pick Monet's waterlilies and make Van Gogh's bed. They contain photographs, original artworks and a simple rhyming text. There's also a section at the back of each volume with context and information for each image. 

File:Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas 076.jpg
Culturebaby's favourite: Edgar Degas' Blue Dancers from Wiki Commons

4. Next, the Mini Masters series from Merberg and Bober is a set of beautifully-made little glossy board books. Again these are published by Chronicle Books and feature the work of one artist - taking the child on a lyrical journey through some of their well-known art. Dancing with Degas  is the favourite with our miniature ballerinas - it uses the paintings of Degas to walk us through a ballerina's day; from preparation and rehearsal to performance and rest. There are mixed reviews of the text of this book (some think the language could be better), but I think the book (and series) are a great idea and the text does the job - the rhymes help the book flow and remind Culturebaby of the paintings she likes. I would really recommend them. We used the book to talk about which scene we'd like to jump into, we talked about what the ballerinas were doing and what they were wearing, and which instruments are depicted . Culturebaby had clear favourites, which she flicked through and found for herself again and again.

5. Readers will already know we are a fan of Miffy at the Gallery and Miffy the Artist. These brilliant little classic story books by the iconic illustrator Dick Bruna, who took inspiration from Matisse's bold use of colour in art, feature a visit by the endearing little bunny with her parents to a modern art gallery and serve as a brilliant introduction for any toddler doing the same. They cleverly introduce easier concepts of both figurative art and sculpture, but also surrealism, collage and use of mobiles. They even contain a bunny ears version of Matisse's La Gerbe. Miffy becomes an amateur art appreciator and critic, and in turn is inspired to go home and try painting for herself in Miffy the Artist, a clever follow-up book produced by Tate and Dick Bruna that majors on the inspiration art galleries can give to a toddler for their own creativity.

We were therefore delighted to see that in 2015 Tate produced a new, and slightly simpler, Lift-the-Flap board-book version of Miffy the Artist. The very young progress from black and white to cloth and then feely books as their vision and dexterity develops. Around nine months, I found that the girls started to really enjoy the cause and effect and surprise elements of lift-the-flap books. Culturetot still enjoys these, which are the pre-cursors to the brilliant and much more complex Usborne Look inside books, which appeal to much older children with the same basic concept. This version of Miffy the Artist is an accessible introduction to gallery going, and the important creative process of inspiration and consequent production. "At the end of the day Miffy knew she was a real artist". A message for all our little paintbrush-wielders to hear.

6. Finally, I'd like to recommend a new series of First Concepts with Fine Artists from the brilliant publisher of art books Phaidon. I'm really excited about these clever, stunningly produced and well thought-out titles. Each glossy board book takes a learning theme (colour, shape etc...) and in such simple terms explores how these feature in a range of the artist's work.

In April we received the first in this series to test - Blue and Other Colours with Henri Matisse. Two year old Culturetot and I have loved working through the book, spotting and naming the colours used, reading the text, answering questions posed and talking about our favourite works amongst the many (over 25) featured. The book focuses on Matisse's cut-outs - produced during his 17 twilight years when he was recovering from cancer and was often too sick to hold a paintbrush. Matisse had his assistants paint large sheets of paper in a wide range of colours, he cut them into shapes and then had them arrange these on his studio walls. He cut and arranged and re-worked these until he had his perfect composition - surrounding himself with a bright paper "garden" of his own creation. For toddlers, as we experienced in the Tate Modern's brilliant retrospective, this work is bold, dynamic and memorable; a catalyst for creativity. Youngsters, in particular those who still struggle to etch complex images and get frustrated that their drawings don't yet look on paper as they intend, can perhaps see in the aged Matisse a kindred spirit who distilled shapes down to their simplest form to create something wonderful. They too can use ready-made cut-outs to create an exciting artistic composition or, for the slightly older tots, take a pair of scissors and use them to 'draw' simple shapes.This book works well in combination with the Mini Masters A Magical Day with Matisse, which focusses on his earlier period.

Next to be published on the 4th October is Squares and Other Shapes with Josef Albers. We've had a sneak preview and think it is brilliant. Albers was born in Germany in 1888 and was a leading pioneer of 20th Century Modernism and his work Interaction of Colour is still used by students today to learn about colour in art and in nature. I don't know his work well so exploring over 30 of his works has been a delight for me too. His series of works entitled Homage to the Square are his best known and several are featured in the book, alongside many others. We find towers of wobbly rectangles, bouncing circles, napping oblongs, sharp triangles and circles hiding in squares. Albers liked the way that colours looked (and seemingly changed) when juxtaposed with other colours. Some colours made his squares within squares look as if they were 'glowing'; others recede or pop-out of the picture. This is a fabulous book for learning shapes, but is also brilliant on many levels - for discussing colour and form, size and mood, perception, and exploring iconic artists in a fun way with the youngest appreciators. I can't wait to see who is up next...

“Art is as natural as sunshine and as vital as nourishment.” 

MaryAnn F. Kohl

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” 

Albert Einstein

Disclaimer: We received the two titles from Phaidon, Miffy the Artist and Art for Baby Colour for review purposes from the publishers (with thanks). All other titles we bought. As always, all views are very much my own.

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