Your Kids Will Love These Children’s Books Illustrated by Famous Artists
As the infinitely quotable Pablo Picasso once said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” A child raised on these nine books might have a pretty good shot. From Andy Warhol’s early work as a commercial illustrator to Yayoi Kusama’s mesmerizing take on The Little Mermaid, here’s a selection of artist-illustrated children’s books to satisfy the youngest generations of art lovers.
Jacob Lawrence, The Great Migration: An American Story, 1993
American painter Lawrence was thrust into the national spotlight at age 23, when his “Migration Series” (1940–41) debuted at New York’s Downtown Gallery and became an overnight sensation. The 60 tempera paintings, depicting the mass movement of African-Americans from South to North in the period between World War I and World War II, were printed in Fortune magazine and, within months, snapped up by MoMA and the Phillips Collection (MoMA took the even numbers; Phillips took the odd). More than half a century later, the series was transformed into a children’s book featuring captions written by the artist himself.
Yayoi Kusama, The Little Mermaid, 2016
Avant-garde Japanese artist Kusama breathed new life into a 179-year-old story with her densely layered black-and-white illustrations. Published this summer by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, the 96-page volume pairs images from her series “Love Forever” (2004–07) with Hans Christian Andersen’s original text. Although Kusama previously illustrated a 2012 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, her marker drawings for The Little Mermaid are more enigmatic, even sinister, packed with unblinking eyes and tentacled creatures swirling in a hallucinatory underwater world.
Marc Chagall, A mayse mit a hon; dos tsigele, 1917
As World War I came to a close, Russia saw a surge of interest in Yiddish children’s literature. This was due, in part, to the collapse of the tsardom and a subsequent easing of restrictions on Jewish cultural activities. But the war had also displaced huge numbers of children who now needed educational instruction and materials; Chagall himself even worked as an art teacher at an orphanage outside Moscow in the early 1920s. Yiddish children’s books were suddenly the epicenter of artistic experimentation for the Jewish avant-garde, and a young Chagall joined in with illustrations for A Story about a Rooster; The Little Kid. Not much more than a booklet, it featured 15 pages of verse as well as eight small, black-and-white images by the future Modernist painter.
El Lissitzky, About Two Squares, 1922
From the start of his career, Russian avant-garde artist Lissitzky illustrated children’s books—Yiddish ones in particular, in an effort to foster Jewish culture alongside other artists like Chagall. But with the rise of Communism, he soon abandoned those increasingly volatile themes. In 1922, a few years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he wrote, illustrated, and designed a Suprematist story that pitted a red square against a black square—geometric stand-ins for the revolutionary Bolsheviks and the previously entrenched tsarist autocracy. Although the story was intended for young readers, its groundbreaking typography and pared-down color palette would influence the world of graphic design for decades to come.
Andy Warhol, Best in Children’s Books #15, “The Little Red Hen,” 1958
Before turning to Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup cans in the 1960s, Warhol was sketching lazy dogs and industrious hens as one of Doubleday’s freelance illustrators. His projects for the publishing company included cookbook diagrams, dust jackets for crime novels, and, between 1957 and 1959, contributions to the popular “Best in Children’s Books” series. Warhol’s handiwork can be seen in six of the 42 volumes, including this version of “The Little Red Hen” and another story titled “The Magic Porridge Pot.” Although he soon outgrew commercial illustration, the Pop artist had a lifelong love for children’s books. He even wrote a few of his own: The Autobiography of a Snake, published earlier this year, is a neon-hued look at the world of 1960s fashion through the eyes of a friendly reptile.
Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach, 1991
In 1983, following decades of artistic experimentation in paint, textiles, and performance, American artist Ringgold made her first “story quilt”—a medium that soon came to define her practice. In fact, Ringgold’s award-winning children’s book Tar Beach (1991) was an adaptation of her 1988 story quilt of the same name. Both works center on eight-year-old Cassie Louise Lightfoot, who takes flight from her family’s Harlem rooftop and sets off to explore New York City from above.
David Hockney, Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, 1970
Hockney spent much of 1969 preoccupied with one of his biggest printmaking projects: etchings for fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm. His six choices ran the gamut from essential (“Rumpelstiltskin” and “Rapunzel”) to obscure (“Fundevogel” and “Old Rinkrank”). The British artist’s non-idealized, occasionally grotesque illustrations pay homage to the original stories’ disturbing, violent nature—something further erased with each new Disney version.
Romare Bearden, Li’l Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story, 2003
Completed in 1984 but published posthumously, Li’l Dan (2003) was the only children’s book to be both written and illustrated by the influential 20th-century American artist. It tells the story of an orphaned slave on a Southern plantation who tags along with a troop of Union soldiers after they arrive and tell him he’s free. Like Bearden’s body of work as a whole, the book considers the African-American experience (Bearden, of course, also represented more contemporary moments, such as the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement). In this story, however, only a few illustrations incorporate his signature collage elements; instead, Li’l Dan’s adventures are depicted in line drawings and vivid watercolor washes.
Salvador Dalí, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1969
“Alice has, I understand, become a patron saint of the Surrealists,” literary critic William Empson wrote in 1935, foreshadowing Dalí’s 1969 illustrated version of the classic children’s text. Lewis Carroll’s murderous Queen of Hearts, frantic white rabbit, and ponderous caterpillar all make an appearance, each one transformed by the Surrealist painter’s exuberant style. Originally published by New York’s Maecenas Press-Random House, the volume contained 12 photogravures (one for each chapter) and an etching as the frontispiece. The book became increasingly rare, with copies selling for as much as $12,900, until it was reprinted last year by Princeton University Press for the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Cover image: Portrait of Yayoi Kusama courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Art.