I’m all about the nonfiction today. There are two biographies I’d love to single out, both of them biographies of people in the arts. Let’s get to it.
It’s a good thing when author Barbara Kerley and illustrator Edwin Fotheringham join forces, as they have multiple times before: What To Do About Alice? and The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), to name but two.
In A Home for Mr. Emerson, released back in February, Kerley writes about Emerson’s home in Concord, Massachusetts, and his abiding love for it. After hitting upon a few, quick biographical notes from his early life, she gets right to his adulthood and elaborates on his love of home, family and friends in such a way that gives young readers a compelling glimpse at Emerson’s values. In fact, the book opens with: “More than anyone else, Ralph Waldo Emerson loved his home in Concord, Massachusetts.”
The first page, that is, says this. Even before that first page, however, we’re given a good deal of information about the man and his beliefs. The beautifully-designed endpapers are filled with many of Emerson’s well-known quotes (“Scatter joy”) in varied, multi-colored fonts. On the title page, Emerson looks straight at the reader from inside his home, front door wide open. His hand is extended, as he invites readers into the book.
Emerson, Kerley writes, longed to have a home, deep in the woods; he wanted to “build a life around [the] things he loved.” Once he had this home, a farmhouse at the edge of a meadow, he moved in with his new wife, whom he called Queenie, and they began their life—and family—together.
Kerley brings Emerson’s personality to vivid life through her careful examination of his passions and his work. The book is filled with many of his sayings and highlights his love of speaking, writing, and having visitors in his home: “Noblemen in glittering carriages. Poor students and famous writers. Poets. Philosophers. Kooks and cranks. Men without shoes or with beards to their waists.” Emerson, she makes it clear to readers, was a man who loved to learn new things and expand his mind.
But his love for home and community is always at the forefront. “[N]o matter how far he traveled or how famous he grew,” Kerley writes, “Mr. Emerson still loved living in Concord.”
When a fire in 1872 destroys his home, he is devastated. Fotheringham, who always has fun with perspective and whose artwork is spectacular, does lovely things with color in this book: The opening spreads are vivid greens, oranges and blues. On the spread right before the fire, which depicts Emerson and his family throwing a garden party for school children, the sky around the house is orange. It’s a sunset, to be sure, yet those warm colors seem to hint at the tragedy to come. And after the fire and Emerson’s subsequent sorrow, Fotheringham often depicts him in shadows or muted, pale blues. The colors perk right back up when, after traveling the world with his daughter, he returns to find that his community has repaired and re-furnished his beloved home.
Susan Goldman Rubin’s Everybody Paints!: The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family is geared at older readers and clocks in at 105 pages. Intimate and accessible, it tells the story of N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth. Rubin delves into their artistic achievements, of course, but also their relationships and family life.
Occasionally, she touches upon the disdain for illustration some of the men felt: Even after N.C. finished his illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, he remarked early in his career to his editor that, now that the book was done, he was “very eager to do some really good stuff.” Feeling his illustrations, for which he was so well-known, were inferior to paintings “that lived on their own,” he longed to be recognized as a painter. Toward the book’s close, Jamie—who has illustrated several children’s books—is quoted as saying, “I’ve always taken [the title of illustrator] as a supreme compliment. What’s wrong with illustration?”
The book’s busy design isn’t for everyone, as you can see in the official Kirkus review. But I find it to be extremely pleasing to the eye. Best of all, the book includes many paintings from the Wyeths. As I read, I don’t remember once wondering about the look of any of the paintings about which Rubin writes. If she singles it out, its image is included there.
Two exceptional biographies of four inspiring men.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.