Shortly after seeing Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks at the High Museum in Atlanta a few years ago, I was thrilled to stumble upon a 25th-anniversary edition of Maya Angelou’s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, brought to life with artworks by Basquiat, in the children’s literature section of a bookstore. We live in an era in which artwork from Eric Carle’s children’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar is on display in some of the country’s most revered art museums and where Yayoi Kusama’s craft is put into toddler terms and released by the Museum of Modern Art in a children’s book.
Yet even with the interplay between the worlds of fine art and children’s literature, educating children about how to interact thoughtfully and inquisitively with art and artists is no small undertaking.
Women Artists A to Z, written by Melanie LaBarge and illustrated by Caroline Corrigan, takes a fittingly artful approach to this daunting task. Rather than present a list of 26 female-identifying artists alphabetized by name, readers are encouraged to ruminate on each artist’s work.
“I can see now that a child might not connect with an unknown character on a page through reading a line like ‘F is for Frida,’” Corrigan told Hyperallergic. The two authors instead elected to engage young readers with the artwork itself. So instead of Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers are paired with the letter F. Frida comes up later, with the letter R, which stands for roots; this refers to symbols and imagery in her self-portraits that represent her Mexican identity and culture.
This approach was not without challenges, though. “Words like ‘box’ for Betye Saar or ‘dots’ for Yayoi Kusama were easy choices; finding the right fit for X, not so much,” reflected LaBarge. “I love that we landed on ‘exposure’ and were able to include photography in the book, but it took time to get there.”
Summing up the impact and breadth of an artist’s work in a single word was no small task either. “Lois Maillou Jones was the hardest to sum up. We knew she was T but which T word took some time!” laughed LaBarge. Eventually Corrigan and LaBarge landed on “technique” for Jones.
An added issue for Corrigan was depicting such a wide variety of distinctive artistic styles in a single, cohesive picture book. “At times I really did struggle with it, and I wanted to give up and just include images of their work next to their drawn portrait, but ultimately I feel like we hit a good middle ground.” The result is 28 stunning works offering glimpses into the world of each individual artist. Corrigan’s colorful illustrations of the artists alongside their artworks are not only wonderfully engaging for young readers, but manage to be consistent in style while honoring the individual artists.
Women Artists A to Z aims not only to inspire the imaginations of the next generation of artists, but also to acknowledge the legacies of some lesser-known artists. By depicting the works of artists like Edmonia Lewis, Gee’s Bend, and Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith alongside those of art-world titans like Kusama and O’Keeffe, LaBarge and Corrigan treat all of these artists with equal reverence and admiration and reinforce their legacies on their own terms. “For my part,” explained LaBarge, “I tried to never make an assertion about an artist’s work … and to honor what I saw, or see, as imperative to them.”
Women Artists A to Z by Melanie LaBarge and Caroline Corrigan (2020) is published by Penguin Random House and is available online or and in bookstores.