May 28, 2009


Bettina Valentino and the Picasso Club. By Niki Daly. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $15.95.

Georgia Rises: A Day in the Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. By Kathryn Lasky. Pictures by Ora Eitan. Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.95.

     Each of these books offers young readers splendid information on art – but the two come at it from entirely different perspectives, just as two artists would see the same landscape entirely differently. Bettina Valentino and the Picasso Club is a novel so funny that readers will find themselves laughing out loud at some of the antics of the title character and her family and friends – but beneath that amusement are some very serious lessons about what art is, how it is made, and in what ways it appeals to (or fails to appeal to) different sorts of people. The story seems simple: Bettina gets a new, free-spirited art teacher at Bayside Preparatory School and finds her own artistic impulses growing by leaps and bounds as a result. But the plot is barely the point here. Bettina herself is quite a character: “I like art that jumps off the wall and hits you in the eye like a wound-up ninja.” Her old art teacher used to insist she use more pink in her paintings, leading Bettina to create her mantra: “Pink shtinks!” Bettina’s dad drives a falling-apart 1962 Rolls-Royce convertible; her mother is “a fashion designer and is always practicing her French, in case she ever gets to go to Paris to do a show.” This is one girl who comes by her iconoclasm genetically; her best friend, Carmen-Daisy, “calls me an artyfartyfashionloony,” which seems about right. And then – wham! Into Bettina’s life comes Mr. Popart, who walks barefoot to soak up the energy of the Earth and teaches about everything except using more pink. He talks about Paul Klee’s comment on “taking a line for a walk,” about Damien Hirst’s preserved carcasses, and about Picasso – one artist Bettina adores. And Mr. Popart doesn’t just talk: he has the kids create wall art (graffiti, if you prefer), then turns up one day standing on his head to show what the dada movement was all about, and much more. Niki Daly, an excellent picture-book author who here writes his first chapter book, sprinkles wonderful illustrations throughout the story, and manages to make it a fairly complex one, too, because Bayside is in need of serious repair, and one family may contribute a lot of money, but that family (daughter and parents) strongly opposes Mr. Popart and his freewheeling manner, and the head of the school is caught in the middle, which means so is Mr. Popart, and there happens to be an art contest for the students coming up, and…well, there is a lot here, and Daly juggles it all expertly, bringing the book to an entirely satisfactory conclusion – and likely bringing readers more information on art than they would expect to find in such an apparently lighthearted apparent romp.

     Kathryn Lasky’s Georgia Rises is a more overtly serious book, a sensitive portrait of an artist in her 70s struggling to make her body cooperate so she can greet the day as she wishes and draw from it the inspiration that she has received from the natural world for many years. Using many of Georgia O’Keeffe’s own words and the ideas for a number of her paintings – but compressing the action and thinking into a single day – Lasky helps young readers share the sensibilities of an artist: “A bone gleaming white sits as pretty as angel wings just ahead.” “The sky is finally lavender, so pale it’s almost transparent, like the eyelids of babies.” “Soon the stars will climb into the huge blackness of the night and arrange themselves in figures.” Aided by lovely, unsentimentalized pictures by Ora Eitan, Lasky shows how art transcends and transforms the artist, and how O’Keeffe uses the light and the found objects around her desert home to create striking visual impressions, such as her famous flowers “so big that people will have to look” at them. This is a beautiful book for readers already interested in O’Keeffe’s style or ready to experience it, and the biography and selected bibliography at the end will open additional doors of wonder and experience to budding young artists.

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