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The best art books for kids

Published 2 December 2016

Eight gift ideas to awaken the imagination and dazzle the senses… Bob and Roberta Smith RA chooses the best children’s books about art and design.

  • From the Winter 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    My Dad was the parent who bought me art books for Christmas. He was a painter and he ran Chelsea School of Art in the 1960s and ’70s. His idea of a great Christmas present for a 10-year-old interested in art would be E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. I still have it. Inside the front cover it reads “Happy Xmas 1973. One day, if you are a bright boy you might understand this… from Father Xmas.”

    Kids art books have become a big theme with publishers. Some of them feel a bit devised for the market, but all of the books below have something genuine to offer and each caters for slightly different needs, from art appreciation to guides to art making, colour theory and logic puzzles. My favourites are the ones you could give to a baby, but which an adult could equally get lost in.

    • Squares & Other Shapes: with Josef Albers. Designed by Meagan Bennett. Published by Phaidon

      Squares & Other Shapes: with Josef Albers

      Designed by Meagan Bennett

      Josef Albers was one of the great artist teachers. He was a central figure in the Bauhaus – probably the most important school of art ever. Albers’ ideas about colour were complicated but his paintings were simple. This terrific book gets straight to the point. The most appealing aspect of what Albers had to say is all here: art is about pleasure and looking and what colour and rhythm does. Buy this for a child but also give it to your friend who says, “I don’t get modern art”.

      £6.95, hbk

    • See the Stripes

      by Andy Mansfield

      Hours of fun can be had trying to find the hidden coloured stripes in this ingenious pop-up book, ideal for lovers of the Rubik’s Cube. Proof, if it was needed, that art is about logic. Give your kids a unique entry into the understanding of Systems art. One day they could become code breakers.

      £9.99, hbk

      See the Stripes, by Andy Mansfield.  Published by Templar
    • Seeing Things: A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs, by Joel Meyerowitz.  Published by Aperture Foundation

      Seeing Things: A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs

      by Joel Meyerowitz

      Joel Meyerowitz introduces us to some of the great street photographers of America – Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt and Garry Winogrand – as well as the Europeans Cartier-Bresson and Eugène Atget. What are the photographers trying to do and how does photography affect us? This clever and beautiful book has a strong humanistic undercurrent. Through the lens of the camera we understand that the past can communicate with us, that fleeting moments are poetic and meaningful, and that perhaps sometimes, when we think that life is a bit aimless, it’s also beautiful.

      £15.95, hbk

    • Magritte’s Apple

      by Klaas Verplancke

      The Surrealist René Magritte is a lot of fun. The man who painted a pipe and then said it was not a pipe but a “painting of a pipe” is sympathetically brought to life through this investigation into his obsession with apples. The publisher recommends this book for children of five years plus. The best children’s books also get adults thinking and, as an introduction to philosophy and the nature of language, this one certainly does.

      £14.95, hbk

      Magritte’s Apple, by Klaas Verplancke.  Published by Thames & Hudson
    • Draw Like an Artist, by Patricia Geis.  Published by Princeton Architectural Press

      Draw Like an Artist

      by Patricia Geis

      This practical book aims to get kids making self- portraits in the style of modern masters. The back pages are there for you to cut out and use in collages. It is a modern version of a Victorian scrapbook where kids would cut out and create new scenes using pre-drawn printed elements. I’m getting out my scissors and glue as I write this.

      £8.99, pbk

    • Bob the Artist

      by Marion Deuchars

      Bob is some kind of crow who has skinny legs. If I were advising Bob I would say, “Don’t worry about your skinny legs. Your friends, an owl and a cat, are being mean!” I like the image where Bob is inspired by Matisse cut-outs. But painting your beak as a diversionary tactic because you’ve got skinny legs is not wise. Bob, get some new friends.

      £10.95, hbk

      Bob the Artist, by Marion Deuchars.  Published by Laurence King
    • SPLAT! The Most Exciting Artists of all Time, by Mary Richards.  Published by Thames & Hudson

      SPLAT! The Most Exciting Artists of all Time

      by Mary Richards

      Great tabloid newspaper-takes on the stories behind art. In this book artists are full of plots and plans to change the world and create small revolutions in how we understand what we see and experience. This would be a great gift to give to a family member before heading out to a gallery or a trip to Paris or Italy. The book is bang up to date, including modern-day artists such as Cornelia Parker RA and Pipilotti Rist.

      £12.95, hbk

    • Arnold’s Extraordinary Art Museum

      by Catherine Ingram and Jim Stoten

      Catherine Ingram and illustrator Jim Stoten take us on a fantastical journey into an esoteric museum run by Arnold, who is a bit of a controlling geek, armed with a chalk to draw a line over which one must not step. Oddly, we meet a cartoon Rachel Whiteread, who tells us she likes “forgotten spaces”, which she casts in plaster. Arnold’s museum houses key works in conceptual art that deal with bodily functions: Manzoni’s Merda d’artista; Duchamp’s famous fountain; and Yves Klein’s blue drinks, which made gallery goers’ wee turn blue. This book might give your kids nightmares about going to art shows but your angry pre-teenager will love it.

      £12.95, hbk

      Arnold's Extraordinary Art Museum, by Catherine Ingram and Jim Stoten.  Published by Laurence King.

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