A head start on art: four newly reprinted books for children

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Looking for art books to share with a young friend? Author Ernest Raboff delivers a lot in four new volumes, originally published by Doubleday nearly 20 years ago: Leonardo da Vinci; Rembrandt; Pierre-Auguste Renoir; and Pablo Picasso (all from J.B. Lippincott, $11.95 hard cover, $5.95 paper, ages 6 and up).

The books are concise, encapsulated, poetic views of each artist - his life, his thoughts, and his art.

Potentially ``read aloud'' books - the language is clear and direct - they call for parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles/friends to share the fun and beauty of art with early elementary-school children, and as easy, informative, lively ``reads'' for later elementary or middle-school students through about the sixth grade.

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Each slim volume opens with a page analyzing the cover image in a few words, proceeds to two pages of biography and witty quotations, then expands into a ``study'' of major works by each artist (not always chronologically). Raboff finds qualities to love in paintings, and describes his sense of how the art pieces ``work'' with a poetic freedom rarely too interpretive.

Color plates (15 in each book) of quite high quality, many chosen from American museums in various states, should encourage adults to take children for a closer look. What's more, Raboff effectively accents his hand-printed, capital-letter text with bright primary colors to emphasize titles, objects, and ideas. Small inserted black-and-white images from the artists' graphic works invite extra thought, and could lead to additional reading.

As an artist and poet who had met Picasso, Raboff naturally began (in the late 1960s and early '70s, when the first of the books appeared) with artists nearest his own heart and time: Klee, Picasso, Chagall, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir. Works on Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, D"urer, Vel'azquez, Rembrandt, Remington, Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Matisse followed, and are available in many public libraries.

Among the four newly reprinted volumes, a young friend and I agreed that Raboff stars with Picasso, ranks high on Rembrandt and Renoir, and does fine with Leonardo. Other reprinted books about Raphael, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and Chagall are expected in February.

Renoir's gaiety and lighthearted view of daily life correspond well with Raboff's own upbeat and light-sensitive outlook. The poet writes: ``The `Umbrellas' create a melody of movement that is soft and beautiful like the sound of rain dropping on the leaves of a tree.''

Picasso's wildly fruitful inventiveness, from blue to rose period, from Cubism to classicism to Cubism again, seems innovative in Raboff's hands - but perfectly natural.

All in all, a great way to start with art!

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