Let me preface this by saying that I am not a parent (and likely will never become one). I’m not an expert in childhood development or early education. What I am is an art historian who believes that it’s really important for kids to learn about art. Art reflects its time of production, and yet is somehow able to transcend time completely. Art History isn’t actually separate from History (with a capital H) Maybe it seems kind of obvious, but when that notion hit me, it hit hard. Art is history, plain and simple. It’s places and people, stories and politics. It doesn’t have to be boring. Get kids passionate about art, and they will become passionate about history.
I am sure education has changed since I was a kid, but I remember being both somehow bored and bewildered by “Social Studies,” even though it was actually my favorite subject. There were massive, massive gaps in my early education. Learning about art and material culture can help fill those gaps, and a little extracurricular Art History education can provide visual substance for kids who need it.
File this under: Museum Stuff and Art School Dropout.
Bear with me a bit, because even though this is a small list, these are all over the place as far as content goes. But, so is art. If you do have children, take cues from them about what their interests are. You probably do a lot of that already. These books are good places to start, but there are hundreds more. I’ve included some general art books as well as a few artist and period specific books that shine a little more brightly in my eyes. I think these are books that a child can enjoy either on her own or with parent involvement. Nota bene: The titles below will take you to Amazon, and are affiliate links. I will receive a commission for any sales made through the use of those links.
13 Art Movements Children Should Know I’ve actually heard great things about this entire series, but I like Movements in particular because it lays out, very simply, that historical context I was babbling about at the start of this post. This one is useful for Art History undergrads, too. Trust me. Take a break from your flash cards.
Can You Find It? and Can You Find It, Too? I Spy meets art. These interactive search-and-find books from the Metropolitan Museum of Art focus on tiny details in famous works. There are a number of titles in this series, but these two are the originals. Ages 5-9.
illus. Deborah Kogan Ray / Mary Azarian
Hokusai: The Man Who Painted a Mountain I’m not sure if you knew (you probably do), but Hokusai is one of my favorite of favorites. Lots and lots of Art History education tends to focus on European art, and I get it, but amazing things were happening in Asia, too, long before they “opened” to the West. We’re talking printmaking and mass production, which are definitely of historical importance. Hokusai was doing his thing from about 1786, so the same general era as Neoclassical and Romanticism in Europe. This book not only includes a glimpse into Hokusai’s sketchbook, but is thoughtfully illustrated by the author. Ages 7-12. I want this for me. Deborah Kogan Ray has also written a book about one of my childhood favorites: Wanda Gág, author of (the sweet, but somewhat dark tale) Millions of Cats.
Linnea in Monet’s Garden I read this book in the second grade, and I was obsessed. I checked it out from the library as often as I could. This was my first ever Art History book, published in 1987! It’s a dreamy, sweet little story about a girl discovering Claude Monet. It does a beautiful job of weaving narrative with bits and pieces of Monet’s life. The illustrations reflect Monet’s work in perfectly soft way. Ages 4-8.
Snowflake Bentley This is both a photography and science book! Wilson Bentley spent fifty years of his life perfecting the process of photographing snowflakes with the use of a microscope, and he discovered that no two snowflakes are ever alike. Every elementary school student in Vermont is familiar with his story. His starkly beautiful silver gelatin prints can be seen at the Smithsonian and other museums. This book, illustrated with woodcuts by Vermonter Mary Azarian is another that is near and dear to my heart. Ages 4-7.
The Art Book for Children This is another general knowledge book that has received high praise. The Art Book covers thirty well known artists, both classic and contemporary, and their works. Ages 7+. First in a series.
illus. Hadley Hooper / Anja Klauss
The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse This is a beautifully illustrated book about Matisse as a boy. Ages 4-8.
The Little Hippo: A Children’s Book Inspired by Egyptian Art I think every kid goes probably goes through an Egyptology phase. And I think it’s okay to support that interest without stressing out too much about repatriation. That’s an issue that can certainly be addressed later, maybe by chatting with a museum docent. This is a book for younger children, probably ages 4-8. Note that it does deal a little bit with death, as most books on Egyptian art are likely to.
I’d recommend, if you are able, that you check out a museum or its website on your own before bringing your kids. Choose a handful of works (or even just one or two pieces) to visit and talk about with them, anything you think they’ll love. Don’t worry about seeing the whole museum, and don’t necessarily worry about seeing what’s famous, though obviously famous works have their merit. Take your time. Let your kids obsess over something seemingly insignificant. Let them stare at it for ages. Because here’s the thing: there are some works at the MFA Boston that I will visit over and over again, run to every time. There is a bronze drum in the Asian art galleries adorned with tiny frogs. There is Isabella and the Pot of Basil. There is The Fog Warning. There is no rhyme or reason to what I love, and it doesn’t really matter. Nothing is insignificant, so indulge in their obsessions. You let them obsess over cartoon character franchises, so let them obsess over works of art.
If you have any favorite art books of your own, please share them in the comments! It’s good to hear from actual parents.
I thought it might be nice to share a glimpse of my academic and future professional world with you. The museums listed here are some of my favorites, for various reasons. Some of them are obvious choices, but others are small, hidden treasures. Most of them have warranted multiple visits, and are places I know I will continue to return to, year after year.
I plan to keep adding to this list.
I’ll start off with home sweet home, of course!
- The Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor
A Smithsonian affiliate, the Abbe Museum is focused on “inspiring new learning about the Wabanaki Nations.” The downtown Bar Harbor location is bright, open, and beautiful (seriously, it’s a great interior), and the original trailside building at Sieur de Monts Spring is open spring through fall. This Museum has an active relationship with its community, and I like that a lot.
- Portland Museum of Art, Portland
- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
During my year at MassArt (a stone’s throw away from the MFA), the Museum’s Asian and Islamic art galleries served as a second home. The MFA has expanded quite a bit since my original visits in 2003, and remains one of my favorite art museums.
- The New England Aquarium, Boston
- The Woodman Institute, Dover
I have to mention The Woodman Institute in Dover, New Hampshire, because it’s such an unexpected local gem. The main Museum building is home to both an extensive mineral and taxidermy collection, including what happens to be known as the last eastern cougar ever captured in the state of New Hampshire (circa 1853). There are also a couple great Victorian mourning pieces in the collections at The Hale House. This is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.
- The Fairbanks Museum, Saint Johnsbury
The Fairbanks Museum is special because it occupies a large space in my memories of childhood. The building itself is spectacular, and the collections are typical of the late 19th century. The Fairbanks is (unexpectedly) home to the entire collection of John Hampson’s “Bug Art” mosaics, which I was obsessed with as child. The Museum’s display cases are brimming. Take your time with this one.
- The Shelburne Museum, Shelburne
Shelburne Museum requires a full day, at least. I have been 20 times over the years (probably), and I always discover something new.
The Smithsonian Museums seem like such an obvious choice, but they are really spectacular. The Freer and Sackler galleries house the Smithsonian collection of Asian art, and should be included on any “must visit” list. They stand out among everything we saw on our first visit to the city. On my second (solo) visit to DC in 2013, I visited the National Museum of American History and wept over Julia Childs’ copper pots. I’m a little sensitive. You can read about that trip here.
We visited the National Postal Museum on that first trip to DC in 2012, strictly so I could see Owney, but it ended up being a surprising gem of a site.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments! Do you have a favorite museum? Tell me your recommendations.
Thanks for stopping by. My name is Naomi, and this space is made of girldust. This blog is a picture of my comfortably scattered life on the coast of Maine. I'm trying to be a slightly better version of myself every day. I like old houses, reading, the ocean, ghost stories, and museums. You can learn a little bit more about me here.