Non-fiction books aren’t just about facts: 2 playful artist biographies which encourage self expression

posted in: Patricia Geis | 4

In this day and age where there are fewer and fewer independent bookshops, some of the most exciting bricks-and-mortar places for discovering new children’s books are the shops in museums and art galleries.

Whilst they may not carry a huge range of stock, they often have quirky, unusual books which would never make it to the surface on the shelves in a highstreet chain bookshop. Two recent publications by Princeton Architectural Press are prime examples of the sort of books I mean: Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso, both by Patricia Geis, are part of a stylish, new and playful Meet the Artist! series which I really like.


Alexander Calder contains a simple biography of the artist’s life and then focuses on several of Calder’s recurrent or particularly important themes or pieces. We learn about his love of making toys, his circus, wire sculptures, mobiles/stabiles and what my kids instantly recognised as what they call “junk modelling”, but which is here referred to as sculpture out of “found objects”. So far, so fairly normal for a non-fiction book about an artist.

But this book is not like your average artist biography because it is full of surprises. There is pop-up bunting, a length of metal chain to play with, press out card toy reproductions, flaps, string and cut-outs. This book is about really engaging with Calder’s art, not just looking at it, but doing it, and viewing it from all angles.


To describe this as a “novelty” book would be unfair, as that label often carries the connotations of cheap gimmickry. Here the physicality of the book engages the reader in a way that I think gives valuable insight into the artist: this book is playful and unconventional, just as Calder was.

The Pablo Picasso volume is equally design conscious, with short pieces of text and white expanses left around the crisp reproductions of Picasso’s art so that they really stand out. The pop-ups are not quite as successful in this volume; sculpture, inherently 3-D, is simply more exciting when it pops up off the page than a reproduction of a flat painting, even with clever use of stands and frames.

Whilst these books might not be favoured in public libraries, with all their moving and loose parts being unlikely to stand up to masses of (quite rightly) active reading, I love how they are a stepping stone to encouraging self-expression (“If a famous artist can sculpt with clothes pegs, then I can try that too!”) and through that, self confidence. Non-Fiction book aren’t just about learning facts!

Alexander Calder‘s Circus is one of his most famous pieces of art and so my girls decided to create their own version. First up M made some bunting out of paint chips. She folded them in half, and then cut out a triangle that she folded over a length of string and held in place with a glue dot.



For our circus artists we downloaded, printed and coloured this great circus set from Made by Joel and made further unusual attractions out of corks and jewellery wire (in the spirit of Calder’s wire sculptures and found objects sculptures).




Watch out for our terrifying circus lions!

Whilst making our circus and then playing with it we listened to:

  • Calder’s Circus by The Tiptons (here it is on Spotify)
  • Swingin’ Little Duck (Alexander Calder) by Hope Harris (you can listen for free here on Soundcloud)
  • Calder’s Circus by Goin’ Monkey (here it is on Spotify)

  • Other activities you might be inspired to get up to having read the Alexander Calder Meet the Artist! book include:

  • Browsing some museum and art galleries’ online shops and browse for interesting books. I like the shops from the Tate Modern, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Design Museum in particular.
  • Creating a pocket circus, like this one from MollyMoo.
  • Balancing a Calder Mobile, with this tutorial from Salamander Art.

  • A third book in the Meet the Artist! series is planned for the Autumn of 2014: Henri Matisse will be the subject of the new volume and I’m certainly looking forward to it.

    Disclosure: I received free review copies of both Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso from the publishers.

    4 Responses

    1. linda sarah

      Wow, Zoe and fellow artists, once again I am amazed by you all – and completely love how you spend time with a book, then bring a whole new world of magic to life with your brilliant ideas and inventions – just beautiful! Your circus is genius – I love it all…the sweet and strange animals (especially cork thing) and awesome bunting! It’s so lovely to read and see this post – thank you 🙂

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