A good book can transport you to another time and place, invite you to see things you hadn’t noticed before, or inspire you to try something new. Young or old, now seems like the perfect time to curl up with a good book, and so Museum staff have searched their own stacks and memories for their favorite art-themed kid’s books. Though this list is intended for kids, we think all those young at heart will enjoy these artful tales. Perhaps they will inspire you to create some artwork of your own! And here are a few online resources for finding free children’s books and reading material: Brightly Storytime from Random Penguin House, Storyline, and Literacy Central from Reading Fundamental.
Matisse’s Garden, by Samantha Friedman
With bold, colorful illustrations and immersive fold-out pages of the artist’s work, Matisse’s Garden, by Samantha Friedman, is a favorite in my house. The story begins with Henri Matisse’s simple need to cover a stain on his wall, then takes the reader through his art-making process and the development of his cutout technique. My son loves to share the different shapes he sees and we talk about the choices Matisse makes—how he arranges shapes, layers colors, then creates an entire room of his work. The book has inspired us to create our own cutouts—some of which are still on our walls!
Here are some more recommendations from my colleagues...
Another vote for Matisse’s Garden! It’s about when Henri Matisse started cutting shapes out of paper to make his art. It is beautifully written, with lyrical language, but still straightforward enough for little ones. The illustrations are colorful and very evocative of Matisse’s work. You also learn a lot, including the fact that Matisse chose to paint his paper specific colors before cutting them. Finally, it is inspirational, since even the very young can cut up paper and make them into new shapes. It is the book we parents need right now.
—Romy Silver-Kohn, Research Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture
Sophie’s Masterpiece: A Spider’s Tale, by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Jane Dyer
I loved reading Eileen Spinelli and Jane Dyer’s Sophie’s Masterpiece: A Spider’s Tale to my son when he was a toddler. It’s about a spider who was an artist, but found it difficult to find someone to appreciate her creative abilities, as she moves from room to room in Beekman’s Boardhouse. Finally, she finds the perfect home and an important role, as she creates her most important masterpiece.
–Wendy Woon, MoMA’s Deputy Director for Education
How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Art Life Museum, by Keri Smith
How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Art Life Museum, by Keri Smith, has a series of imaginative exercises for paying attention to the world around you that families or friends can do together. Rather than talking about art, it brings you into the processes of how artists think, investigate, imagine, and create. Together you can put into practice the curious ways that artists and scientists observe, collect, document, analyze, and compare and contrast. No need to shop for supplies—materials can be found or repurposed easily from around your home. It includes some great quotes from artists and scientists as inspiration. This book lets the whole family discover how you each see the world differently. And don't miss Keri's Exploration of the Day website for more great activities for home.
Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses, by Amy Whitaker
This one is a recommendation for harried parents, who need creative inspiration too. Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses, by Amy Whitaker, has great connections between creativity and business, and advice on how to live a creative life.
A River, by Marc Martin
One of our favorite books to read with our daughter June (she’s 4 1/2) is A River, by Marc Martin. The book begins within a home, an appropriate setting for this moment. Someone is sitting at her desk, drawing, and within the frame of the window in front of her we can make out a river winding by. The next thing we know, she is imagining herself in a boat on that river, and on the blank drawing paper she’s visualizing where the river might take her: through farmland, drifting next to factories, even over a waterfall. Martin’s illustrations provide a wonderful inspiration for our current circumstances. What diverse and remarkable places you can travel to, all in your mind!
—Lucy Gallun, Associate Curator, Department of Photography
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg
Reading E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler cinched it for me: I knew then, at eight, I wanted to become a curator. I still dream of spending a night by myself at the Met, having the run of the entire building before sleeping in a rococo bed in an 18th-century period room. There are few places I feel more at home, more peaceful and stimulated, than a museum. I cannot wait to return to a MoMA teeming with kids, some of them surely experiencing the same epiphany that Claudia and Jamie Kincaid (and I) had.
—Josh Siegel, Curator, Department of Film
I recommend From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I read this book when I was about 10 years old and was fascinated with the story of two children who run away from home to take refuge at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They bathe in the dining court fountain, pick up the coins, and have the entire Museum to themselves each night. Maybe this is why I have spent my professional career working in a museum, although I have never spent the night at MoMA! I did attend a sleepover for adults at the Rubin Museum of Art a few years ago and, while getting settled in my sleeping bag, I was thinking about Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, the book’s protagonists. A must for any child, adult, or family who loves museums and longs to return after our current situation concludes. (And, for now, you can visit behind the scenes with our video series At the Museum.)
—Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film
Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson
Crockett Johnson’s classic Harold and the Purple Crayon is a foundational tale about the twin powers of drawing and the imagination. It reminds us that art can lead us on an adventure—and also to safety.
—Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, Drawings and Prints
Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold
My favorite children’s book is Tar Beach. Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach shows the freedom in imagining a better world around you, as the central character flies off of her building’s roof and floats over New York City.
—Hannah Fagin, Coordinator, Adult and Academic Programs, Department of Education
Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity, by Sarah Suzuki
On a daily basis, I’m amazed by what my two-and-a-half-year-old sees that I often miss: a cloud shaped like a snake, “thirsty” trees in rain, an invisible but friendly monster named Alfred standing next to me. MoMA curator Sarah Suzuki’s Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity captures that wonder of childhood vision and imagination, and how it can blossom into a lifelong commitment to art. Another book with little bursts of beauty is Du Iz Tak?, by Carson Ellis, a regular in our bedtime rotation. Its made-up language is hilarious to kids, and its band of insects that go through a seasonal cycle of life—filled with danger and amazement—all feel like a metaphor for the importance, especially right now, of noticing art and splendor everywhere around us.
—Prudence Peiffer, Managing Editor, Creative Team
Le corbeau blanc et le mouton noir, by Eugen Sopko
One of my favorite children’s books is Le corbeau blanc et le mouton noir (The White Raven and the Black Sheep), by Eugen Sopko. It’s not an art book per se, but it’s a book about color and not fitting in, which to me are two of art’s central ingredients. A white raven and a black sheep, targets and outcasts because of their outward differences in appearance, try everything they can to fit in. Ultimately, they decide to just be themselves, and the love they have for each other allows them to do just that.
—Thomas Lax, Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art
The Rainbow Flag: Bright, Bold, and Beautiful, by Michelle Millar Fisher, illustrated by Kat Kuang
The Rainbow Flag: Bright, Bold, and Beautiful, by Michelle Millar Fisher and Kat Kuang, narrates the birth of one of the most successful and joyous revolutionary symbols of our time––the Rainbow Flag. Together with friends and volunteers at the Gay Community Center on Grove Street in San Francisco, Gilbert Baker sewed the first one on June 25, 1978, on the occasion of the Gay Freedom Parade. “Bright, bold, and beautiful,” the flag stands not only as a reminder of a historic struggle for social justice, but also as a paragon of great design. For that reason, the Rainbow Flag is also part of MoMA’s collection.
—Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research and Development
Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, a Young Artist in Harlem, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, illustrated by Christopher Myers
When we were working on our Jacob Lawrence exhibition a few years ago, the brilliant Harlem historian and writer (and young mother) Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts proposed a book that follows a young Jacob as he discovers his neighborhood. The result, Jake Makes a World, with vibrant illustrations by Chris Myers, is also a tale about how art helps us connect with the world around us. And for the moment, it allows us an imaginative walkabout.
—Leah Dickerman, Director of Editorial and Content Strategy
Two Kids, One Grown Up, by John Baldessari
Thought I would add this Small Press book, Two Kids, One Grown Up. Bring a work of art into your home with this stunning John Baldessari limited-edition volume. Sending strength for any whose days can be summed up as “two kids, one grown-up!”
—Sophie Cavoulacos , Assistant Curator, Department of Film
A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa, by Andrea D’Aquino
Andrea D’Aquino's beautiful A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa follows Asawa (1926–2013) from her childhood on her family’s farm in California, to her time studying with Josef Albers and others at Black Mountain College, to her life as a practicing artist and mother. In the spirit of Asawa, who was also a teacher and an arts education advocate, the book includes an activity for children to create a paper sculpture of their own.
—Lily Goldberg, Collection Specialist, Department of Painting and Sculpture
A Long Piece of String, by William Wondriska
I first came across William Wondriska’s marvelous A Long Piece of String when googling something like “most beautiful children’s books in the world” while on a hunt for alphabet books to share with my young daughter. This elegant, nearly wordless book, first published in 1963, is an artwork in itself. It follows the titular piece of string as it journeys across, around, and over an alphabetically arranged series of things (“a” for alligator, “g” for gas station, “v” for volcano). In these strange days of social distancing and deeply necessary communal empathy, I can’t help but be especially touched by this tale of an energetic thread connecting many things across long distances.
—Lanka Tattersall, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints
Sonia Delaunay: A Life of Color, by Cara Manes, illustrations by Fatinha Ramos
One of my very favorite children’s books ever is Sonia Delaunay: A Life of Color, by Cara Manes, with illustrations by Fatinha Ramos. During the course of an imaginary, magical road trip, the artist Sonia Delaunay and her young son discover a world of color and shapes together. I especially love the way this book celebrates the power of looking at and noticing things around you, and talking to others about what you see. It is also a wonderful reminder of how far you can travel using nothing more than your imagination, something I particularly treasure right now.
—Anne Umland, Senior Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture