A picture book biography is more than the product of an author. You could safely say that the responsibility for its appeal is shared by the author, the illustrator, and the subject, especially when the subject is herself an artist.
If you think of the recent picture book bio of Anna Pavlova, Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, you quickly realize that some people will pick it up because it's about a marvelous ballerina, some will snatch it because they are fans of the author, Laurel Snyder, while still others will be drawn in by artist Julie Morstad's exquisite and sensitive illustrations.
I'm going to argue that there's one other person who should get a lot of credit for a truly extraordinary picture book biography, and that's the editor. If you listen to Laurel talk about Swan (and you should, on Matthew Winner's Let's Get Busy podcast interview of Laurel and Julie), you'll hear about the editorial process that resulted in words selected like gems from a velvet case and an illustrator who was an inspired choice by Melissa Manlove, the book's editor at Chronicle.
Similarly, in the acknowledgements for Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter, the artist thanks "Christy O." and for good reason. Christy O. can only be the editor Christy Ottaviano, who has her own imprint at Henry Holt. Christy must have been the one who read Barbara Herkert's picture book script about the life of Mary Cassatt, and thought, "Gabi Swiatkowska." At the very least, Christy's the one who signed off on the pairing. And it's a genius matchup. Here's why.
Gabi Swiatkowska has never not produced art that is interesting to look at. Her work is intentionally mannered and old-fashioned looking, but with a knowingness that winks at the reader. A little girl might be dressed in meticulous period gear, all pantaloons and petticoats, but her expression will be one of very specific discontent. See Queen on Wednesday. I have wondered, however, how this serious-seeming but off-kilter art goes over with kids. Part of the wit of this work is in the interplay between the formal elements - the grown-up colors, the slightly surrealistic perspectives and the painterly textures - and the expressionistic content, and I don't know if children always can catch it.
And then you have Mary Cassatt, who was revolutionary for her time, painting scenes of everyday domestic life through the lens of a new generation of artists. Barbara Herkert does a great job in this book explaining the context of Cassatt's work - she saw the brighter colors and loose-limbed poses of Degas and his dancers and applied those ideas to the subjects she liked to paint.
When the modern viewer looks at her work, however, all we see are babies and moms. Babies and moms wearing placid expressions, depicted in pastel colors. Yawn. We have trouble seeing what's extraordinary about her work, because the angles and colors and the way she used materials - so shocking at the time - are now perfectly accessible to us.
So when you put Gabi Swiatkowska, who has always been interested in what her subjects are THINKING, onto the case of Mary Cassatt, whose content is no longer challenging to the viewer, you get the best of both worlds. A sweeter color range - and fewer random birds - in Ms. Swiatkowska's illustrations, and a sense of challenge and alertness in Ms. Cassatt's paintings.
This book has finally made Mary Cassatt relevant to me. Good job, ladies!