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HANDS: Growing Up to Be an Artist AND The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert

You may not recognize the name Lois Ehlert instantly, but you will recognize her distinctive illustration style immediately. Her most widely purchased, read and gifted book, one that is sure to be found in every toddler's library after Goodnight Moon, is Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, written by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault. And I have no doubt that, if you haven't already, you will come across Ehlert's classic titles, Planting a Rainbow, Eating the Alphabet and Snowballs, all of which make fantastic board books.

Ehlert's two autobiographies represent a rarity in picture books, a genre that does have a growing collection of picture book biorgraphies. As an artist and a picture book author and illustrator, insight into Ehlert's life is invaluable - especially in a time when non-fiction books for kids are in increasing demand. HANDS: growing up to be an artist is a short but powerful, both for its creativity of design and wonderful illustrations. Appropriately, HANDS: growing up to be an artist is interactive. The image below appears on the title page of the book and is smaller than the trim size. 

When the flap that is part of the title page is lifted, the screwdrivers (promised by the masking tape label on the "box") are revealed.

Turning the title page, the text of the first page of HANDS: growing up to be an artist is revealed.

This layered, revealing approach to storytelling continues throughout the novel as Ehlert described how her father builds (measuring, marking the wood with a pencil, then measuring again) letting the reader know that he is picky. Ehlert writes, "When I help, I try to do things like he does." Ehlert's mother makes things, too. She has cloth, ribbons, lace and buttons and many different pairs of scissors. Together they make cat toys!

My favorite part of HANDS: growing up to be an artist comes when Ehlert's father sets up a folding table just for Lois, right next to her mother's sewing machine. Saying that she could spend all day at her table, Lois answers the call of her mother and father wanting her help in the garden where they plant vegetable and flower seeds. Ehlert ends her book telling readers that she will paint a picture of the flowers when they bloom, the paint box of the cover becoming a page in the book with a cover to be lifted. Ehlert's book nears an end with the words, "I know what I want to be when I grow up, I want to be an artist." Her final words, spread out over three pages, each cut out in the shape of a different "hand," a colorful child's handprint, a gardening glove and a carpenter's glove, the words "Then I'll join hands with my mom and my dad," spread out across the three. What I love most about HANDS: growing up to be an artist is familial nature of Ehlert's story and the support and reciprocal love evident on every page.

In an interview conducted this year, Ehlert said that she wanted to write the Scraps book: Notes from a Colorful Life because she wanted to share and needed "to set it down while I still have my marbles." Ehlert revisits a page or two of territory covered in HANDS: growing up to be an artist, saying, "I grew up with parents who made things with their hands."

Ehlert shares the many places her book ideas come from and there are some wonderful stories behind some of her books, including a squirrel that wandered into her house and walked right up to her, becoming the inspiration for her book Nuts to You! A visit to the aquarium or even the seemingly everyday incident of a cat slipping past her on its way out the door. Ehlert even shares a book dummy, showing every page of her writing and illustrating process, saying, "Back and forth, I work on the pictures and words, until together they tell a story."

Next, Ehlert gives readers a quick lesson on the art of collage, sharing sketches and scraps from the collages she works on. One fantastic page shows the soles of her shoes with scraps stuck to them! 

Ehlert ends the Scraps book: Notes from a Colorful Life saying, "You might ask: why did I choose to be an artist? I think maybe it's the other way around. Art chose me. If you feel that way too, I hope you'll find a spot to work, and begin. I wish you a colorful life!" Happily, Ehlert includes a visual bibliography of her picture books followed by a collage of inspirational photographs and even more on the end papers. 

Not only are the Scraps book: Notes from a Colorful Life and HANDS: growing up to be an artist amazing autobiographies of a living artist, they are generous, encouraging inspirational invitations to creativity and leading a creative life, something that we all could benefit from hearing again and again!

Other books by Lois Ehlert:

Sources: HANDS, purchased
SCRAPS, review copy


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