Alice B. McGinty | Artful biographies of unusual artists

Alice B. McGinty | Artful biographies of unusual artists

To make sure young readers' minds stay sharp this summer, here are two new picture book biographies, each telling the story of very unusual artists, and each true works of art in their own right.

In "The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art" (2018, Candlewick Press, written by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola, ages 5-12), flowing watercolor illustrations and bright, lyrical text bring us into the magical world of Nek Chand's Indian village.

"In the village, Nek played and planted, laughed and listened, as the ancient stories circled with the seasons, beginning to end and back again," we read, feeling the strength of young Nek's love of village life.

We're shocked when we read that men with guns came, and the region split into Pakistan and India. Nek's family has to flee the village. Nek ends up in India's first modern city, Chandigarh, but he doesn't like his modern surroundings. When he discovers acres of jungle at the edge of the city, he feels at home. He finds broken fragments of villages bulldozed to create the city..."chipped sinks, cracked water pots, and broken glass bangles in red, blue, and green," and collects them.

There, Nek builds the secret kingdom. He saves plants from the city dump. He paves paths, pours walls, and makes people from twisted bikes and rusty pipes. He keeps his kingdom secret for 15 years, until angry government officials discover it. But people come, and they love his magical place so much that they stand by Nek.

The illustrations and photographs of Nek Chand's kingdom, and the emotion and description of the process he went through to build it, will bring readers into this wondrous world and make them feel the magic. A long author's note completes this beautifully executed book.

"Silent Days, Silent Dreams" (2017, Scholastic, written and illustrated by Allen Say, ages 7-12) brings us into James Castle's story through the narration of his nephew, who says, "I think I knew him as well as anyone could know him – which wasn’t very much.”

The next 60 pages, smattered with narration in a small font, include a complex arrangement of Say’s drawings, mimicking Castle’s many styles, created with matchsticks, shoe polish, cardboard and other mediums that Castle used as he grew up, bullied, abused, and often neglected, on an Idaho farm. Say brings in detailed research to create a portrait of what life was like for the deaf, mute, autistic boy.

When he enters school, the text reads, “James saw more people than he had ever seen before – all with darting eyes and flapping mouths. From that day he would always be afraid of strangers.” The emotion in the drawings of the cowering child is powerful.

The story advances, unfolding to show him drawing in an abandoned ice house on the farm, and failing later at boarding school. When his parents die, he moves with his sister and her family, leaves his art behind (his art was destroyed and left behind many times), and begins again. His nephew watches him draw (he’s the only one James allows in his studio), and later shows James’ pictures to his professor at art school, which leads to James’ discovery. James Castle’s story of persistence and survival is poignant, as was this scene, when his art was first displayed. James stayed at the gallery, “long after everyone was gone, looking at his work all in frames, rocking slowly in his new shoes.”

An author’s note tells of Say’s introduction to this artist, and the research he did to uncover and tell his fascinating story.

Alice B. McGinty ( is the award-winning author of over 40 books for children, and the recipient of the 2017 Illinois Reading Council’s Prairie State Award for Excellence in Writing for Children. Each summer, Ms. McGinty runs a writing camp for teens, called Words on Fire.

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