The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
"Art was an adventure, and Walter Anderson was an explorer, first class."
Oh heck, I don't have to read any further. I'll buy this book for our school library for that line alone.
One of the reasons I suspect that it is hard to write children's books about artists is that, by and large, artists are weird. Can I say that? Sure ok there are artists that live in a house, paint in a studio, come home every night at 5:30 pm and make the salad... but many many visual artists are Aspy like Warhol, or tortured like van Gogh, or, at the very least, desirous of an immense amount of solitude. Cezanne. Georgia O'Keeffe. And Walter Anderson.
It can be difficult to explain to a child why a grownup might need to be alone. Really alone. Alone for a long time. The three books I've linked to here, Cezanne and the Apple Boy, Georgia Rises, and The Secret World of Walter Anderson, do a good job of showing what the artists were after with all that solitude: there's a lot of air, a lot of nature, and, thankfully, a lot of reproductions of each artist's actual work. Can't stand artist biographies that don't show the work.
But of the three, I think it's the Walter Anderson book that succeeds best. The text of the book focuses on the privations that Anderson endured - chose to endure - in order to work on a uninhabited barrier island off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, while a long author's note relates his biography, not shying away from the mental illness that seemed to be palliated only by perfect isolation.
Personally, this makes sense to me. The author mentions that her husband had been director of the Walter Anderson Museum, and it has been my experience that spending a lot of time with a person's stuff is the best way to learn that person. Bass clearly feels this guy. And luckily, her text was teamed with E.B. Lewis, whose sensitive, realistic watercolors have brought such warmth to books like The Negro Speaks of Riversand Jacqueline Woodson's The Other Side. His animals and landscapes, particularly the water and the varying light on the island, are masterful.
Of the many artist biographies that I choose when I select books for a school library, this will be one of my favorites.