Wideness & Wonder by Susan Goldman Rubin

Lynn: “I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world.” – Georgia O’Keeffe.  Rubin has chosen this most appropo of quotations for the title of her latest biography, Wideness and Wonder:  The Life and Art of Georgia O’Keeffee (Chronicle 2011).  It is an absorbing book and visually stunning right from the cover which features some of O’Keeffe’s signature images to the interior design.  Text appears on pages colored the rich vibrant hues that O’Keeffe loved best.  On almost every other page, on stark white background, O’Keeffe’s work is beautifully reproduced along with iconic photographs, many of them taken by O’Keeffe’s husband Alfred Stieglitz.  This book is a treat for the eye and the mind.

O’Keeffe may be the perfect subject for a biography for teens as she was courageous, ground-breaking, determined, willing to follow her path in the face of societal opposition and deeply inspiring.  Rubin captures O’Keeffe’s determined soul, her struggles to find her path as an artist and as a woman while also providing readers with a sense of the history, culture and attitudes of her time.  She incorporates O’Keeffe’s development as an artist into the fascinating story of her life and her impact of the world.  The writing is engaging and enlightening and I read the book all in one gulp, then went back to look again at the paintings and the photographs and marvel.  This is a must purchase for middle and high school libraries.

Cindy: Wow. I’ve always admired O’Keefe’s work but have never read much about her. I think I need to also follow some of the references to some adult biographies so I can learn more. I remember finding my first cow skull on the rolling hills of my cousins’ Tennessee home and hauling it home. If only I’d been talented enough to paint it!

Besides following Georgia’s path pursuing her passion of creating art, this biography illuminates other aspects of her life, including her work to inspire other women to follow their passions. Today’s material-obsessed culture could learn from her desire for simplicity in her household furnishings and her love of the beauty in the natural world. Last week I visited the Gwen Frostic Studio in Michigan, the home and workplace of a local artist who focused on Michigan flora and fauna in her artwork and she had a lot in common with Georgia.

Teens who are interested in women’s history will appreciate the struggles that Georgia faced and overcame as an American female artist in a time and culture dominated by male artists. The rebuffs only made her more determined, a lesson for all who struggle to overcome the prevailing odds. I am reminded of the female sculptor Louise Bourgeouis’ story covered in the biography by Jan Greenberg, Runaway Girl:  The Artist Louise Bourgeouis (Abrams 2003).  I loved that Georgia was treated to a makeover after doing a painting for the Elizabeth Arden Beauty Salan but looked in the mirror afterward and rushed home to wash it all off! Go Georgia!

I’m not a fan of books printed on colored pages with varying colors of text. I need to do a survey with my students to see if this is a middle-aged librarian with failing reading eyesight’s sole opinion, or a common opinion. But, in this case, the color does support the biography and I was willing to go with it. One niggling complaint? There were at least two incidences where the name of the painting was different in the text than in the caption under the accompanying reproduction. A small detail, but one that annoyed me.

I loved Stieglitz’s photographs of O’Keefe. Her personality shines through. My favorite quote, though? Rubin reports that when a stranger stopped by Georgia’s home and inquired what she was painting, her reply was, “Nothing–because I’m talking to you!” That is my new response to anyone who asks me what I am reading: “Nothing–because I am talking to you!” HA!

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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