Cindy: Early last year, when I first heard about a forthcoming picture book biography of artist Louise Bourgeois, I wasn’t sure what to think. An abstract expressionist best known for giant spider sculptures and frank sexual themes seemed like an odd choice for a kids’ book; Sarah Hunter noted as much in her starred Booklist review of Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois. Nonetheless, author Amy Novesky and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault won me over with their child-friendly introduction to this very important, very grownup figure.
Years ago, while serving on Best Books for Young Adults (in the good ol’ days when nonfiction titles were included in the committee’s charge), we honored Runaway Girl: The Artist Louise Bourgeois (2003) by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, now sadly out of print. That biography, aimed at teens, contained family photos and images of Bourgeois’ work and delved into how her complicated relationships with her mother and father had a lifelong influence on her art, while underscoring the tenacity required to get ahead in a male-dominated art world.
In Cloth Lullaby, Novesky begins with much gentler things, namely Bourgeois’ early childhood spent in large house on a river in France, surrounded by gardens, nature, and the tapestries her family restored for their living. Depictions of backyard camping and stargazing will draw children into Bourgeois’ story.
The wool threads her family used to repair tapestries later materialized in Bourgeois’ artwork. So did the math she studied at the Sorbonne. After her mother’s early death, Bourgeois honored her again and again with the large spiders that have become her most recognizable work. (Our local Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park hosted a Louise Bourgeois exhibit in 2003, and I was lucky to get a photo with the 30-foot tall Maman. The Gardens owns a smaller 1997 sculpture, Spider, that I visit it each time I walk through the park.)
Bourgeois was not frightened of spiders; she loved them. “If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad,” she once said. Instead, “She weaves and she repairs it.” What better tribute to a mother? Novesky and Arsenault’s book left me feeling grateful for mothers, for creative pursuits, and for publishers who still believe in beautiful bookmaking.
Lynn: This certainly is a beautiful book! Arsenault created her evocative illustrations with pencil, ink, watercolor, pastel and Photoshop. Reds and blues dominate, but she renders them softly. There is a lovely flow to the pages and a feeling of movement, perhaps reflecting the swoop of cloth or Bourgeois’ beloved river. Arsenault skillfully evokes tapestries with her backgrounds by focusing on small details, then pulling back for a wider perspective. With its fabric spine, the book calls back to the cloth books Bourgeois herself made.
This story has the potential to inspire young readers in many ways. It depicts, quite beautifully, the healing power of art, the importance of perseverance, and the way the ordinary things that make up a life can be mined to create something wonderful.