Joanna Carey finds lively history-of-art picture books Below: Mona Lisa has something to smile about in James Mayhew's book Katie and Mona Lisa
In the good old days of free school milk and outside lavatories, no school corridor was without its regulation reproductions of famous paintings. These became so familiar you hardly noticed them - until they weren't there any more.
Now that art history is part of the curriculum rather than part of the furniture, there's a constant stream of new books making children aware of a wide range of artists. As well as authoritative introductions to famous artists, like Nicholas Ross's excellent book on Mir" (in the Watts Famous Artists series Pounds 9.99, Pounds 4.99), there are entertaining extravaganzas like Dorling Kindersley's Ultimate 3D Pop-up Art Book by Ron van der Meer and Frank Whitford (Pounds 15.99) or Anthony Browne's Willy the Dreamer (Walker Pounds 7.99, Pounds 4.99) with its allusions to painters like Dali and Magritte. And exploring the subject with tremendous breadth is Rosemary Davidson's What is Art? (Oxford Pounds 9.99) in which Hogarth and Titian rub shoulders with Quentin Blake and Hokusai.
Galleries are increasingly accessible to pupils - though perhaps not quite as accessible as the one Katie visits in James Mayhew's Katie and the Mona Lisa (Watts Pounds 9.99). Curious about Mona Lisa's smile, Katie finds herself able to climb right into the painting. Mona Lisa tells Kate:
"Bambina! How lovely to see you! I have not had a visitor for hundreds of years!" They step out of the painting and set off through the gallery in search of company. On a dizzying adventure in and out of other pictures they manage to distract Raphael's St George from his business with the dragon, trip the light fantastic with Botticelli's dancers and fly to Venice on Carpaccio's lion. They are all restored to their original frames at the end, and Mona Lisa really does have something to smile about.
The enchanting idea is matched by the quality of the book's illustrations.With its deft and witty pastiches, it is a charming, liberating fantasy gently brought down to earth with some key facts about the Italian Renaissance.
Copyright restrictions make it difficult to create imaginative books about 20th-century painters, but in Picasso and the Girl with the Ponytail (Frances Lincoln Pounds 9.99) Laurence Anholt gives a lively glimpse of the artist at work. The story centres around Sylvette, the young French girl whose face became famous when 73-year-old Picasso made a series of drawings, paintings and sculptures of her during the summer of 1954.
Reproductions here show the startling variety of styles and media Picasso employed to capture different moods, and Anholt's spirited line-and-wash illustrations have a bohemian joie de vivre that gives a real sense of France in the Fifties.
Picasso gave Sylvette one of his pictures, which she later sold to buy herself a studio in Paris, for she too grew up to be an artist. Anholt actually met Sylvette and her first-hand reminiscences and a contemporary photograph of her with Picasso give this good-humoured book an extra touch of authenticity.
A perfect companion to it would be Stefano Loria's book Picasso: genius of twentieth-century painting (Macdonald Young Books Pounds 12.99). This comprehensive guide to Picasso's life and work provides a context for the very specific period that Anholt so engagingly illuminates.