Heartfelt messages to neighbors and neighborhood heroes have brightened many of today’s pandemic city views. Drawing with chalk, kids have decorated sidewalks, driveways, and even walls with scenes and words to celebrate people and events such as birthdays and graduations. Before COVID-19, these occasions would have sparked parties or other large gatherings. Nowadays, outdoor art with heart is one way kids and families are marking these milestone events.
But outdoor art is not new! Today I spotlight three picture books that show it as a typical part of childhood for many kids. One book is a current award-winner I was happy to reread, while another is a biography of a prominent outdoor artist who encouraged and worked with young chalk artists. There are also works adding perspectives on outdoor art that will interest teen and older readers. I note one of these possible resources.
Bill Thomson’s wordless picture book Chalk (2010; 2012) is a joyful ode to imagination. His realistic, hand-painted acrylic images show us three kids as they walk through a rain-splattered playground, discovering a bag of chalk. Magically, the images eagerly created by this diverse bunch come to life! That is fine for the host of butterflies one girl draws, but next one of her pals draws a picture of the playground equipment’s large green dinosaur. . . . There is suspenseful action as Thomson provides a humorous, plot-driven solution to the looming disaster. Angled views, shifting perspectives, and inserted close-ups advance the book’s well-paced story line. Chalk, available in hard copy and e-book formats, may also be viewed online here. Readers can now also enjoy the online video Thomson recently made on COVID-19’s “Draw with Chalk” Day. It shows how he uses a driveway’s black background as part of the dinosaur’s head he draws there.
Acclaimed artist Keith Haring (1958 – 1990) never “outgrew” chalk drawing or other kinds of outdoor art. The lively picture book biography Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing (2017), written by his sister Kay A. Haring and illustrated by Robert Neubecker, shows how Haring as boy and adult maintained his own interests and chosen methods. He was enthusiastic and determined even when teachers and others questioned his choices. Haring’s distinctive, non-realistic style (often called “pop art”) was recognizable on neighborhood and subway walls long before people knew his name—and long before anyone gave him permission to draw on these public sites! Haring believed art belonged everywhere because it benefited people, drawing communities together. One of Haring’s communities centered on the fight against AIDS.
The successful Haring also invited kids to work with him on outdoor art projects. Some of these are shown at the book’s end, where pieces by Haring used within this biography are distinguished from Neubecker’s vibrant, cheerful illustrations. Haring’s solo and collaborative works with hundreds of kids—including large pieces on walls and buildings—can also be seen online . Readers might also enjoy the online video of Kay Haring reading this biography aloud. The book’s effective refrain—“but he just kept drawing”—is particularly moving when spoken with her sisterly love and pride.
Haring’s belief in outdoor art’s ability to connect people and communities is powerfully realized in A Map into the World (2019), written by Kao Kalia Yang and illustrated by Seo Kim. Its tender story line depicts a year or more in the life of an artistic preschooler. We see her welcoming new twin brothers, delighting in seasonal changes, and observing the life of the elderly couple who live next door. When the wife there dies, this preschooler learns about death and grief too. After a while, the young chalk artist spontaneously sketches a vibrant sidewalk path for her widowed, grieving neighbor. Depicting the highlight events of her year, she tells the now-reclusive old man that it is “A map into the world. Just in case you need it.” Illustrator and author work in wonderful harmony here, as from slightly above the young girl’s head, we see the “teardrops” with which she begins this path—teardrops that then “splatter like sunshine” outward to the broader neighborhood.
A Map into the World is rooted in real life. In interviews, Yang has explained how it stemmed from her growing family’s experiences in 2015-2016. Their grieving neighbor, Bob, touched by this heartfelt gesture by Yang’s preschool child, agreed that it would make a fine book. Yang recalls that “He laughed and cried, saying ‘You’d be making a weed into a flower.’” A Map into the World, winner of the 2020 Minnesota Book Award for Children’s Literature (among other accolades), connects communities in another way. It is the first literary picture book to depict the experience of Hmong-Americans.
Yang’s decision to use several Hmong words (defined in the book’s front matter) along with Kim’s delicate digital renderings of traditional Hmong garb and foods and a boldly colorful Hmong “story cloth” are further cultural statements and cross-currents. Story cloths depicting Hmong life and history as refugees are important records within that traditionally oral culture. (This oral heritage is central to Kang’s non-fiction book for adults, The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father .) Kim’s decision to use many double spread images here advances the narrative deftly, especially in combination with her judiciously sparse use of close-ups and overhead views.
Having “met” Yang’s neighbor through this book and accounts of its publication party, I was saddened to read that he died at age 92, just last month. Even sadder, though, is Yang’s report that COVID-19 kept her and her family from visiting Bob during his last weeks. Better news: Yang’s second picture book, The Shared Room (2020), illustrated by Xee Reiter, will debut on June 9 in an online webinar. It deals with the death of a sibling. In addition, Kao Kalia Yang has another picture book, The Most Beautiful Thing, illustrated by Khoa Le, scheduled for publication this coming October. It is non-fiction about her grandmother, being a refugee, and learning Hmong culture.
Before autumn, though, for summer fun you might have time and opportunity to look further into the world of chalk art. Tweens on up will be dazzled by some of the creations on view in Tracy Lee Sturm’s The Art of Chalk: Techniques and Inspiration for Creating Art with Chalk (2016). But if that book is not readily available during the pandemic, there are online histories of sidewalk drawing, including today’s resurgence. Perhaps you and your young chalk artists will join or are already are part of an Instagram community devoted to chalk art. I look forward to the creations there as well as ones in my own neighborhood!