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Our adult impulse to introduce increasingly younger children to historical personages is not always a wise one, since adult achievements are often too abstract to compress understandably into a thirty-two-page text for an audience that lacks a good deal of the relevant context. Some books have attempted to evade the context problem by focusing on the subject's childhood and by employing a less literally biographical approach. Unfortunately, the result too often is a book about someone who apparently hasn't done anything interesting enough to merit being a book's subject; it's like reading a biography of the kid across the street.
Fortunately, Jonah Winter's Frida, an imaginative treatment of the life of Frida Kahlo, avoids these pitfalls. It's clearly not your ordinary biography, providing names and dates to be quoted in reports: it leaves mention of Kahlo's marriage and, for that matter, her last name to the author's note at the end. Instead this is a quietly lyrical encounter with a particular artistic spirit, emphasizing not the traditional measures of achievement but the more personal experiences and impulses that could also drive any reader of the book. Winter (who also chronicled Diego Rivera's life, in Diego, BCCB 11/91) writes sparely yet evocatively in the present tense, describing Kahlo's youth ("Enter, stage left: Frida's imaginary friend. Her name is also Frida"), her constant struggle with pain and disability ("Instead of crying, she paints pictures of herself crying"), and her poignant, individual art. Kahlo's dramatic life makes the narrative compelling even to an audience that knows nothing of her artistic significance: the determined young girl leads a life of suffering that only sharpens her hunger to see and to paint.
Since painting was Kahlo's real language, the visuals here are all-important; fortunately, they rise to the challenge. The text, in delicate, spidery type, appropriately adapts itself to the illustrations, settling onto the backs of photographs, fluttering across curtains, tucking itself into a corner behind Frida's nightstand, hovering through the pages as part design, part information. Juan's note explains that she was inspired by Mexican folk art as well as Kahlo's work in creating her acrylic illustrations, and they've got a slightly softened, wide-eyed air that gives them their own mood rather than being merely imitative of Kahlo. The child Frida has a round yet austere face, her expression distant and her eyes downcast as she focuses on the world of her visions rather than the real world. The rotundity and modeling give her the solidity of a clay figure while the smudgy imagined critters possess a matter-of-fact corporeality. The wise-eyed jaguar, portly demon, and rotund skeleton and their ilk seem like credible and comforting companions on a reality footing equal to the microscope through which Frida looks or the fruit on her table; but then, the fruit on the table includes a beatifically smiling tomato and grinning skull-like grapes. Despite the memento mori and the unreality, these visions are amiable company, a sharp contrast to the double-spread view of Frida, post-accident, imprisoned in a barren thicket of thorns with the weeping moon behind her and bereft of her fantastical friends.
The book will doubtless prompt some young people to go on to more orthodox appreciations of Frida Kahlo, but it's also a reminder, in both its treatment and its subject matter, of the utility and possibilities of art. Also suitable as a readaloud for creative youngsters (which is pretty much a redundancy), this will lure dreamers with its serenely fantastical view and invite them to dream their own artistry. (Imprint information appears on p. 225.)
--Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Cover illustration by Ana Juan from Frida by Jonah Winter. Published by Arthur Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Press, a division of Scholastic Inc. Illustration © 2002 by Ana Juan. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
This page was last updated on February 1, 2002.