Picture book about a beloved S.F. artist and arts activist


A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa

Written and illustrated by Andrea D’Aquino (Hudson, N.Y.: 2019, 40 pp., $17.95, hard cover)

Andrea D’Aquino, artist and author, introduces young children to Ruth Asawa, a San Francisco institution. The author focuses on the influences that shaped and inspired Asawa’s unique artistry. It begins with her childhood in a farming family in Southern California, where she finds inspiration in nature: the shape of a snail’s shell, the delicate wings of a dragonfly, the intricate pattern of a spider’s web. It also highlights her time at Black Mountain College, “an unusual school filled with brilliant people,” where she was taught to think and create in visionary ways by avant-garde artists and thinkers Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Josef Albers.

D’Aquino’s text is engaging and concise, perfect for young readers ages 5-8.

She focuses on Asawa’s curiosity about the world and her arts education: practicing calligraphy as a child at Japanese school, exploring different art mediums at Black Mountain College and learning how to weave wire baskets from a craftsman in Mexico. She also highlights Asawa’s sculptures with pages showing people viewing the sculptures in amazement. The collage artwork is rendered in charcoal and colored pencil drawings combined with paper. One of my favorite collages is the one with Ruth Asawa and Josef Albers. It has the lone photo of Asawa in the story. To find the only other photo of her, you have to look in the back at the resources. I was hoping for more photos of Ruth and her sculptures incorporated throughout the story.

While reading the book, I wondered why there was no mention of World War II and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, since Ruth Asawa was sent to Santa Anita Racetrack in Los Angeles County and then to Rohwer, Ark. In the author’s note, D’Aquino explains that she is honoring the “family’s wish that this book celebrates Asawa’s life without allowing the darker facts of her wartime incarceration to overshadow her art.” I understand the family wanting Asawa’s art to be the focus, but the story felt somewhat incomplete. To find out more about her experience during World War II, check out the “More About Ruth Asawa” section in the back pages.

Also at the end of the book, young artists can try their hand at making a paper dragonfly. It has step-by-step instructions along with photos of the finished product with the following words: “You did it! It’s okay if yours looks different. That’s what makes each one special.” As an elementary school teacher, I appreciate how the teaching page was included to make the book interactive. Encouraging individuality is also a nice touch.

Read “A Life Made by Hand” to teach about the incredible Ruth Asawa and inspire the next generation of young artists!

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