Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Me, Frida
By Amy Novesky
Illustrated by David Diaz
(Abrams Books for Young Readers,New York, 2010, $16.95)

Before Frida Kahlo became a famous artist in her own right, she was known as the wife of Diego Rivera. A big man, a larger-than-life personality, a painter of huge murals, Rivera dwarfed most of his contemporaries, including his young wife. But a fateful trip to San Franciscochanged that. In Me, Frida, Amy Novesky relates how being away from her native Mexico in a strange city strengthened Kahlo’s sense of self. She embraced her Mexican heritage, wearing traditional dresses to evening parties, and she began painting the deeply personal self-portraits for which she later achieved recognition.

Me, Frida is not a traditional picture-book biography. Instead of exploring Kahlo’s childhood or artistic career, Novesky focuses on a formative period in her adult life. However, children will relate to Kahlo’s desire to develop her own identity apart from Diego’s. Most kids, after all, feel overshadowed by a parent, sibling, or friend at some point, so Kahlo’s feelings – and eventual triumph – will be familiar.

As befits an artist’s biography, Me, Frida is beautifully written and illustrated. While simple, the language evokes both Kahlo’s complex emotions and her evolving artistic sensibility. At one point, Novesky describes Kahlo gazing across San FranciscoBay from a cliff: “From there, she could see the entire glittering city and all it held, including Diego. It was small enough to fit on the wing of a bird.” For once, Kahlo puts herself in the foreground. David Diaz’s remarkable acrylic, charcoal, and varnish illustrations with their bold colors and motifs (kids will enjoy finding the pink bird that appears in almost every double-page spread) introduce young readers to elements of Kahlo’s style.

An introduction to two important twentieth-century artists, Me, Frida is also an uplifting story of personal transformation. In this way, Novesky and Diaz remind us that, like fiction, the best biography does more than enlighten or entertain: it enlarges our empathy.

Dorothy A. Dahm

 

 

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