The best books about the value of children’s art

Ellen Winner Author Of How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration
By Ellen Winner

Who am I?

I’ve had a life-long love affair with the arts. I intended to become an artist, but ultimately became a psychologist researching psychological aspects of the arts. My first book, Invented Worlds, examined the key questions and findings in the psychology of the arts. In Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, I wrote about gifted child artists. My Arts & Mind Lab at Boston College investigated artistic development in typical and gifted children, habits of mind conferred by arts education, and how we respond to works of art. The walls of my home are covered with framed paintings by young children, often side by side paintings by professional artists.


I wrote...

How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration

By Ellen Winner,

Book cover of How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration

What is my book about?

How Art Works explores puzzles about the arts (visual art, music, literature) that have preoccupied philosophers as well as the broader, reflective public: Can “ART” be defined? How do we decide what we think is a good or great work of art? Why do we seek out works of art that elicit negative emotions like sadness or fear? What’s wrong with a perfect fake? Does reading fiction enhance empathy? Does arts education raise test scores? What is particularly special about the visual art of the young child?  These puzzles are explored from the perspective of empirical evidence from my own lab as well as from labs of psychologists around the world.

The books I picked & why

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Children's Drawings (Le Dessin Enfantin)

By Georges-Henri Luquet, Alan Costall (translator),

Book cover of Children's Drawings (Le Dessin Enfantin)

Why this book?

This book, originally published in French in 1927 (and now at long last translated into English by psychologist Alan Costall), is the earliest systematic analysis of the odd, nonrealistic features of children’s drawings, and the first to argue against those who considered these oddities as defects to be overcome. Instead, children’s drawings at different stages are shown to have their own logic and intelligence. Luquet opposed any kind of intervention or correction by adults, which he felt might destroy children’s love of drawing. He took children’s drawings seriously, never dismissing them in terms of what they lacked. This highly readable book, with its wonderful illustrations revealing the logic of children’s drawings, has had an enormous influence on how psychologists understand child art.    


Artful Scribbles: The Significance of Children's Drawings

By Howard E. Gardner,

Book cover of Artful Scribbles: The Significance of Children's Drawings

Why this book?

Most studies of child art describe development towards realism. Artful Scribbles is one of the first accounts to focus on the expressiveness and aesthetics of child art. Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner discusses in depth the puzzle of why the flowering of children’s art (as valued in the West in the last century) does not last. While drawings of 8- or 9-year-olds are more realistic and “accurate” than those of preschoolers, they seem to have lost the exploratory freshness of the art of younger children. This is one of the earliest studies of children’s art to take seriously the idea of the child as an artist and to consider the relationship between child art, modern art, and the art of adolescents and of mature artists.  


The Innocent Eye

By Jonathan Fineberg,

Book cover of The Innocent Eye

Why this book?

This book by art historian Jonathan Fineberg will open your eyes to the fundamental connections between young children’s art and the art of famous 20th century modern artists like Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and others. You might be surprised to learn that many of these artists collected children’s drawings and were profoundly influenced by child art. This book will help you understand the images that inspired these modern masters. It will change how you look at both modern art and child art,  and you will come away with a greater appreciation of both.


Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye

By Rudolf Arnheim,

Book cover of Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye

Why this book?

This is a classic book by German-born psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, in which he lays out the principles underlying our perception and understanding of works of visual art.  One of the major principles discussed is the human tendency to see the simplest form possible in any visual array. This ‘simplicity principle’ is also used to explain the intelligence and inventiveness of children’s art. In a brilliant chapter called Growth, Arnheim shows us that children are not striving towards realism; rather they are trying to create the simplest possible recognizable structural equivalent for the object they are representing.  The inventiveness with which children reduce complex forms to simple structural equivalents requires far more intelligence than mindless copying.  


Nadia Revisited: A Longitudinal Study of an Autistic Savant

By Lorna Selfe,

Book cover of Nadia Revisited: A Longitudinal Study of an Autistic Savant

Why this book?

Nadia was a severely autistic and mentally challenged child who, at age 3, drew horses that in important respects rivalled those by Leonardo da Vinci. Nadia was clearly a case of “savant syndrome” – an individual severely impaired in most areas but with one island of genius-level skill. Psychologist Lorna Selfe first wrote about this amazing case in 1977. In 2011, Selfe tells us what happened to Nadia’s drawing ability as she grew older and why her drawings regressed sharply to a more primitive level. This book will introduce you to the many theories put forth to explain this strange almost eerie phenomenon. It will help you think about the difference between artistic giftedness in the context of autism and mental challenges versus such giftedness in the context of an otherwise typically developing child.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in visual perception, autism, and psychology?

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