Tag Archive: music


Review: The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

scar boys

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

Trying to fill out a college application, Harry decides to ignore the word limit and tell his full story to that point.  When he was 8 years old, kids in his neighborhood tied him to a tree during a thunderstorm.  The tree was struck by lightning and set ablaze with Harry tied directly to it.  Harry has severe scars both physically and emotionally from that day.  Harry had no friends until Johnny came into his life, a charismatic and confident boy who swept down and saved Harry from obscurity and loneliness.  Together the two of them started a band, one that really sucked at first, but then amazingly got better and better.  Called The Scar Boys, the band transported Harry from his dull life into a different type of storm, one of music and pure joy.  But bands often fall apart and so do high school friendships on the brink of college.  As the future looms closer, Harry has to figure out what to give up on and what is worth fighting to keep.

Vlahos’ debut teen novel is a screamingly funny wild ride.  The author was in a band himself when he was younger and the moments onstage read honest, zany and completely true.  The writing throughout is smart and clever, making points with arrow-sharp zingers that are surprising and make for a great read.  Here is one from page 97:

Truth is, if we’d had a shred of sense, we’d have known we were getting in way over our heads.  But you can’t buy shreds of sense, and even if you could, we were pretty much out of money.

Harry is a great protagonist.  He is witty and smart himself, since the book is written in first person from his point of view.  Vlahos manages to never lose track of Harry’s scars but also manages to make his scars much deeper than his skin and therefore the book about much more than that as well.  It is a book that explores friendships, power and dreams. 

An amazing debut novel, it has a winning mix of punk rock, guitars and real life.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley from Edelweiss and Egmont.

herman and rosie

Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon

Herman is a crocodile who lives in New York and finds it very lonely.  He loves playing his oboe in his apartment.  His job selling things on the telephone, makes his life less lonely because he can talk to people, but doesn’t make him very good at his job.  Rosie lives in the building next door to Herman and she loves to sing.  She has a job washing dishes but loves most of all her singing lessons and performing in a little jazz club on Thursday nights.  The two are lonely but fairly happy because both of them hear great music floating into their windows from time to time.  Then one day Herman loses his job and Rosie discovers that the jazz club is closing.  The two of them head home and don’t make any music for a long time.  Until they wake up one morning and things have changed.  They are craving their favorite food and want to make music. 

Gordon has written a picture book ode to big city living, particularly New York.  He incorporates the potential loneliness of urban life but also praises the bustling, the music, the lifestyle.  The characters are quirky and believable.  They are the sort of characters who make perfect sense, whose actions are credible, reactions ring true, and they make the entire book work. 

Gordon writes and illustrates with a playful tone.  His illustrations are done in mixed media, including photographs, paint, and pencil.  The different media are worked together so thoroughly that at times you never notice the photos mixed in.  They are so cleverly done that it all forms one unified piece until something catches your eye.

Two musical souls in one big lonely city where they live next door to one another.  It’s a combination just as exquisite as New York itself.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

when the beat was born

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

Clive had loved music since he was a child.  He lived in Kingston, Jamaica and loved to listen to DJs at the parties in his neighborhood.  He was too young to attend, but he watched them set up before the parties and dreamed of becoming a DJ himself.  When he was 13, Clive moved to New York City with his mother.  That was where he started to play sports and got the nickname “Hercules” due to his size.  He was soon known as Kool Herc.  When his father got a sound system, Kool Herc became a DJ at a party he threw with his sister.  Herc noticed that people loved to dance during the parts of the songs with no lyrics, so he found a new way of playing the records that extended that part of the song.  He started calling out the names of his friends in the crowd.  Soon he was creating the music that led to a new style of dance: breakdancing.  And that’s how hip hop was born.

Hill tells this story of a legendary DJ with a mix of straight forward tone and rhythmic writing.  There is nothing overt in his rhythm, just a wonderful beat that the entire book moves to.  Hill clearly ties DJ Kool Herc to the entire hip hop movement from the very beginning of his book through to the end.  He traces the connections and makes them clear and firm, just like Herc did with the connections to the giant speakers to get them to work.

The illustrations have a wonderful groove as well.  This is Taylor’s first picture book and I hope he does more.  His images have a wonderful richness of color without being dark at all.  They also merge strong graphic qualities into the images, making them really sing.

A great nonfiction picture book biography, this book will help fill in gaps in library collections and will speak to the history of the music kids are listening to right now.  Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

man with the violin

The Man with the Violin by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dusan Petricic

Based on a true event, this book shows the innate connection of children and music.  When Dylan and his mother leave the house, Dylan is always noticing things.  His mother is not.  It was an ordinary day until he heard the music in the subway station.  The man with the violin played and the notes swept through the crowded area.  Dylan wants to stop and begs his mother to pause, but she won’t.  Dylan though is left with the music in his head and finally convinces his mother that evening to stop and hear the music too.

This book is based on the true story of when the renowned violinist Joshua Bell played in the Washington DC subway.  His story is captured in the notes at the end of the book, explaining that only seven people stopped to listen to him play and that many children paused but the adults with them hurried on.  Stinson writes with a playfulness that makes the book dance along.  She uses lots of rhythms and noises throughout, really bringing the world of the city and subway to life. 

Petricic’s art captures the wonder and brightness of music, the zigging noise of shouting and screeching subway.  Dylan is a bright spot of color, the music in the air sweeps and swirls with bright colors, and the violinist is also a bright spot, as you can see in the cover image.  The music is powerful enough to lift Dylan off his feet, swirl his hair like a breeze, and entirely transform is day.

Bravo for capturing this eloquent story about the power of music and its connection to children in particular.  Standing ovation!  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Annick Press and NetGalley.

lucy variations

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Lucy Beck-Moreau was considered one of the top concert pianists.  Now at age 16, she has abruptly left the concert circuit and doesn’t play the piano at all.  Instead she is attending school just like any other teenager, doing homework, and listening to her younger brother Gus practice his piano pieces.  When Gus’ aging piano teacher dies, she is replaced by Will, a young teacher who was once himself a child pianist and recommends plenty of time away from the piano for Gus, including once forbidden video games and TV.  As Will balances out Gus’ life, Lucy is drawn to him.  Will is older and sophisticated and interested in Lucy herself as both a pianist and a person.  This is the story of Lucy’s triumph over grief and loss and her struggle to play music on her own terms and for her own reasons.

Zarr has beautifully captured a family of wealth and talent without lingering overlong on those details.  It is Lucy who is the center of the novel, which is told in third person but specifically from Lucy’s view.  This gives the book a necessary distance so that readers can view Lucy from a small space and recognize the mistakes that she is making and repeating.  Lucy is a wonder of a flawed protagonist, filled with talent yet drawn into destructive situations of her own making, one feels an affinity to her and yet pushed away as well.

It is this strength of the central character that lifts this novel above others covering similar subjects.  The writing here is strong and clear, and the story flows with a natural feel that allows Lucy to veer dangerously close to disasters that make the reading that much more exciting.  Along the way, a dysfunctional family is on display, showing readers how Lucy came to be the way that she is, and also showing hope for what is possible.

A true mix of hope, music and tenacity, this book is beautifully composed and harmonious with lingering crescendos.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

beatles were fab

The Beatles Were Fab (And They Were Funny) by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer, illustrated by Stacy Innerst

This is a picture book biography of The Beatles that captures their humor and the way that they used it in their music and lifestyle.  The book begins with the formation of the band and the fun they had naming themselves.  The book talks about their use of silliness and jokes to keep their spirits up as they struggled to make it, looking for a record deal.  When success came, it came quickly and with success came fame and fans.  Then there was the Beatlesmania craze that swept the United States, nothing like it had been seen before or since.  Krull includes some small details like American fans throwing jellybeans on stage because the band said they liked jellybabies, but jellybabies are soft where jellybeans are certainly not.  She then has a section on each Beatle and some of the interesting responses they gave during interviews.  This is a merry and fast-moving look at one of the greatest bands of all time.

Krull injects her nonfiction work with humor and zest.  She tells specific stories that offer insight into the Beatles nature.  It is a treat to hear their own words but it is also wonderful to read about moments in history that are revealing about their character.  Krull and Brewer skillfully end the book before drug use became an issue for the band.  Instead they focus on the early Beatles and their humor rather than the complexity of the later Beatles music and attitudes.

Innerst’s illustrations are just as humorous and playful as the stories that Krull and Brewer tell.  The characters have a feel of bobble-heads and a strong modern vibe.  He she uses bright colors that match the energy of the text.  I have to say, I am particularly partial to Ringo’s nose in the illustrations.

This strong picture book biography is not made for research, but instead fans of the Beatles can share part of their story with children and everyone is sure to end up humming some of the songs.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

squeak rumble whomp

Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! by Wynton Marsalis, illustrated by Paul Rogers

Released October 9, 2012.

This very jazzy picture book will have your toes tapping along in no time.  It’s the story of a young boy who sees the noise, music and rhythm in everything around him.  From the squeak of the back door to the rumble of trucks on the highway, it all makes the music that surrounds him.  Throughout the book, real musical instruments are also woven into the loose storyline.  There are bass drums, his sister’s saxophone, violins, a trombone, tubas, and even a full band or two.  Coming from Marsalis, readers will not be surprised that the final instrument in the book is a trumpet, right before all of the noises and music come together at the end. 

So many musical books don’t quite work right, but this one really grooves.  The rhythms of the writing are catchy and great fun.  Incorporating the sounds of the world into the musical beat adds to the fun, showing rather than telling children that music can be found everywhere around them.  The writing is simple and effective, and I promise that your head will bob along to this song.

Rogers’ art is completely joyful.  He has incorporated the various noises into his illustrations, popping the lettering in orange color and wild large fonts.  Everyone in the book seems to be moving to the beat, inviting you to join the dance.

This is a dynamite book about music and sound that will have everyone moving along to the beat.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.

chopsticks

Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony, illustrated by Rodrigo Corral

Told only in photographs, this book is the story of Glory, a piano prodigy.  After her mother dies, Glory’s music continues to soar, leading her to play sold out programs at places like Carnegie Hall.  Her father is a large force behind her success, driving her forward with his high expectations for her future in music.  Then Glory meets Frank, a neighbor, and falls in love.  As her connection with Frank grows and she immerses herself in his art, things begin to change.  Soon the young prodigy becomes obsessed with the song “Chopsticks” and is unable to play anything else.  Now it is up to the reader to piece together the truth of Glory’s life as the frightening picture comes together into something entirely different than it first appeared.

I was unable to put down this book and devoured it in a single sitting.  The intriguing use of full-page photographs alone and then the wild twists of the story make it compulsively readable.  Anthony’s story reads like a movie, in pictures.  The building tension of the story, the budding romance, and then the truth that hits like a cold wave of ice water, all combine to form a riveting read. 

The photographs work to add to the story.   They use intriguing angles, photos of documents, different amounts of light and dark, different focus amounts, and play with a combination of home photographs and professional feel.  You never know what you will see on the next page. 

I immediately thought of reluctant readers, especially those interested in art or music as a perfect audience for this book.   It will appeal to many teen readers.  There is one caution for librarians to be aware of and that is that there are some female nudes in the book.  This moves it from being a book for younger teens into one for a slightly older audience, so I’d say the book is appropriate for ages 16-18.

Reviewed from copy received from Razorbill.

Review: Amplified by Tara Kelly

amplified

Amplified by Tara Kelly

The author of Harmonic Feedback returns with another book that centers around music.  Jasmine has decided that she doesn’t want to attend Stanford in the fall, so that she can follow her dream of becoming a musician.  She finds herself homeless when her father kicks her out for her decision.  Jasmine’s car breaks down in Santa Cruz.  She finds a listing for a place that she can almost afford but the kicker is that she needs to audition for a band and get picked as their guitarist in order to get the room.  All she has to do is convince three jaded, ultra-cool guys and one amazing girl that she can do it.  The problem is that she’s never played for anyone except her best friend.  Can Jasmine fool them all and for how long?

This book sings.  The character of Jasmine is complex, haunted, frigid, closed off, wide open, and entirely human.   The other band members are equally fascinating, often veering away from what you would expect from them, making them all the more intriguing.  Though it would have been easy to make Jasmine’s father a cardboard stereotype, Kelly didn’t.  One of the conversations with her father shows that both Jasmine and her father are trying yet unable to connect. 

Music is difficult to write about in novels, but Kelly manages to invite readers into a band, allow them to experience the hard work, the drive, the crap and the intensity of the relationships that music creates.  The music in this book is not subtle, this is not another book about a quiet pianist or violinist.  Instead this book thrashes and rocks. 

Impossible to put down, readers will thrum to the rhythm of disaster, recovery, lies and truth.  It is a compelling and remarkable combination.  Appropriate for ages 15-17.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Company.

Also reviewed by

saint-louis-armstrong-beach

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods

Saint loves playing the clarinet.  He plays it for tourists in New Orleans to earn money for a new clarinet and for his future at Julliard.  Life isn’t all easy though, he has taken to a stray dog that his father will not allow him to adopt and his best friend has outgrown him, now spending her time partying with the cooler, older kids.  As Hurricane Katrina approaches, Saint and his family are not that concerned since it is expected to miss New Orleans, as the days progress, the tension builds and the warnings increase.  Though Saint’s family tries to send him to safety, things don’t go as planned and Saint is trapped by the weather and the flood waters.

Woods has written a book that captures the power of music in a young man’s life nicely, bridging the days before the storm, the time during the storm, and the time afterwards together with song.  The bulk of this book is the period before the storm hits, showing the loving family that Saint comes from, his close-knit neighborhood, friends, crushes, and his love of a dog.  While I know that this had a large part in establishing reader relationships with Saint, it is lengthy and could have been made more focused.  In particular, his friendship with Money is talked about at length, but the book never returns to her after the storm. 

The period during the storm is dramatic, with Woods leaving the drama of the storm to stand on its own.  More time could have been spent here with the reader, truly exploring the emotions and complexity of survival.  The same is true of the time after the storm, where only a few chapters are left for the aftermath.  My hope is that there is a sequel that will let us better understand the effect of the storm on Saint and his family, neighbors and friends.

There were also portions of the book that were too neat and tidy.  One such instance was when Shadow, the dog, brings Saint’s parents to him after the storm.  It was just too convenient and should have been foreshadowed more clearly to work better.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about this book.  A sequel may very well fix a lot of the dangling story lines, which would go a long way.  Saint is a strong male character and this is a book that children will find shows a close-up perspective on the storm.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Penguin.

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