Tag Archive: music


Wren and the Sparrow by J Patrick Lewis

The Wren and the Sparrow by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg (InfoSoup)

This Holocaust story tells of an old man who weaved carpets on a loom and spent his evening singing to a hurdy-gurdy. His student, the Sparrow, learned at his side. The town in Poland was dark and dismal, all of its trees harvested for kindling. Food and clothes were rationed and even the music was starting to disappear. One day music was removed from the village as soldiers arrived to gather all of the musical instruments and take them away. Everyone had to give up their instruments, but the old man sang one final song before he put his hurdy-gurdy on the pile. And he would not stop singing, even as he was dragged away. That night, the Sparrow returned and took the hurdy-gurdy from the pile and hid it away. Then she too disappeared. It was found years later with a note that spoke of the bravery of both the Wren and the Sparrow and the importance of music in keeping spirits alive in dark times.

Based on the musicians who played in the Lodz Ghetto, a place that housed 230,000 Jewish people in 1940. Only 1000 survived the Holocaust that followed. Music was a part of their life and that celebration of music as a way of expressing feelings that could not be voiced is very clear in this picture book. Lewis writes with intense beauty in this book, the strong feelings showing in his sentences such as “The town shriveled up like a rose without rain.” And the image of “the gift of music soon dwindled to a sigh.” The entire book sings with prose like this, adding its own music to the story.

The illustrations by Nayberg, a native of Ukraine, show the darkness of the times. The illustrations swim with the colors of war, khaki ground and the gray of despair. When the instrument and music are present though, there is a glow and a warmth that shines in the illustration visually capturing the impact of the music on people around.

This allegorical tale captures the impact of the Nazi regime in Poland and elsewhere, offering a lesson about the power of music to carry hope in the darkest of times. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Kar-Ben.

Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews

Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier

This autobiographical picture book is about a young boy growing up in the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans where music was a simple part of everyday life and was always in the air. Tony particularly loved the music and energy of Mardi Gras where he could see brass bands play every day. Troy first played an imaginary instrument and then found a broken trombone that didn’t sound perfect but at least it was something he could play. Troy started to teach himself to play the trombone, an instrument that was almost as tall as he was, which is how he got the nickname of Trombone Shorty. He even slept with his horn in his hands. When Troy gains the attention of Bo Diddley for his playing in the crowd at his concert, Trombone Shorty knows it’s time to form his own band. And he still has his own band today!

Andrews is a Grammy-nominated trombone player and runs the Trombone Shorty Foundation committed to preserving the musical heritage of New Orleans. Andrews writes like a master on these pages which read like music is in the air between them too, just like the air in New Orleans. He shows children how an inspiration to play an instrument can become a lifelong calling. He also shows exactly how music empowers people in a place, gives them strength, creates a united culture, and unifies them. It’s a narrative about the power of music.

Collier’s illustrations are strong and dynamic. He creates motion on the page with his collage illustrations with patterns and textures that weave together. His paintings are a zingy mix of softly rendered closeups filled with detail and personality and then images of people farther away that are rougher but add even more energy to the art.

An inspiring picture book filled with music and vivaciousness, this autobiography celebrates New Orleans and the music in its veins and in one boy specifically. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy received from Abrams.

Elvis by Bonnie Christensen

Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King by Bonnie Christensen (InfoSoup)

This picture book biography offers a glimpse into the journey of Elvis Presley from poverty to becoming a rock and roll legend. The book begins in segregated Mississippi with the birth of Elvis in 1935. Elvis’ father went to jail and even after he returned to the family, they lived a hard life of poverty. But through it all flowed music from their Sundays in church to listening to the radio at home. Elvis was shy and quiet, but he could sing and at age 10 he entered his first contest and then at 11 got his first guitar. His family moved to Memphis when he was 13 and Elvis found a new kind of music. He graduated from high school and eventually worked up the courage to enter a recording studio and offer his singing services. After a disastrous first session, Elvis was filled with nerves and picked up a guitar, singing That’s All Right. It got onto the radio and suddenly everyone wanted to hear more!

Christensen makes sure that readers understand that Elvis came from a difficult background, one where there was no money and no opportunities. His shyness was another thing that Elvis had to overcome, turning his shaking on stage into his signature moves. Christensen also keeps it clear that this was a different time, a time when these sorts of music did not mix together and that Elvis was uniquely situated to be the one who created the new sound. In all, this is a testament to the power of dreams and talent.

Christensen’s illustrations gleam with hope and the future even as Elvis is being moved to yet another house and another school. She makes sure that the light shines on the little boy and that readers see that there are possibilities to come.

A strong introduction to Elvis, make sure to play some of his music when reading it to children so that they can feel that beat too. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle

Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Inspired by a true story, this picture book is about a girl who refused to allow societal rules to stop her from her musical dreams. In Cuba, girls were not drummers, but one girl dreamed of pounding drums big and small and making amazing music. Everyone said that only boys could be drummers though, so she kept quiet about her dreams.Everywhere she went though she could hear drumbeats that were all her own. Finally the girl dared to start drumming on real drums and she joined her sister in an all-girl band. Her father did not approve of her drumming but eventually allowed her to play for a teacher to see if she could really drum. And she could!

Engle, known for her gorgeous poetic books for older readers, has created a marvelous picture book here. Reading like poetry, the book looks deeply at a girl who refused to give up her dream to play the drums, even as she hid the dream deep inside herself. It is a book that celebrates artistic gifts even as it works to dismantle gender stereotypes and show that girls have the same artistic skills as boys do. The build up in the book is done with real skill, allowing readers to thrill at her accomplishments as her hard works comes to fruition.

Lopez gives us a bright-colored glimpse of Cuba in this picture book. Filled with lush plants, starlight, water and birds, the illustrations shine on the page. Done in acrylic paint on wood board, they have a great texture to them as well as an organic quality that adds to their depth on the page. The result is a picture book that is vibrant and rich.

A dynamic picture book that celebrates music and breaks stereotypes, this book will inspire children to follow their own dreams. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

blackbird fly

Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Apple just doesn’t fit in. Her Filipino mother cooks food that no American kids eat. Plus she is so strict that Apple isn’t allowed to take any music classes at school because it might impact her other more important grades. Apple though desperately wants to learn to play the guitar. When they left the Philippines, she took just one picture and a tape of the Beatles that had belonged to her dead father. Apples does have friends, but once they discover that she is on the Dog Log, a list of the ugliest girls at school, they stop hanging around with her. Apple decides to start saving up for a guitar and as she does that she starts to make new friends, other kids that have been singled out as odd or different. But one misstep with a teacher’s wallet marks Apple as a thief and that is all it takes for her former friends to really turn against her. Apple has to figure out how being different can actually be a very good thing.

This tween novel has a strong mix of a multicultural main character combined with middle school popularity and racism. Kelly does not flinch away from the blatant racism that teenagers can engage in as well as the casual hate that they throw at each other, particularly kids who are different from them. Kelly’s writing has a friendly, straight-forward tone even as she deals with the drama of both middle school and a parent who is over protective. Using music as a language that bridges new friendships and new understandings works particularly well and serves as a backbone for the entire novel.

Apple is a character with lots going on in her life. She faces racism on a daily basis at school and in turn takes it out on her mother, turning her back on much of their Filipino culture. She is embarrassed by her mother and angry at her lack of support for Apple’s musical dreams. As Apple puts together a misguided plan to run away, readers will hope that she finds a way to live in the life that she already has, particularly because they will see how special she is long before Apple can realize it herself.

A great tween read, this book offer complexity and diversity in a story about individuality and friendship. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Greenwillow Books.

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The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall

Released March 24, 2015.

This fourth book in the fabulous Penderwicks series is sure to please longtime fans and inspire new ones. While the Penderwick family is still the center of the story, the focus this time has moved to Batty and Ben rather than the older Penderwick girls. Batty continues to play the piano, loving music passionately. She has also just discovered that she has a noteworthy singing voice thanks to a new music teacher at school. So she has to find a way to make money for singing lessons, since the family needs a new car and to put the Rosalind, Jane and Skye through college. Batty starts a neighborhood business that offers services like dusting and digging up rocks, specifically a Ben job.  But the only jobs she gets offered are to dog walk, something that she really doesn’t want to do because it seems very disloyal to Hound, who died recently. Batty has big plans to unveil her singing to her family, but her planning goes seriously awry as Skye starts to push Jeffrey away from both herself and the Penderwick family.

Returning to the Penderwicks is such a treat. The new focus on the younger members of the family makes me hope that there will be more such treats to come too. Birdsall writes with a such a feel for characters. They all shine through, each unique and distinct from one another. Batty is the same person as that small child that we all fell for in the first novel and so are all of the family members. Adding a new family member in little Lydia is also a treat and she is just as special and wonderful as the others.

Birdsall’s writing pays homage to so many great writers, feeling both modern and vintage at the same time. Her writing is funny, wry and immensely comfortable. It’s a joyous mix of stories, chaos and noise. It is the pleasure of old friends and new adventures that you get to share. The springtime setting is beautifully conveyed and suits the story perfectly as Batty starts to unfold herself into something new along with the trees and flowers.

If you have read the previous books, this one is another delight. If not, what are you waiting for? Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf.

echo

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Released February 24, 2015.

A stellar intertwined story that swirls around a magical harmonica, this book is one-of-a-kind in the best possible way.  When Otto meets the three girls in the forest, he sent on a quest that includes a harmonica that sings in different tones from normal ones.  Later, three young people encounter that harmonic and it changes their lives at critical points, bringing both peace and music into the darkness they are living in.  There is Friedrich, a boy in Nazi Germany, who is struggling to hold his family together.  There is Mike in Pennsylvania, placed in an orphanage when his grandmother can no longer care for him and his younger brother, desperate to find a place they can be together.  Finally, there is Ivy in California, excluded from the normal public school because she is Mexican-American and hoping that this last move is one that gets her family a permanent home.  The stories speak to the heart, each child facing the difficulties with immense courage and love for others. 

This book is a delight to read.  It marries the magic of the harmonica with more realistic historical fiction components very successfully.  Ryan explores some of the darkest times for families, put under excruciating pressure by the society they are living in.  She always offers hope though, allowing the harmonica and the power of music to pierce through and give light to the circumstances.  Beautifully, each story ends in a crescendo, leaving the reader breathless and worried about what will happen before starting the next story.  In the end, the stories weave together musical and luminous.

Ryan successfully creates four unique stories in this book and then brings them all together in a way that is part magic and entirely satisfying.  She writes of the cares of each child with such empathy, allowing readers to feel the pressure they are under.  Here is how she describes Mike’s responsibility for his younger brother on page 204:

That responsibility had become another layer of skin.  Just when he thought he might shed a little, or breathe easy, or even laugh out loud, it tightened over him.

She successfully does this with each of the stories, allowing readers to feel that tightening and the threat of well-being for all of the characters.  There is no shrinking from the racism and bigotry that these characters experience.  It is presented powerfully and appropriately for the younger audience.

A powerful book, this novel is pitch perfect and simply exceptional.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic Press.

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.

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