Tag Archive: music


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 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.

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 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.


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