Scott Joplin was a child who loved to listen to the sounds around him rather than using his own voice. He was the son of a man who was once enslaved. Their home was full of music with his father fiddling, his mother playing banjo and singing, and his siblings playing instruments too. Scott played the cornet. To find work, the family moved north to Texarkana where Giles found work laying tracks for the railway. Scott’s mother found work as a housemaid for a wealthy white family who happened to have a piano. When Scott came along to help, he saw the piano and started to play when he had time. Eventually, the Joplin family was able to purchase a piano for Scott and traded housework for lessons. Scott loved learning about the piano and music, but most of all he loved composing his own songs. He played all over town, and eventually made his way north to play in saloons and eventually in Chicago where he heard ragtime for the first time. Scott went to Sedalia, Missouri where he went to college and composed music. He tried to get his songs published and finally found a man willing to take a chance on a Black unknown composer. That’s how “Maple Leaf Rag” became a national sensation.
Constanza’s writing is full of rhythm and talks about music throughout. From his mother singing hymns to his family playing together to learning piano to getting work playing and composing, the entire book dances along to the importance of music in Joplin’s life. The writing also incorporates lots of sounds like the chirping of cicadas, the swish of brooms, the plink of the piano, and the OOM-pah! The writing is full of energy and tells the story of Joplin’s life with style.
The illustrations are bright and full of color and light. They have elements of quilts that fill the ground with patterns. The skies are blue with swirling clouds that dance in the sky. The towns are full of colorful buildings. Everything is inspiration for Joplin’s music, from the trains to the chickens to the flowers to the towns. It all comes together into one warm and bright world.
A jaunty and rhythmic biography of a musical legend. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Told in a similar format to her signature song R-E-S-P-E-C-T, each double-page spread explores another important word in Franklin’s life. The book begins with her family’s move to Detroit and Aretha being raised in the middle of gospel and church. She is incredibly gifted musically, cutting her first gospel record at age 14. She becomes an R&B superstar, rising to the tops of the charts. She supports the civil rights movement with her voice, offering free concerts. She is there to sing President Obama into office. The book ends with plenty of RESPECT for all she has accomplished.
Weatherford’s clever use of single words, spelled out like the song, really forms a strong structure for this picture book. She keeps the book tightly focused and her words to a minimum, allowing the pace of Franklin’s own life and fame to propel the book forward.
The illustrations are gorgeous, the paintings singing with pinks and golds. Morrison uses interesting perspectives in his images, allowing Aretha to be the center of each, showing her changing style and the beauty of her powerful voice.
A fitting tribute for a queen. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
This nonfiction picture book is about the life and music career of Blind Willie Johnson. The book begins with the fact that Willie Johnson’s music was sent into space on Voyager I in 1977. The year then turns to Johnson’s birth in 1897. Johnson was a musician from a young age when he could still see, losing his sight around age eight. Music continued for him in church choir and changing gospel songs to the blues. Grown up, Johnson traveled Texas by train, performing on the street corner and in churches. Eventually, a man from a record label heard him and his first record sold thousands of copies. Time passed and one of those songs launched into the darkness of space.
Golio keeps his text tight and brief, giving young readers plenty of opportunity to witness the remarkable gift of music that took a man from being a blind child to making a record that made history. Written in the second person speaking directly to Johnson, the book has the feel of a gift laid before him as well as being a reminder to young people of what hard work and skill can create in your life.
Lewis’ illustrations are remarkable. Done in watercolor they are filled with light, yellows glowing, stars shining, and hope emerging on each page. There are several great images of Johnson in the book, playing is guitar in each.
Make sure to listen to “Dark Was the Night” while reading this with children. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.
Explore the life of one of the greatest singers of all time in this picture book biography of Aretha Franklin. Aretha grew up in a family filled with music and talking. She was a shy little girl, but even from a young age had an incredible singing voice. Her parents left one another when she was a child, and she lived with her father. She adored her time with her mother until her mother died when Aretha was 10. She used music to express her feelings, moving to New York City at age 18. It was the turbulent 1960s where clubs and venues were still segregated for the most part. Aretha made sure to not ever be tricked out of being paid as well as paying attention to venues where everyone was allowed. She was popular but all of her albums flopped until she made some of her most iconic songs and became the Queen of Soul.
Told in a warm and welcoming tone of someone sharing the life story of a beloved family member, this picture book biography captures the way so many people feel about Aretha Franklin and her joyous impact in their lives through her music. The text is accessible and shares the hardships of Franklin’s life and career, displaying her resilience in the face of disappointment as well as her savviness about business and civil rights. The digital art in the book is full of bright and deep colors that pop on the white backgrounds.
A grand picture book biography for the Queen of Soul. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Teresa Carreno was a Venezuelan pianist who fled to the United States as a child when there was a revolution in her home country. But arriving in the U.S., there was a war here too, the Civil War was raging. Teresa used music to communicate, practicing her piano with a variety of musicians who came to her home. She played piano in enormous theaters as a child. Then, she was invited to play at the White House by President Abraham Lincoln. Teresa believed in the power of music, but how could it overcome the horrors of war and reach the heart of one of the most powerful men in the world, who had just lost his son. At the White House, Teresa found herself at a poorly-tuned piano and unable to start. When President Lincoln requested his favorite song, Teresa played it and improvised as well. Carreno went on to become world famous for her piano, composing and singing.
Engle embraces using poetic language in her picture books. Here, the moments of Carreno’s life come alive thanks to Engle’s language that uses metaphors often. Her metaphors will be well understood by children such as, “playing hymns that shimmered like hummingbirds” and “they stepped into a room so red that it looked like a storm o r a sunrise.” The effect is immersive and breathtaking.
Lopez’s illustrations are done in mixed media and assembled digitally. Dramatic moments such as the family fleeing Venezuela are done in deep colors that capture the mood and have layers of content to explore. Historical figures and Carreno herself have clear emotions that show the impact of her music.
A strong biography about a young girl with a tremendous gift. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
The author of the Printz Honor winner, The Passion of Dolssa, returns with another spectacular teen read. In a novel wrapped with the attention of the Greek gods Aphrodite, Ares and Hephaestus, a love story for the ages is told. The story is set during World War I and moves from England to France and directly into the trenches and fog of war. It is the story of Hazel and James, two people who found one another right before James is being shipped off to the front. Without even a kiss to say goodbye, the two are separated. Hazel joins the YMCA volunteers in France, intent to offer her music to the troops as a way of staying close to James. There she meets Colette, a Belgian girl who lost her entire family and fiance to the Germans as they razed her town. Aubrey is an African-American pianist who shares his love of music on the sly with Hazel and Colette and eventually falls hard for Colette. Still, they are in the midst of a war in the early part of the 20th century, so racism and danger is everywhere. As the couples are separated, it is clear they may never find one another again.
Berry has created a pure delight of a book. I lingered over this one, not wanting it to end and yet rather desperate to find out what happens to all of the characters. Berry creates characters who are deep and interesting. In this book, she uses music and architecture to create shared languages that bring people together. Her use of the Greek gods to tell the tale is particularly effective, giving the story a sense of dread that one of these beloved characters will be lost in the war.
Berry’s writing is exquisite. Even as she creates a quintessential romance on the pages, there is nothing fluffy about it. Each moment, each kiss, each long look filled with meaning is given space and a sense of importance. The book is written so that one feels along with the characters, understands falling in love and doing it again and again as life deals new blows.
An incredible piece of historical fiction. This is one of the best of the year. Appropriate for ages 14-adult.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Viking Books for Young Readers.
Elvis Is King! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Red Nose Studio (9780399554704)
This picture book biography features a perfect match-up of author and illustrator. It tells the story of Elvis’ life from a young boy singing in church and in talent shows to him becoming a star. It is the story of a boy growing up poor with a father in jail and discovering many of life’s joys like gospel music and hamburgers. When the family moves to Memphis, Elvis needs to work to make money to keep them housed and fed. As a teenager, he turns himself into something new, coloring his hair black and adding his trademark hair wax. He falls in love, discovers blues music, and decides to be the biggest star in music. The speed of his journey into stardom is incredible, as he gets more inspiration for his unique music style.
Winter writes with a focused poetic style here, each page a short poem about Elvis’ life. Winter captures the poverty that Elvis is born into without romanticizing it at all. His story is particularly captivating because of how quickly he went from being entirely unknown to being a star. Another fascinating piece of the story is how Elvis realized that he needed to move and shake his hips to be able to sing the way he did.
Red Nose Studio has put their signature style in this book, elevating it into something really special that children will love to explore. There are certain page turns that are particularly effective, like the one where in a single turn of the page Elvis emerges with his well-known look. Red Nose completely captures the way that Elvis moves in their clay figures, something entirely remarkable for a still photograph.
A great pick for libraries, I’d recommend sharing some of Elvis’ music alongside the book. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade.
Carlos Santana was born into a musical family with a father who was a popular mariachi performer. Carlos started learning to read music at age five and to play the violin at age six. But his father is often gone, playing musical gigs around Mexico. His father sends money home to the family, and eventually Carlos’ mother decides to head to America with the children. Carlos earns money playing music for the tourists, but his heart isn’t in it. It isn’t until he hears American blues music for the first time that he discovers his own kind of music. Carlos tries to play with his father’s band but it does not go well. Eventually, his father realizes that his son needs a new instrument, one that goes with his own blend of Latin and blues.
Golio tells a story of Santana’s childhood, focusing on the impact that music had throughout his early days but also the importance of finding his own musical voice that is entirely unique. The relationship between father and son is a critical one in this picture book biography, resonating throughout Santana’s childhood. Golio tells a complex story and yet keeps it straightforward for a young audience.
The illustrations are done in mixed media of torn paper, acrylics and printed inks. They are layered and deep, the colors swirling on the page. The faces of the various family members and Santana are particularly arresting. The art has a great vibrancy and a feel of freedom around it.
A great pick for libraries looking for quality biographies of musicians. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
The 5 O’Clock Band by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier (9781419728365)
This second picture book by Andrews takes the reader on a trip through New Orleans. Shorty and his friends had formed a band. They called themselves the 5 O’Clock Band because that’s when they gathered to play. One day, Shorty got so caught up in his music that he missed the meeting time of the band. He tried to catch up with them, bringing the reader along on his walk past New Orleans landmarks and meeting musicians on the streets. Shorty longs to be a great bandleader and as he looks for his band, he learns lessons about being a leader along the way.
Filled with a deep love for the city of New Orleans, this picture book continues the story of Trombone Shorty’s childhood. Andrews’ writing is deft and musical, using repetition and rhythm to great effect. The illustrations by master Collier are lush and beautiful. They depict the richness of New Orleans on the page, filled with yellows and greens.
A jazzy picture book that inspires. Appropriate for ages 6-9.