Music Is a Rainbow by Bryan Collier

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  A boy struggles between forces of light and darkness in his life, starting with his feelings when his father leaves each day for work and when his mother gets sick and has to go away on his seventh birthday.  His father tells him to always “leave room for that rainbow to find you.  Broken is beautiful.”  The boy discovers the rainbow through music, but the magical feeling doesn’t last long.  He’s tempted into trouble by a group of friends known as the South Side Bandits, and before long they’re taking joy rides on the ice cream truck.  One day they decide to break into the rec center.  While his friends are trashing the place, the boy discovers a piano and sits down to play.  “The sounds became music, and the music changed into colors.  The rainbow had found him.  And then that feeling lasted forever.”  Includes an author’s note citing the influences of Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, and Quincy Jones on this story.  48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Bryan Collier’s beautiful collage illustrations illuminate this story of a boy trying to find his way through difficult times.  I’m excited that I may actually get to meet Bryan Collier today at the Eric Carle Museum’s Collage Day!

Cons:  I found the story a little confusing, and I think that younger kids would definitely need some guidance to understand what’s going on.

Ablaze with Color: A Story of Alma Thomas by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Loveis Wise

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  As a child in Georgia, Alma Thomas loved observing the bright colors around her and making things with her hands.  She and her three younger sisters weren’t allowed to go to the white school or library, so their parents filled their house with books and teachers.  When Alma was 15, her family moved to Washington, D.C. to give their daughters more opportunities, and Alma graduated from high school and college, where she studied art.  She taught for many years before retiring at age 69 and pursuing her own art.  Using the bright colors she had loved as a child, she created paintings inspired by nature and by space travel.  Alma was the first Black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York.  Years after her death in 1978, Barack and Michelle Obama chose one of Alma Thomas’s paintings to hang in the White House, the first artwork there by a Black woman.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator, photos, a timeline of events in Alma’s life and the United States during her lifetime, and a list of sources.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  I had never heard of Alma Thomas, but I loved her story and the illustrations inspired by her art.  While the intended audience may not appreciate the fact that Alma’s art career took off after she turned 70, I found that inspiring.

Cons:  It seemed at odds with the theme of the book that the photo of Alma was in black and white.

I Am Mozart, Too: The Lost Genius of Maria Anna Mozart by Audrey Ades, illustrated by Adelina Lirius

A handful of picture book biographies about women arrived for me at the library this week, and since March is Women’s History Month, I’ll be featuring them for the rest of the week.

Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Summary:  Maria Anna Mozart, known as Nannerl, tells the story of her life growing up with her younger brother, Wolfie.  The two of them took to music at an early age and were playing concert halls in cities across Europe from the ages of five and ten.  Nannerl also loved composing, but her father forbade it, saying that writing music was only for men.  When Nannerl turned eighteen, she was told that touring was over for her and that she would stay home and get married.  Wolfie continued to tour, and their correspondence grew less and less frequent until one devastating day when she learned of his death.  Nannerl lived for almost forty more years, returning to Salzburg and her beloved harpsichord.  Includes an author’s note explaining that this book is creative nonfiction, not a strict biography; also, a timeline, glossary, and list of books and online sources.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  This is a fascinating story made more interesting by being told in Nannerl’s voice.  The illustrations are a beautiful addition, particularly the ones that show the music created by the Mozarts.

Cons:  A quick look at Wikipedia tells me there is a lot more to Maria Anna’s story and her relationship with her brother and father than this book is able to cover.

A Is for Oboe: The Orchestra’s Alphabet by Lera Auerbach and Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Paul Hoppe

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  This musical alphabet book has a poem for every letter: from the A the oboe plays to warm up the orchestra to the Zzz’s the musicians and audience members catch after the performance.  In between there are poems celebrating different instruments, the people involved in making music, and the music itself, both what’s written on paper and what is performed.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  An A to Z poetry book of music didn’t really grab me, but once I started reading, I found every poem engaging and I zipped through the book in no time.  Many different aspects of music were covered (and of course I appreciated the fact that the letter L celebrates music librarians), and the energetic illustrations help readers understand the topics of the poems.

Cons:  Readers unfamiliar with music will need some additional context; it would have been nice to have some of that provided with either information on each page or with some back matter.

¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! The Dance That Crossed Color Lines/El baile que atravesó la barrera de color by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Published by Candlewick ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! The Dance That Crossed Color Lines:  9781536206081: Robbins, Dean, Velasquez, Eric: Books ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! The Dance That Crossed Color Lines:  9781536206081: Robbins, Dean, Velasquez, Eric: Books

Summary:  In the 1940’s, young people danced in groups divided by race and ethnicity.  Millie danced to jazz in her Italian neighborhood, while Pedro danced to Latin songs in his Puerto Rican community.  But then a band called Machito and His Afro-Cubans started mixing things up, using jazz trumpets and saxophones with Latin maracas and congas to make what they called Latin jazz.  In 1948, New York City’s Palladium Ballroom broke the rules by opening its doors to everyone and hiring Machito to play for them.  It brought together Millie and Pedro, who danced a new dance called the mambo–and danced it so well that they became the best at the Palladium, the best in New York City, and finally, the best in the United States.  Includes an author’s note with more information on Machito, the Palladium, and the dancers mentioned in the text; also a list of resources.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  The realistic oil painting illustrations and the brief text capture the movement and energy of the dancers, as well as the different groups that came together at the Palladium.  The back matter adds good informational value.

Cons:  No photos.

Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge by Gary Golio, illustrated by James Ransome

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge: 9781984813664: Golio, Gary,  Ransome, James: Books Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge: 9781984813664: Golio, Gary,  Ransome, James: Books

Summary:  When Sonny Rollins needs a place to practice his music that won’t disturb the neighbors, he heads for the bridge.  Climbing the steps to the walkway, he finds a place where he can blow his saxophone as loud as he wants.  Subway cars, tugboats, and seagulls add their distinctive voices to the song Sonny plays from New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge.  Includes additional information about Sonny Rollins and the Williamsburg Bridge, as well as a collection of quotes from interviews with Sonny, now 91 years old. 32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This would be a great resource for music teachers to introduce Sonny Rollins’s music.  The brief poetic text makes a quick but compelling read-aloud, there’s lots more information at the end, and the illustrations gorgeously capture the feeling of music on the bridge.

Cons:  There’s not much biographical information in the main story; the back matter provides more, but more research will be needed for a full picture of Sonny Rollins’s life and career.

Art Is Everywhere: A Book About Andy Warhol by Jeff Mack

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Art Is Everywhere
Art Is Everywhere

Summary:  Andy Warhol narrates his story, starting with his job drawing shoes.  “All day long it was shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe.  I felt like a robot in a factory.  It was so cool.”  Soon he was drawing other everyday objects as art like Campbell’s soup cans (“Do you like soup? We all like soup”) and boxes of Brillo pads.  He made an eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building and prints of Marilyn Monroe (“Did I make her famous? Or did she make me famous?”).  He started a magazine and made a TV show.  At the end, he predicts the future of media where there will be things to watch, things to follow, and things to share.  Astute readers will realize that that future is already here.  Includes an author’s note with additional information that speculates on how Andy Warhol might be making art if he were still alive today.  48 pages; grades 2-5.  

Pros:  This unique biography really captures Andy Warhol’s art and voice, and would serve as an excellent introduction to use in an art class.  There’s humor and some interesting questions for readers to ponder, as well as references to Warhol’s accessible pop art that will undoubtedly pique kids’ curiosity to learn more.

Cons:  Since there’s not a lot of biographical information, a list of additional resources would have been helpful.

Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books

Nina: A Story of Nina Simone: Todd, Traci N., Robinson, Christian:  9781524737283: Books
Nina: A Story of Nina Simone: Todd, Traci N., Robinson, Christian:  9781524737283: Books

Summary:  Eunice Waymon was a precocious musical talent, playing at her mother’s church from the age of 3.  Her daddy taught her some jazz, she learned gospel at church, and her piano teacher taught her classical.  After studying at Julliard, Eunice was rejected by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, a disappointment that she suspected was because she was Black and female.  She almost gave up on music, but heard about a job performing in an Atlantic City club.  Not wanting her religious mother to find out what she was doing, Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone.  Her fame was growing during the years of the civil rights movement, and Nina began adding words to her music to express the anger, frustration, and fear she felt.  “And when she sang of Black children–you lovely, precious dreams–her voice sounded like hope.”  Includes additional information about Nina Simone and a bibliography.  56 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This well-written biography is sure to be considered for a Caldecott or Coretta Scott King award.  Christian Robinson’s acrylic and collage illustrations cleverly incorporate scenes from the civil rights movement into illustrations of Nina’s performances.

Cons:  The ending felt a bit abrupt.

Make Meatballs Sing: The Life and Art of Corita Kent by Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kara Kramer

Published by Enchanted Lion

Make Meatballs Sing: The Life and Art of Corita Kent: Burgess, Matthew,  Kramer, Kara: 9781592703166: Books
make meatballs sing + "plork" away craft! - This Picture Book Life

Summary:  If you’ve ever seen the rainbow-covered Boston Gas tanks or recall the 1985 USPS Love stamp (also with a rainbow), you’ve seen the work of Corita Kent.  Corita grew up in a large family where she loved art and using her imagination.  As a young woman, she surprised her family and friends by becoming a nun.  She also became a teacher, and used her gifts of art and imagination to liven up her classroom.  Eventually, she joined the art faculty of Immaculate Heart College, where she continued to develop her own art.  Her somewhat unconventional approach to life and work put her increasingly at odds with her supervisors in the church, and at age 50, she left her life as a nun.  She spent the next 18 years pursuing art and fun (she coined the word “plork” to describe the combination of play and work) before her death in 1986. Includes a chronology of Corita’s life, notes from the author and illustrator, and vibrant endpapers with a photo of Corita and some of her art. 80 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  “Plork” may be my new favorite word, and the text and illustrations really capture the spirit that Corita Kent brought to all aspects of her life.  Readers of all ages will be inspired by this vibrant woman’s life; this made me want to seek out more of her art and books.

Cons:  I was a little put off by the length of this book, and procrastinated reading it, thinking it would take a while.  Once I started, though, I flew through it, so don’t let the 80 pages be a deterrent to reading it yourself or to others.

1985 LOVE MNH Block 4x22¢ STAMPS #2143 Corita Kent Rainbow Swash Boston Gas  Tank | eBay
1985 LOVE MNH Block 4x22¢ STAMPS #2143 Corita Kent Rainbow Swash Boston Gas  Tank - $3.75 | PicClick

King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin by Stephen Costanza

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin: Costanza, Stephen, Costanza,  Stephen: 9781534410367: Books
King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin: Costanza, Stephen, Costanza,  Stephen: 9781534410367: Books

Summary:  Scott Joplin grew up in a musical family in Texarkana, Arkansas.  His parents encouraged his talents by buying him a piano, not an easy feat for the impoverished family, and got him lessons when his mother offered to clean the music teacher’s house.  When Scott was old enough, though, his father told him he should get a job on the railroad, one of the only opportunities for a young African American man to find steady work.  But the pull of music was too great, and Scott started playing in saloons, gradually working his way up to more respectable establishments and a chance to go to college.  His love of a new form of music, ragtime, led to his most famous composition, “The Maple Leaf Rag”.  Its success allowed him to leave saloons forever and focus on composing, creating “an American music like the country itself–a patchwork of sounds and colors.”  Includes a lengthy author’s note with additional information, a bibliography, and a recommended listening list.  56 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  There’s a folksy feel to both the voice and the illustrations of this picture book biography that draws the reader in immediately.  Although not a lot is known about Scott Joplin, the author does an amazing job of piecing together his story, and the author’s note and bibliography make this an excellent research resource.

Cons:  I can’t stop humming “Maple Leaf Rag”.