Posts Tagged ‘music’

The African Orchestra, written by Wendy Hartmann, illustrated by Joan Rankin
published in 2017 by Crocodile Books, Interlink Publishing Group

That buzzing cicada? That crackle-snap of a seed pod breaking? The thunder of hooves as a herd of zebras races across the plains? The burbling of a brook freshened by a mighty rainfall?

All those sounds woven into the wild, vast, haunting, lovely, lush, bleak African landscapes, found their way into African musical instruments as humans invented ways to replicate nature’s songs.

Thought-provoking ideas, lyrical text, and marvelously inventive, artistic images capture the natural world of Africa and the emotion of its music. A brilliant concept and collaboration to muse over with children ages 3 and up.

You can pursue the idea of nature-inspired music with these brilliant guides to classical music:

Listen to the Birds, music selection and explanatory notes by Ana Gerhard, illustrations by Cecilia Verela, translated from Spanish by Heléne Roulston and Sabrina Diotalevi
first published in Spain in 2010; English edition 2013 by The Secret Mountain

Amazing Water, music selection and explanatory notes by Ana Gerhard, illustrations by Margarita Sada, translated from Spanish by David Lytle
first published in Spain; English edition 2016 by The Secret Mountain

Gerhard chooses 20 classical selections for each book, with themes and sounds that convey birdsong and water respectively.

For example, Vivaldi’s “The Goldfinch and Saint-Saën’s “Aviary” from The Carnival of the Animals are included in Listen to the Birds. Schubert’s Trout quintet and “Alla Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music are included in Amazing Water.

Background for each piece is provided which might be best read by a parent to dole out judiciously, as well as brilliant listening notes that accompany the included CD, drawing children’s attention to specific aspects of the music and explaining how these reflect the subject. There are also brief bios of each composer and a glossary of musical terms, and all of this is presented on pages dominated by joyful illustrations.

This is a great resource for homeschooling families, for example, who could putter through one volume over a 20 week period with children as young as 3 or 4.

There is one other title in this series, Simply Fantastic, which explores fantasy-oriented musical selections.



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We’re coming up on the longest days of the year here in the northern hemisphere. Plenty of time for extra bedtime stories. These are all full of joy, starting with:

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Miles of Smiles, by Karen Kaufman Orloff, illustrations by Luciano Lozano
published in 2016 by Sterling Publishing

Baby starts the smiles off in this charming, happy story. She gives her mom a smile, and mom passes that smile along to Mrs. Glass, who shares it with Sebastian…and on it goes…

miles of smiles interior orloff and lozano

…until it comes around full circle. By now, the whole community is a happier, smilier place! Sunny, rhyming lines are paired with stylish, vibrant illustrations. It’s a day-brightener for ages 2 and up.

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The Big Book of Bugs, written and illustrated by Yuval Zommer
published in 2016 by Thames & Hudson

Wall-to-wall, phenomenal illustrations greet us on every page of this guide to all sorts of bugs.

the big book of bugs interior yuval zommer

Spreads devoted to dragonflies, pond bugs, baby bugs, night-time bugs contain interesting tidbits of information, questions to help us wonder, critters to find, and a feast of beauty. Maybe bugs don’t appeal to you in general, but I guarantee you will find them glorious here. Ages 2 and up.

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Secret Tree Fort, written and illustrated by Brianne Farley
published in 2016 by Candlewick Press

Two sisters are relegated by their smart mom to play outside. The older one is content to read her book while leaning up against a tree. The younger one wants to play…with her sister. Of course.

secret tree fort interior brianne farley

So, she invents a lavish tree fort, complete with a “marshmallow and chocolate storage compartment,” a crow’s nest, and a whale of a lot more! Can she entice that big sister to join her? Sparkling, buoyant, imaginative in text and illustration, this is a delight for ages 3 and up.

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Stanley’s Plan, written and illustrated by Ruth Green
first published in 2015 by Tate Publishing; distributed in the U.S. by Abrams

“Stanley the dog is always hungry.” This means he has something in common with my dog! Yours, too?

stanley's plan interior ruth green

Stanley has caught a whiff of a delicious meat pie cooling quite tantalizingly on a high shelf. He tries to enlist his friends to help him nab that pie, but finds them most uncooperative. What’s a dog to do? Great fun with a lip-smacking, surprise ending. Ruth Green’s smart, retro design style will rock your socks off. Ages 2 and up.

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There is a Tribe of Kids, written and illustrated by Lane Smith
published in 2016 by Roaring Brook Press

As usual, Lane Smith’s work here contains phenomenal artwork, thought-provoking cleverness, and sophisticated story-telling. 

there is a tribe of kids inteior lane smith

Journey along with a child through mountainscapes and polar reaches, rocky outcroppings and leafy jungles, meeting troops and herds, smacks and pods, ever moving on to locate his own tribe. So much to absorb and such a warm final homecoming. Ages 4 and up.

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Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Fantastic nonfiction makes me glad! Here’s a moving story about a population of children who live among the trash heaps in Cateura, Paraguay. Surrounded by garbage, noise, and stink, these kids and their parents still love the beauty of music.

ada's violin illustration sally wern comport

Discover how kindness, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and hard work resulted in remarkable musical opportunities for them in this extraordinary account. Comport’s striking illustrations are a joyful, strong pairing for the story. An Author’s Note tells more of the details, and further exploration can be done via listed websites and videos. Inspirational, for ages 5 through adult.

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Chimpanzees for Tea!, written and illustrated by Jo Empson
published in the U.S. in 2016 by Philomel Books

Vincent is sent to the shops with a short list of items to pick up for his mum in this breezy, warmhearted, funny tale.

chimpanzees for tea interiorf jo empson

He’s meant to pick up carrots, rice, cheese, peas, and a pear and beat it on home in time for tea. But wait’ll you see what a rash of forgetfulness and some crrraazzzy happenstances result in! Wonderfully silly! Artwork that sings and ripples with glee. Love it! Ages 2 and up.

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I Won a What?, by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Robert Neubecker
published in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf

One little boy is off to the fair, heading straight for that booth with the rows and rows of goldfish in bowls and his penny to pitch. He wants one of those goldfish with his whole, entire heart. And! You won’t believe it! He wins!!

i won a what illustration robert neubecker

But he doesn’t win a goldfish. Nope. He wins Nuncio! What is Nuncio? You won’t believe that either! Ride along on this blast of a tall tale. Bold, bright, vigorous illustrations, a riot through and through for ages 3 and up.

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Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate
published in 2016 by Charlesbridge

Do your kids have a super-soaker? I think we had at least 5 floating around here when my kids were small. Who but Chris Barton would think to tell us the story of how they came to be invented?!

whoosh interior barton and tate

It’s a wonderful story about a super-smart, super-creative, super-determined guy. Enjoy finding out about him and get motivated to pursue your own dreams. Illustrated in Don Tate’s friendly, welcoming style. Ages 6 and up.

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Thunder Boy Jr., by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
published in 2016 by Little, Brown and Company

Talk about a power team! Alexie and Morales have teamed up to bring us an unusual story — of course! — exploding in powerful emotion and wrapped up in warm, father-son bonds.

Thunder Boy Jr. has a complaint. What is the problem? It’s his name. Inside him, the beasts of anger are a-howlin’ over the junior at the end of his name. Listen up and he’ll explain why. Then watch and see what his dad does about that.

thunder boy jr interior alexie and morales

Based on Sherman Alexie’s own experience of being named after his father, this covers new ground for sure. Naming is a complex and important part of many cultures, and the significance to this particular Native family could be better spelled out for the reader. Nevertheless, I imagine that the opportunity this story brings to talk about the reasoning behind your child’s name could open some intriguing discussions.

As ever, Morales tackles her illustration assignment with determined inventiveness and unfettered vigor. Be sure to read her note about how the artwork was made. Ages 4 and up.

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So many women are told their dreams “simply can’t be done.” Today, meet a drummer, a mathematician, a primatologist and others, who persisted and realized their dreams.

Plus a tribute to mothers: In our heart of hearts, we often feel overwhelmed at this epic task — nurturing healthy human beings for our world. Women’s History Month would not be complete without celebrating motherhood.

drum dream girl cover imageDrum Dream Girl:How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López
published in 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Hot pepper oranges and Caribbean blues saturate the pages of this poetic celebration of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, the first female drummer in Cuba. As a young girl, the varied drums’ beats tantalized her, but it was taboo for women to play them.

drum dream girl illustration rafael lopez

Winner of the 2016 Pura Belpré Illustration Award, the gorgeous artwork in this book explodes with color and Cuban culture, while the text dances along lithely. Superb introduction to Millo, who became a world-famous drummer, and another example of the odd restrictions women have had to overcome with the help of a key insider. Ages 3 and up.

ada byron lovelace and the thinking machine cover imageAda Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by April Chu
published in 2015 by Creston Books

Ada, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, was a brilliant mathematician. From childhood she was mesmerized by numbers and the inventions made possible by their calculations. Ada was a child of privilege, yet had to overcome family dysfunction, a crippling illness, and her society’s conviction that math was no place for a woman.


Wallmark’s introduction is intriguing and accessible, and Chu’s handsome artwork immerses us in Ada’s world. Read about the woman who wrote the first computer program with ages 5 and up.

paiute princess cover imagePaiute Princess: The Story of Sarah Winnemucca, written and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray
published in 2012 by Frances Foster Books, Farrar Straus Giroux

Sarah Winnemucca was not a princess. And her name was not really Sarah. Yet by assuming an identity the White world invented, she was able to wield her strengths for the good of her Paiute people.

This lengthy, fascinating account by award-winning author and illustrator Deborah Kogan Ray introduced me to an amazing person I had never heard of, who worked tirelessly for justice for the Paiute.

paiute princess illustration deborah kogan ray

She was a controversial figure, accepted fully by neither white culture nor her own people. I think that is often the case for peacemakers caught in the middle, searching for the best compromise this world offers. A beautiful, thought-provoking read for ages 8 and up.

irena's jars of secrets cover imageIrena’s Jars of Secrets, by Marcia Vaughan, illustrated by Ron Mazellan
published in 2011 by Lee & Low Books

Irena was a young Polish Catholic woman when World War II broke out and with horror she witnessed the beginnings of the Holocaust. As a social worker, she gained access to the Warsaw ghettos, smuggling in aid for two years until it became clear that Treblinka was in store for all who remained.

irena's jars of secrets illustration ron mazellan

Read the story of how this intrepid woman risked her life to smuggle 2500 children out to safety, and find out what role was played by two glass jars hidden under an apple tree. A riveting account with rich, atmospheric paintings, for ages 5 or 6 and up. Obviously, extermination camps are a part of this narrative, so use your judgement as to the appropriateness for young children.

florence nightingale cover imageFlorence Nightingale, written and illustrated by Demi
published in 2014 by Henry Holt and Company

Demi’s characteristically elegant treatment of her subjects turns here to Florence Nightingale, another child of privilege who used her life to benefit the poor and broken in the world.

florence nightingale interior by demi

Demi traces her life from her birth in Florence, Italy, (I never knew that is how she got her name!) through her calling as a young woman into nursing — an objectionable life for a proper lady, careful study of the care of patients, and blossoming as a leader and innovator in nursing care. It’s a brilliant account, never bogging down yet covering a vast amount of information, accompanied by intricate, appealing illustrations. An inspiration for ages 5 and up.

me...jane cove imageMe…Jane, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell
published in 2011 by Little, Brown and Company

This tender story tells of Jane Goodall’s childhood love of the great outdoors and all the wondrous natural world around her. The entire, sparkling account spins out just a few thoughts, like candy floss, magically endearing us to this dear girl, until with one turn of the last page, she is all grown up, living out her dream in Africa.

me...jane illustration patrick mcdonnell

Charming and engaging for children ages 2 and up, the story is followed by a bio written for ages 8 and up, and a wonderful, the watcher cover imagepersonal message from Jane about the opportunity for each of us to make a difference in our world. If you want to learn more about her, follow this up with another excellent account focusing more on her long work in Tanzania:

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter, also published in 2011 by Schwartz & Wade and ideal for ages 3 and up.

lullaby for a black mother cover imageLullaby (for a Black Mother), by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Sean Qualls
published in 2013 by Harcourt Children’s Books

Langston’s dark-cherry sweet lullaby, a mother singing to her little dark baby, her little earth-thing, her little love-one, is marvelously illustrated in Sean Quall’s rhythmic, contemporary styling. Twilight purples and midnight blues infuse  the pages, anchored in strong shapes, textures, and inky blacks.

lullaby for a black mother illustration sean qualls

A note about Langston Hughes informs us about his sweet connection with words during a childhood of fractured relationships. Qualls conjectures about the comfort Hughes believed a mother’s lullaby could bring to a lonely boy. Read this with children ages 2 and up, and invent your own lullaby to speak your love.

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little leap forward cover imageLittle Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing, by Guo Yue and Claire Farrow, illustrated by Helen Cann
published in 2008 by Barefoot Books; 125 pages

The poetry of language, music, cooking, friendship, love, and nature gleam like moonlight on snow in this gorgeous memoir of life in China during the Cultural Revolution. It’s the juxtaposition of breathtaking beauty and punishing uniformity that gives this story such power.

Author Guo Yue was born in 1958 in Beijing at the outset of the Great Famine which, over the next four years, would cause death by starvation to some 36 million people. His father, apparently, was one of them. When Yue was 8 years old, the Cultural Revolution exploded in China, crushing the thought, creativity, individuality, and life out of her people. Yue was grievously separated from family and friends during that time. As a musician — Guo Yue is a virtuoso performer of Chinese flutes — all of the beauty and grief of his childhood informs his music.

little leap forward illustration helen cann

This book is a fictionalized account of his childhood. Its sumptuous language carries us right into the courtyards and riverbanks and schoolrooms of Beijing, allowing us to experience that world through Yue’s captivating viewpoint. The sensory richness — of aromatic ginger, sweet birdsong, cucumbers like green jade — running throughout the whole account is extraordinary. There is liveliness and humor as well, and intriguing depictions of kite-making and kite-flying expeditions. Comparisons of the old ways of China, the new ways of China, and the harsh crashing in of the newest extremes of revolution, are sharply drawn. 

little leap forward illustration2 helen cann

Hovering just beyond the overt aspects of the memoir is a poignant yearning for freedom. That struggle is cast symbolically as Little Leap Forward wrestles with his conscience over a small songbird he’s caught, whose song has disappeared as she’s confined. It’s a motif that the youngest readers might not pick up, but which makes this book an excellent choice for readers who are older than you might think of as the target audience.

Helen Cann’s lovely, rich paintings perfectly complement this story. I love her work! Even the end papers are alluring, with Chinese kites gracefully dancing against a blue sky. Her detailed, visual references for the many foreign elements mentioned in the text are extremely helpful. 

little leap forward illustration3 helen cann

Several pages of photographs and biographical notes are included at the end. Read this aloud with ages 5 and up, but consider it as well for older readers, especially those with artistic souls or with an interest in China. Or read it for yourself. I very much enjoyed it.

P.S. You can hear Guo Yue play at this youtube link. Hauntingly beautiful. 

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This week, I’m celebrating the rich contributions to the arts made by courageous, persevering African Americans, starting with dance:

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My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome
published in 2015, A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

This is the stirring, inspirational story of Robert Battle, a young man who overcame so many obstacles to become a brilliant dancer, award-winning choreographer, and ultimately the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His personal story and the story of the expression of African American stories on the dance stage are immensely powerful.

my story my dance interior ransome

I was captivated not only by Robert’s passionate pursuit of his dream, but by the array of people in his life who helped him along the way. James Ransome has chosen to illustrated it in vibrant pastels. I particularly love the figurative studies on the endpapers and in one interior spread! Ages 6 and up.

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Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, written and illustrated by Don Tate
published in 2015 by Peachtree

George Moses Horton was a slave in North Carolina with a thirst for the riches of words and language from his childhood. Being prohibited by his master from learning to read, George managed to teach himself through sheer inventiveness and unflagging effort.

poet the remarkable story of george moses horton interior don tate

Then, he went on to do glorious things with his words. Composing his own poetry sustained him over a lifetime of adversity. What an intriguing, yet difficult life he led, bursting with creativity but fettered by enslavement. I am so glad to have met this incredible man through this book. Don Tate’s luminous paintings are remarkably welcoming. Don’t miss this one, for ages 4 and up.

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Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Raul Colón
published in 2014 by Alfred A. Knopf

Raul Colón’s stunning artwork transfixes us as we’re immersed in this magnificent account of a young Mississippi-poor girl who rose to become a Metropolitan Opera star. 

leontyne price voice of a century interior weatherford and colon

The Price family home swirled with music, Marian Anderson broke through barriers that inspired, teachers along the way recognized outstanding talent, but it was Leontyne herself who practiced and persevered. She gifted the world with her fabulous voice and paved the way for African American opera singers who followed. A glorious story for ages 4 and up.

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Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, by Glenda Armand, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
published in 2015 by Lee & Low Books

Ira Aldridge’s life story dates back the farthest of the artists on today’s list. Born in 1807, he was fortunate to live in New York City where he was able to attend the African Free School. There he was introduced to the great William Shakespeare, and there his dreams of becoming a Shakespearean actor were born. 

ira's shakespeare dream interior armand and cooper

Aldridge had to buck not only racism but his father’s wishes in order to pursue his theatrical path, and finally had even to leave family and home, to move to England where possibilities for black actors actually existed. With indefatigable perseverance, Aldridge went on to become an astonishing success. 

Floyd Cooper’s handsome, soft illustrations bring Aldridge and his world alive. Ages 5 and up. 

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Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews, by Kathleen Benson, illustrated with paintings by Benny Andrews
published in 2015 by Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Benny Andrews was a contemporary artist whose life and art drew immensely from the obstacles he and his family faced as African Americans in the sharecropping days of the ’30s. His surreal use of color and form, expressive figures –at times standing tall against their backgrounds, at times breaking forth in exuberant joy, at times, straining under oppressive burdens  — are riveting.

draw what you see painting by benny andrews

Andrews had to overcome poverty as well as the expectation that, as a black child, he would not stay in school even through high school. His remarkable perseverance, his forward reach and simultaneous rooted commitment to home and to the ordinary, suffering people in his world, were a potent alchemy which transformed his art and his social activism. 

I love that this book is illustrated with his paintings so we really meet him as we read his story. Ages 6 and up.


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Each week of February — Black History Month — I’ll be posting a list of excellent titles for you to explore, grouped by topic. I’m starting out with a jazz theme. Learn and enjoy!

jazz on a saturday night cover imageJazz on a Saturday Night, by Leo and Diane Dillon
published in 2007 by The Blue Sky Press

The Dillons’ introduction to jazz is a lovely place for anyone to begin learning about this iconic American musical form.

The text of the book is brief — a rhythmic description of an epic, fictional, jazz ensemble, made up of the greats who meet up for one cool performance. It’s a Dream Team with folks like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Ella Fitzgerald. Brief bios of all 7 musicians are included in the closing pages, as well as a list of favorite recordings to get us started listening.

jazz on a saturday night illustration dillon

As always the artwork is phenomenal. The Extra Bonus Treat here is an accompanying CD made by the Dillons in which they teach us about what makes up a jazz ensemble. In under 20 minutes, the two of them talk to us conversationally — very much a Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood sort of feel — telling about each instrument. We get to hear the different kinds of sounds each one can make. Then we hear what kind of music happens when two of them play together, and then more. Finally, we hear the whole ensemble play a piece in which we can pick out the individual instruments — how clever that feels!

JazzOnASaturdayNight illustration leo and diane dillon

Kids as young as 4 or 5 can learn way more than you might guess from this understated, brilliant book. Then move on to learn about some African American jazz artists whose names are perhaps not quite as familiar, such as …

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Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills, words by Renée Watson, pictures by Christian Robinson
published in 2012 by Random House

Florence Mills was born in 1896, the daughter of former slaves. She began singing and dancing in her childhood in Washington, D.C., and went on to become one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance.

harlems little blackbird interior watson and robinson

Read the story of this talented and generous woman, accompanied by Christian Robinson’s exciting, sizzling art, with ages 5 and up.

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Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrations by Frank Morrison
published in 2014 by Lee & Low Books Inc.

Love this story of a little gal that picks up a mighty big instrument and then proceeds to dominate with it! Melba Doretta Liston was a legendary trombone player, composer, and arranger.

little melba and her big trombone illustration frank morrison

Hip, swingin’ artwork accompanies this upbeat story for ages 4 or 5 and up. A lengthy afterword fills in a lot more history for you, with a selected discography so you can hear her sound for yourself.

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The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend, by Ann Ingalls & Maryann Macdonald, illustrated by Giselle Potter
published in 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children

Mary Lou Williams was a child prodigy with an uncanny ability to both learn and create music from a young age. She went on to travel and boogie with the “Kings and Dukes and Earls of jazz” for almost 60 years, a phenomenal success, a rare female jazz pianist for her time, and a kind mentor for others.

the little piano girl illustration detail giselle potter

Giselle Potter’s naive illustrations are rosy-warm and appealing. Ages 4 and up.

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Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum, written and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker
published in 2008 by Schwartz & Wade Books

Art Tatum was another child who gravitated to music and the piano at an early age. Despite severely limited vision, which grew progressively worse, Tatum was playing professionally by age 16, and went on to play, improvise, travel, record, planting his star firmly at the top of the world of jazz.

piano starts here illustration robert andrew parker

This book is written as though Tatum is narrating his life story, with a sweetly personal tone. Parker’s watercolor illustrations also convey a lovely humanness, warmth, and joy. Ages 4 and up.

There are so many more exceptional biographies available at your library of other jazz legends, so don’t stop here!

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Are you going to a Nutcracker performance this year?

the nutcracker from the nycballet dot com

I have such fond memories of taking my children to the ballet — the magical sets, enchanting costumes, sparkling celeste, scampering mice.

Today, I’ve got six books starring the Nutcracker, none of which tells the original story. There are dozens of books that do that, illustrated by everyone under the sun it seems, so you can choose your own favorite version. Meanwhile, we’ll meander around the story looking at if from different angles, starting with:

the nutcracker comes to america cover imageThe Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition, by Chris Barton, illustrated by Cathy Gendron
published in 2015 by Millbrook Press

I never stopped to think about why the Nutcracker is such a huge holiday tradition. I guess it’s such a fixture, it never occurred to me that it had to start sometime, somewhere.

Here comes Chris Barton, though, to carry us back to the early 1900s, to an obscure town in Utah where three Christensen The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three-Ballet Loving Brotherbrothers grow up in a family that loves to dance.

A potent mixture of showmanship, ballet, Russian symphony conductors, world war, mad sewing skills, endless practice and years of patience culminate in a 1949 Christmas performance that launches this spectacular annual treat. Who knew?

It’s an unusual slice of history and an intriguing story of perseverance that will be of special interest to children ages 5 and up who are familiar with the ballet.

duke ellington's nutcracker suite cover imageDuke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by Don Tate
published in 2011 by Charlesbridge

If you’ve never heard the swingin’, bluesy sounds of Duke Ellington’s jazzed-up Nutcracker Suite, do yourself a favor and listen now!

There’s a CD tucked into this book that will allow you to do just that while you read the backstory of how Ellington came to write it in 1960.

duke ellington's nutcracker suite illustration don tate

As we know now, courtesy of Chris Barton, the tradition of a holiday Nutcracker performance had just taken off when the idea surfaced for Ellington to give it his own signature spin. Working with his good friend Billy Strayhorn, the reimagined music was composed in less than three months.

duke ellington's nutcracker stuie illustration don tate

Settle in with the CD, read the story a bit at a time, and listen to each snazzy tune as the band records it in that Los Angeles studio. Perhaps a box of peanut brittle is in order as well. Knowing the original Tchaikovsky music will sharpen a child’s appreciation for these variations and this story. Ages 6 and up.

the new nutcracker suite and other innocent verses cover imageThe New Nutcracker Suite and Other Innocent Verses, by Ogden Nash, designed and illustrated by Ivan Chermayeff
published in 1962 by Little, Brown and Company

At the same time as Ellington was riffing, poet Ogden Nash was commissioned to pen some verses for use as narration to the original music. He wrote them in 1961 and ’62.

This book contains those typically witty and highly-original poems. the new nutcracker suite and other innocent verses illustration ivan chermayeffThere’s a collection called “Between Birthdays” which were written to accompany Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album, a few miscellaneous poems, and then seven poems correlated to various Nutcracker pieces.

Here is his Russian Dance poem:

The Russian moujik is mad for music,
For music the moujik is most enthusic.
Whenever an instrument twangs or toots
He tucks his trousers into his boots,
He squats on his heels, but his knees don’t crack,
And he kicks like a frenzied jumping jack.
My knees would make this performance tragic,
But his have special moujik magic.

Apparently Peter Ustinov read these poems for a Columbia recording with music conducted by André Kostelanetz. Wouldn’t that be a joy to hear?

the new nutcracker suite and other innocent verses illustration detail ivan chermayeff

The masterful design of Ivan Chermayeff is the cherry on the top of all of this.  His bold, playful 1960’s colors and sensibilities completely own the pages.

the new nutcracker suite and other innocent verses nash and chermayeff

Why on earth is this book out of print?! Ages 4 and up if you can find it.

the toymaker's apprentice cover imageThe Toymaker’s Apprentice, by Sherri L. Smith
published in 2015 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story has been pared down here and trimmed up there to create the ballet production most of us are familiar with.

This new holiday novel does just the opposite. Sherri L. Smith takes the kernel of Hoffman’s original story and spins out an elaborate tale of sparring kingdoms. There’s the empire of Boldavia with their new Princess Pirlipat; the Drosselmeyer family, whose fantastical mechanisms win them both friends and enemies; the mouse kingdom and its Queen mad for power and revenge; and the rats, whose scarred memories of a Pied Piper still inform their philosophy of life.

Mythical nuts, clever inventions, German Christmas markets, scholarly squirrels, life-and-death gambits, cogs, clocks, plus a dash of romance — swirl in this enjoyable, fast-paced fantasy. 385 pages. Ages 9 and up.

bea in the nutcracker cover imageBea in the Nutcracker, written and illustrated by Rachel Isadora
published in 2015 by Nancy Paulsen Books

If you’re looking to introduce the delights of the Nutcracker to the very youngest of revelers, look no further.

Rachel Isadora’s book is a charming, pint-sized peek into the Land of Sweets. Bea’s toddler ballet class is putting on the Nutcracker and lucky Bea has the part of Clara. See their costumes, watch the show, celebrate the success. 

bea in the nutcracker interior3 rachel isadora

Darling illustrations and the bare minimum of a story line here will tantalize very young children’s imaginations and prepare them for an outing to a performance.

Perfectly-pitched for ages Under-Two and up.

talullah's nutcracker cover imageTallulah’s Nutcracker, by Marilyn Singer, illustrations by Alexandra Boiger
published in 2013 by Clarion Books

And finally, a darling story about little Tallulah, whose stars align at just the right moment bringing her a golden chance to play the part of a mouse in the Nutcracker. Thrilling does not even begin to cover it!

tallulah's nutcracker illustration2 alexandra boiger

Tallulah’s enthusiasm for her part is as soaring as a grand jeté, and dreams of stardom and sugar plum roles in the future dance in her head. The one thing she doesn’t count on is a mussed-up stumble on stage. Oh dear.

tallulah's nutcracker illustration alexandra boiger

A lovely outpouring of empathy and kindness from the dance master and the Sugar Plum Fairy herself, gives renewed hope and happiness to Tallulah. It’s a sweet story, with charming, delicate illustrations, for ages 3 and up. There are a number of other Tallulah stories if you wish.

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