King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin (Stephen Costanza)

Hello, friends! Our book today was King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin by Stephen Costanza, a look into the early life and career of the American composer and pianist.

Born into a labor-class black family in the very recently emancipated state of Texas, Scott took an early interest in music and sound. His entire family had a passion for music, and every member played an instrument. While Scott’s father encouraged his son to work for the railroads – one of the few industries that offered steady work for black men at the time – Scott’s mother encouraged his creative talents, trading cleaning services with a piano teacher for her son’s lessons. Scott left home to pursue his music, playing in saloons, honky-tonks, and cafés, where his unique original songs earned the praise of patrons. Eventually, Scott settled in Missouri, attending college, teaching piano, and playing at a local club called the Maple Leaf. Transposing his unique style onto paper for the first time, he had a few duds before composing his most famous song, one that would go on to transform popular music: “Maple Leaf Rag”.

Informative and visually stunning. This picture book biography does a wonderful job of introducing Joplin, the times he lived in, and the formation of his unique musical style. Describing ragtime – the genre Joplin played a major part in bringing to popularity – as a patchwork, Constanza cleverly weaves the composer’s early influences into his life story, from the work songs and spirituals of his youth, to the Germanic songs his father learned under slavery, to the mainstream instrumentals he learned as a student. Music can be difficult to convey in book form, but the mixture of Costanza’s dynamic text, strategic use of emphasis and onomatopoeia, and dramatic, colorful illustrations creates a title that looks and reads like jazz. A sequence at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is particularly gorgeous, and captures the dreamy whirlwind of musical inspiration. The length is best for older elementary-age bookworms – JJ was definitely beginning to get antsy by the end. But overall, this look at the life and early work of Joplin is a winner. Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Ella, Queen Of Jazz (Helen Hancocks)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Ella, Queen Of Jazz by Helen Hancocks, the true story of Ella Fitzgerald breaking the color barrier at the Mocambo Club with the help of a famous friend.

In the 1950’s, there was no better blues and jazz singer than Ella Fitzgerald. But there was terrible prejudice in the way of Ella achieving all her dreams as a singer. You see, Ella and her Fellas were not allowed to play in the most popular clubs because they were black. At the fanciest joint in town, Ella was turned away at the door, and she was heartbroken. But Ella was about to receive a very surprising call, thanks to one of the most famous women in Hollywood…

Stylish and sweet, with a fantastic message. For those unfamiliar with the story, SPOILER ALERT: Ella’s advocate was Marilyn Monroe, who was an enormous fan and was incensed to hear that Ella had been turned away from the Mocambo. She called the manager and said that if Ella was booked, she would sit in the front row every night and they could take all the pictures they liked, using her massive notoriety at the time to ensure that Ella got a fair shot at mainstream (read: white) music. It’s a wonderful story of women helping women, and Hancock’s does a fabulous job of telling it. She wisely keeps the focus on Ella until the very end, noting that it was her talent and perseverance had earned her the opportunity, and Monroe’s intervention was simply to force the hand of the racist club policies. Then, she celebrates the real-life friendship between the two, showing little readers that the key to overcoming our differences is by bonding over our similarities. It’s all wrapped up in a beautiful package of simple yet engaging text and colorful period-inspired art. The length is great, and JJ and I both loved it. This one is absolutely Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Trombone Shorty (Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Trombone Shorty, an autobiographical picture book written by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and illustrated by Bryan Collier, a fun and fascinating tale that celebrates music and the people who love it.

“Where Y’at?” That’s how people in New Orleans greet each other, a town as friendly and musical as there ever was. And in the neighborhood of Tremé, there once lived a little boy named Troy, who loved music so much that he would play it without an instrument. He would play along with his older brother’s band and with the bands that played in the Mardi Gras parades. One day, Troy finds a trombone, beat up, but still having music to give. Troy carries the heavy instrument wherever he goes, teaching himself to play and dreaming of making “music gumbo”, a music that mixes together all the styles and feelings he adores. His brother encourages him, bestowing him with the nickname “Trombone Shorty” on account on of the instrument’s size compared to his. He plays without fear, marching with the parades as a small boy, and even being invited onstage for an impromptu performance with Bo Diddley. Now Troy is successful musician, playing around the world with his band – but he always returns to New Orleans, finding and encouraging young musicians as his brother once did for him.

Lovely! Mixing together elements of a musical biography and a love letter to New Orleans, Andrews tells his tale with verve and excitement, writing passionately about his home and music in a way that inspires infectious joy (the author’s photos in the back are especially adorable). Collier’s mixed-media art is as spectacular as ever, seamlessly mixing in photography with illustration to create spreads that sing with the spirit and music of the text. The length is great, and JJ and I both loved it. A must-read for any young music lover, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!