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.)

Music Is… (Stephen T. Johnson)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Music Is… by Stephen T. Johnson, an introduction and exploration of ten different music genres in visuals, prose, and lyrics.

Music is… so many things. It can be the “poignant stories” of country, the “boom box beats” of hip-hop, the “rainbow of emotions” in rhythm and blues. It’s the sophisticated yet scattered sounds of jazz, the mix of soft and thunderous intensities in classical, or the catchy, evergreen melodies of pop. But most of all, music is… you! Your sound, your interpretation, your style. If it speaks to you, it’s music – and from there, the possibilities are endless.

Fun. While comprehensive by no means (the genres represented are almost entirely western, as are the suggested-listening example songs in the backmatter), this is a cute crash course in some of the most popular genres of music. Johnson does a great job of marrying the scrapbook-style artwork to the wonderfully expressive, imagistic text (“Heavy Metal is… roughened steel blazing a trail of light out of the darkness of an abyss” has to be one of the best sentences I’ve EVER read in a children’s book). A wealth of backmatter further explains the history, subgenres and common instruments of each genre as well, making the length great for either a quick storytime or a lengthier perusal, depending on how in-depth one wants to go. My one complaint, from a purely practical standpoint, is the unusual concertina binding, which makes the heavy book difficult to hold and balance for small hands or adults hoping to share with groups of little bookworms. Otherwise, we enjoyed this one, and would definitely recommend it for music lovers. Baby Bookworm approved!

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

Somewhere Over The Rainbow (Mike Byrne)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Somewhere Over The Rainbow, illus. by Mike Byrne, a colorful board book with a musical twist.

Using popular song titles to introduce the names of colors to little bookworms, each spread begins with a block color and the title that name-drops that particular shade (“PINK Moon”, “BROWN-Eyed Girl”, “BLUE Suede Shoes”, etc). The opposite page shows an illustration dominated by the featured hue, starring some cute animals hanging out with or displaying the literal interpretation of the song title.

Colorful but disappointing. When I heard the concept for this one, I was excited, but with the exception of some very cute art, this mostly feels like a missed opportunity. The minimalist text is very limiting, especially for young (or even older) readers who are not familiar with with songs being named. In fact, since the song titles are not even identified by artist, readers would have to search outside the title to match the song to its band if they didn’t recognize it(with varied success; “Green Light” by Beyoncé? By Lorde? By John Legend?). The art is very sweet, but similarly feels detached from the songs, showing only the literal interpretation of the title with few exceptions, the most notable of which is a French poodle and its owner wearing some vaguely punk accoutrements for “White Wedding” (which, incidentally, was our favorite illustration). So while the idea of using pop songs to teach colors is a great one, this just feels like it missed the mark, in a way that does little to differentiate it from any other color-learning book. Otherwise, the length was fine, and JJ did enjoy the artwork. So while we weren’t blown away by the execution, this one is still Baby Bookworm approved.

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

Pokko And The Drum (Matthew Forsythe)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Pokko And The Drum by Matthew Forsythe, a cheeky tale of a blooming percussionist.

Pokko the frog receives a gift from her parents: a drum (it is a terrible mistake on their part). She proves to be quite the prodigy, though her father requests that she move her rehearsals outside. He also requests that she not make too much noise; they are a simple frog family living in a little mushroom, and don’t want to attract too much attention. Drumming quietly to keep herself company, Pokko is surprised when a banjo-playing raccoon joins her tune. Playing a bit louder, she attracts more company, in the form of of a trumpeter rabbit and a music-enthusiast wolf (though the wolf earns a stern warning from Pokko when he eats the rabbit: “No more eating band members or you’re out of the band”). Pokko’s talent attracts more and more musicians and fans, until she is leading a massive parade… right toward her quiet little mushroom home.

What a marvelously bizarre and uplifting tale. With the exception of one slightly dark joke – the wolf’s consumption of the rabbit is not graphic, but certainly jarring in an otherwise innocuous tale – Pokko’s story is one that expertly blends deadpan comedy with a sweet message about supporting talent and the power of music. The beautifully colorful and retro-inspired illustrations are equally appealing, and the well-designed characters and visual gags add to the absurdity. The length was perfect, and JJ absolutely adored the artwork. This is a strange one, to be sure, but it leaves readers with a smile and a warm heart – we loved it. Baby Bookworm approved!

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

Because (Mo Willems)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Because, written by Mo Willems and illustrated by Amber Ren, a lovely ode to the community of people that are behind a single work of art.

It begins with Beethoven: “Because a man named Ludwig wrote beautiful music, a man named Franz was inspired to create his own.” Each page follows in this way, looking at how Franz’s music inspired an orchestra to form to perform his music; musicians to practice, craftsmen to prepare the music hall, artists to design the posters, and patrons to buy tickets. And because one little girl’s uncle came down with a cold, she got her aunt’s spare ticket, and was there to hear Franz’s music – and was transformed, inspired to create her own art and share it with the next young artist.

Beautiful. At once a celebration of the importance of art and the army of people that band together to create it, Willems’s cause-and-effect story structure puts a spotlight on both splendidly while creating a compelling and exciting narrative. I especially loved the focus on how art is most often a community effort, with people working together both onstage and off to make something beautiful for their audience; I’ve only seen it once before in a picture book, and it made me smile to see it here. After all, art is best when it’s shared, and able to inspire the next great artist to take up the torch. Ren’s illustrations are lovely, creating a rich and diverse cast of characters and some wonderfully heartwarming visuals (such as when a flowing stanza of musical notes literally sweeps the young protagonist off her feet and carries her along). The length is great, and JJ and I adored it. Baby Bookworm approved!