Kid's Stuff -- Books About Music & Musicmaking
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"Jamari's Drum"
Written by Eboni Bynum & Roland Jackson
Illustrated by Baba Wague Diakite
(Groundwood, 2004)

A fascinating folk tale set in a West African village, where a young child named Jamari learns a sacred drum rhythm that keeps his village safe from disaster... When he grows to be a man, though, he forgets about the duty that was passed on to him by one of the village elders, and rather than take up his place as a musical griot, he gets enmeshed in more mundane, "real world" activities, like farming and raising a family. When the earth actually does open up and the skies turn black (volcano), Jamari remembers what old Baba Mdogo had taught him, and he sits down n the town square and beats out the rhythm that makes the mountain calm. The story is nice, evoking nature and hidden mystical powers that surround us, as well as a reverence for "the old ways..." This is matched by the expressive imagery, a brightly colored folk art style that is quite appealing. Although the traditional tribal life depicted here is clearly endangered by modernity and consumer culture, it's still nice to explore the agrarian lifestyle of the villagers. It's distant from the culture of most children's books and a nice breath of fresh air... Also, it's neither exoticized nor overly idealized, so the story has a pureness about it that's kind of nice. Definitely worth checking out, espeically if you have any interest in drumming and percussion... it's a lot of fun reading the drum beats aloud! (B+)

"My Family Plays Music"
Written by Judy Cox
Illustrated by Elbrite Brown
(Holiday House, 2003)

I'm all in favor of celebrations of art, music and creativity, but i have to confess I found this book to feel a bit forced. A young girl introduces us to all the musicmaking members of her family -- mom plays fiddle in a country band, dad plays cello in a symphonic setting, her big sister is in a marching band, grandpa plays in a polka-band tuba, her aunt is a jazz vibrophonist, etc. It feels like the author was trying to cram too much into one book -- every kind of American music just has to be represented, no matter how improbable or mechanical it may feel dramatically... Beyond that, there are a few technical details -- why does she accompany the country pickers with a tamborine, or play maracas with the big band? And why do they say she's playing a cowbell with her big brother's rock combo, when the picture shows a handbell? I admit I'm nitpicking, but there you have it. Mostly, this is a nice, well-meaning book -- anything pro-music falls in the "plus" column for me -- but it isn't actually that fun or involving. It simply feels like a rote exercise in "making music fun!", albeit at the expense of a more artful presentation. Six of one, half dozen of the other. (C+)

"Sing, Sophie!"
Written by Gayle Anne Dodds
Illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger
(Candlewick, 1999)

Yee-haww...!!! Though sadly out of print, this cowgirl comedy is worth tracking down, as it has a lively text and provides plenty of opportunity for parents and caregivers to sing as badly as they want. Little Sophie Adams has a song inside her that's just got to come out -- too bad no one in her family wants to hear it! They keep shoo-ing her from place to place, telling her to stop her "caterwauling" and give them some peace and quiet. She dutifully moves along, muttering folksy oaths ("Oh, fiddle-faddle!") and coming up with ever-more silly verses. Good story, with nice, fun artwork... And, of course, Sophie is eventually vindicated: her family eventually comes around and find they really can't live without her songs after all, then Sophie gets to yodel all she wants. Cute. It's nice, too, that although this is a "country" book, the author avoids hillbilly stereotypes and always uses proper grammar. (Thank you, Ms. Dodds!) (A)

"Manuelo The Playing Mantis"
Written by Don Freeman
Illustrated by Don Freeman & Jody Wheeler
(Viking, 2004)

A lonely, sensitive praying mantis who likes to sit and listen to classical music in the bandstand of the local park tries to find an instrument that he can play. Manuelo makes several attempts -- he builds a harp and a flute, picks a flower and tries to use it as a horn, but everything he tries flops, at least until he finds a friend who can help him out. Once they make a cello, however, Manuelo finds his muse, and his beautiful music attracts all the other nighttime bugs and critters by the pond, who click and croak and sing along with him. A sweet celebration of music and creativity, and also a clever tale abou tthe power of persistence and perseverence. Apparently this comes from an unfinished manuscript that Freeman's son, Roy Freeman, saw to completion. Good thing, too -- it's a winner! (B+)

"Violet's Music"
Written by Angela Johnson
Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith
(Dial Books, 2004)

One of the finest books about young people developing their love of music... The heroine here is a girl named Violet, who discovers her musical inclinations while still in the nursery crib in the delivery ward. She spend her entire childhood trying to meet up with like-minded children, but never finds anyone with the same passion... That is, until one day in the park when she meets three other teenagers and forms a band with them. There are several nice touches to this book... The first is the general gist of the plot -- music, yay! I also liked some of the little touches, such as how the author gives equal importance to other interests: when she goes into kindergarten, Violet notes that different kids excel at different things -- some like painting, others read books, etc. I also like how the book never defines what kind of music Violet and her friends play, leaving it to readers to fill in the blans themselves. Nice artwork, too, full of vibrancy and good cheer. Highly recommended! (A-)

"Igor The Bird Who Couldn't Sing"
Written by Satoshi Kitamura
Illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005)

Meet Igor, a misfit blackbird who bursts out into song in the springtime (don't we all...?) but sounds so weird all the other birds make fun of him. He tries taking music lessons, but that's a flop, too, so Igor gets discouraged and throws in the towel... He even runs away, trying to find someplace to go where there's no pretty music playing to make him feel bad. Of course, Igor eventually finds his voice, as it were, or rather the inner self-confidence to sing the way he wants to, just because it makes him feel good, and he also finds a new friend who likes the way he sings, too. One of Satoshi Kitamura's less-weird books, with more of a standard-issue heroic journey narrative. We liked it! (B+)

"Froggy Plays In The Band"
Written by Jonathan London
Illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz
(Penguin/Viking, 2002)

Heck, Froggy doesn't just play in the band, he puts it together, and drills his pals for an upcoming marching band competition. At first they sound terrible, but they keep practicing and do pretty well the day of the contest, except for a mishap or two. Does Froggy do something embarrassing and turn red in the face? You betcha. But he also shows us the value of sticking with something difficult and surprising yourself at how much you can accomplish, if you just stick with it. An okay book to help reinforce an interest in music and the performing arts. (B-)

"Animal Orchestra"
Written by Ilo Orleans
Illustrated by Tibor Gergely
(Golden Books, 1958)

This one is a longtime favorite, one of those odd little books from a few decades ago. I bought it because it celebrates music, showing an entire orchestra populated with animals such as tuba-tooting elephants and trombone-wiggling monkeys... The text scans well (though I made a few minor adjustments over the course of multiple readings, and a few of the instruments are misidentified (most egregiously, a bagpipe is called a fife...) But for the most part, this is a book we love. The meter of the rhyme is lively and fun, it instills an interest in music and performing arts, and there are dozens of animals to point out and talk about, and the artwork is captivating as well. Recommended! (Please note our well-chewed board book copy...)

"Max Found Two Sticks"
Written by Brian Pinkney
Illustrated by Brian Pinkney
(Simon & Schuster, 1994)

A nice music-appreciation story about a young boy who loves to drum and makes everything he can into a percussion instrument -- paint buckets, trash cans, soda bottles, whatever. In the end, a drummer from a marching band tosses Max a couple of "real" drum sticks, and encourages his creativity and talent. Nice art, nice story; good if your kid is into drumming to begin with. Also nice to see kids in an urban, inner-city environment, just being kids. (A)

"Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop"
Written by Chris Raschka
Illustrated by Chris Raschka
(Scholastic Books, 1992)

Great book. Great, great, great book. The funny thing about this one -- for me, at least -- is that I do not, in fact, particularly like Charlie Parker's music. Too fast, too cerebral, not my kind of jazz. But this book! Well, now, that's a different story. This is a free-flowing, genuinely jazzy tone poem, with a meter that's built around Parker's version of "Night In Tunisia." You don't need that recording as a reference, though -- the rhythm and bounce leap off the page, accentuated by Raschka's wild, playful artwork and surrealistic text. I recommend reading it twice through -- you get to the end and start over again -- and improvising, just as if you were playing jazz yourself. Which -- surprise! -- you are! As far as I can tell, this is the best of Raschka's work... After we got heavily into the "Charlie Parker" book, I went on a brief kick where I also picked up all the Snaily Snail, Whaley Whale, Wormy Worm, etc. board books... and found them to be pretty dumb and entirely useless as children's book. Oh, well. This one's a gem, though. (A+)

"Punk Farm"
Written by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Illustrated by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
(Random House/Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)


"Punk Farm On Tour"
Written by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Illustrated by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
(Random House/Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

In this follow-up to 2005's Punk Farm, the rock'n'rollin' farm animals fix up an old van and hit the road, touring from town to town and bring down the house with an electrified update of "The Wheels On The Bus." They put on spiky leather bracelets, sunglasses and chains and "rock it" in front of wild crowds across the country (sea creatures at the beach, mountain goats in the Rockies, etc.) all the while racing against time, so that Farmer Joe, who went away on a business trip, doesn't know they've sneaked away. Not much of a plot, but this does capture some of the claustrophobia and interpersonal chafing that goes on between bandmembers on the road (especially when the lead guitarist, Pig, starts to get rock star attitude and won't help fix the van because he's worried he'll get his hands dirty...) This series seems aimed at the post-MTV, Generation Z set -- maybe kids from 6-10 years of age would enjoy it -- and tries to anchor itself in contemporary pop culture with already-passe slang such as "chill, homie" and "dude." Aside from instantly dating itself with yesterday's slang, the story is okay -- kinda dumb, but might be fun for all those little rockers out there. Rock, on, homies! (C+)

"The Happy Hedgehog Band"
Written by Martin Waddell
Illustrated by Jill Barton
(Candlewick, 1991)

One of Martin Waddell's lesser works, but still pretty nice. Four hedgehogs build drums and go boom-diddy-boom in the middle of the forest. When the rest of the animals hear them play and want to join in, the lead hedgehog comes up with a way for everybody to have fun. A simple celebration of sound, rhythm, and do-it-yourself musicmaking, this also encourages parents (and other readers) to go wild with the sound effects... Not immortal literature, but a fun book that may help get little kids jazzed about music.

"Animal Music"
Written by Harriet Ziefert
Illustrated by Donald Saaf
(Houghton Mifflin, 1999)

Actually this is sort of two books in one: the first half shows the members of Mr. Lion's Marching Band, and the second depicts Mr. Sheep's Dance Band... The artwork is superior to the writing, which I believe is meant to read like song lyrics, but is surprisingly clunky... I really had a hard time wrapping my mouth around the words -- the meter is wildly variable and the text doesn't always rhyme, but sometimes it does. I hate that. Still, it's a nice book that presents a variety of musical instruments and different contexts for music to be seen and heard. For a similar treatment (and one that I like better), you might also check out Ivo Orleans' Animal Orchestra, which is simpler and more tightly constructed. (B-)

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