Cover of The Music in George's Head shows George Gershwin seated at a pianoThe Music in George’s HeadGeorge Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue is an elegantly-structured story. The book has three main parts. First, we learn about the many types of music Gershwin listened to as a boy. For example, “He just couldn’t stop thinking about Melody in F, a classical tune he’d heard at the penny arcade.” He played ragtime on the piano, listened to classical pianists, “roller-skated to New York’s Harlem neighborhood to hear the smooth syncopated jazz rhythms in clubs,” listened to noise on the city streets, and sampled a wide variety of styles in his job playing piano to sell sheet music at a music store.

The second part of the book focuses on how Gershwin, as an adult, composed Rhapsody in Blue. We see him work hard–and unsuccessfully–to put the music on his head on paper. We see him keep trying to solve the problem as he goes on a train trip. And finally we see him write out what he had imagined. Rhapsody in Blue.

The final part of the book gives us a glimpse of the first public performance of Rhapsody in Blue. We see the audience start to get bored by the too-long numbers before Gershwin’s piece. But then “a clarinet fluttered softly, like butterfly wings” and Rhapsody in Blue begins. “People were surprised to hear new melodies mixed with classical, ragtime, jazz, and the blues.”

I loved the design of this book. The type flows in organic lines and different sizes emphasize important words. The artist’s palette is blue and black, with brown highlights. It’s a surprising choice but it works very well here with the sketchy, improvised look of the art.

Calkins Creek Publishing typically lavishes care on back matter. This book is no exception. The author’s note gives fascinating details that had to be left out of the main text and talks about Gershwin’s legacy in American culture.

Ideally, you’ll want to listen to Rhapsody in Blue while you read this book, but if you can’t do that, the text may make you hear it in your mind anyway.

The Music in George’s HeadGeorge Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Stacy Innerst. Calkins Creek: 2016.

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