Cover of Becoming Bach shows a young Bach holding a batonNonfiction can’t be in first person unless it’s an autobiography. But historical fiction can use a first person speaker. In Becoming Bach Tom Leonard uses a first person speaker–Bach himself!–to explore the emotional roots of the world’s most beloved music. The events depicted in the story are all historically accurate, but Leonard uses his imagination to explore what Bach’s emotional reactions to those events might have been.

I’ve always thought of Bach’s music as being logical and carefully ordered–the Baroque rule-keeping as comapred to the Romantic era’s emotional abandon. So for me it was a paradigm shift to think of the music of Bach as being intensely personal and evocative. But this book convinced me that I’ve been missing an important layer in his work.

The art in the book shows musical notes moving and shifting, turning into vivid colors, floating and twisting in the air, and creating entire castles. It’s one of my favorite-ever picture book depictions of art. The afterword lets you in on the secret that one of the people painted in the book is actually the author/illustrator!

Two spreads are oriented vertically instead of horizontally, so that you have to turn the book to read it. The turns are used strategically at key emotional moments in the book. It would be fun to ask a class why they think the artist makes you turn the book at those specific points.

Open this book and enjoy the art of music!

Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard. Neal Porter Books: 2017.

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I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

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.

Children around a globe.



I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challene every week at KidLit Frenzy.

Cover of "Ada's Violin" showing an orchestra standing on a trash heap. Close up of a girl playing a violin made of old metal cans.“Ada Rios grew up in a town made of trash.”

This story tells what happened just a few years ago when an amateur musician offered to teach the children of Paraguayan trash-pickers how to play instruments. He had some guitars and violins, but not enough for Ada and all the interested children.

The parents, who spent their days combing through the landfill for items they could recycle for cash, started making instruments for their children.

They transformed oil drums into cellos, water pipes into flutes, and packing crates into guitars…a violin made from an old paint can, an aluminum baking tray, a fork, and pieces of wooden crates.

And with those homemade instruments, their children began to perform, eventually touring the world and playing with international stars, like the group Metallica.

The narrative voice in this book is straightforward, but the precise and vivid details make the story leap to life. The art–like the instruments!–is assembled. They are collages of paint, acrylic glaze, and digital elements.

I was fascinated by the story and happy to find a hefty back matter, including a photo of the children holding their homemade instruments and links to websites about their activities, including this wonderful trailer to a movie about the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay.

So far, this is among my favorite nonfiction picture books of the year, and I would think there would be lots of curriculum connections with its focus on music and recycling, but I haven’t seen much buzz about it. I’m interested in what others have to say about it!

Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay. by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport. Simon & Schuster: 2016.

Children around a globe.


I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, sponsored by Kid Lit Frenzy.

Cover of book showing the Beatles performing togetherThis visually lovely biography looks at each Beatle individually. The first–and longest–chapter shows John Lennon’s troubled growing-up years. In other chapters we see Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr before they joined the band. Susanna Reich focuses on the boys’ inner lives–what drew them to music and why they were looking for a group to make music with.

Reich has woven wonderful quotations throughout the book. For example, Lennon’s aunt, whom he lived with, told him, “The guitar’s all right for a hobby, John, but you’ll never make a living at it.” And Richard Starkey, before he became Ringo Starr, told his family, “Drums are my life.”

Biographers always face the difficult question of how to frame the story they’re telling. This is a particularly difficult problem for a group like the Beatles with such a dramatic and famous trajectory. Reich chooses to end this biography with the formation of the Beatles, as we know it, and their triumphant year of touring in the United Kingdom. It’s a great craft choice, since the stories she has told are all about why and how these musicians looked for each other. Ending here, with a successful musical band, gives a satisfying close to the narrative arc.

In her author’s note, Reich tells about how she got interested in the subject and talks about the difficulty she faced in compressing so much material into a picture book format.

Adam Gustavson’s illustrations add a wonderful layer to the story. He’s a great portraitist. The Macmillan website is highlighting 8 of his paintings from the book. Younger readers will love the pictures, but the text is definitely written to older kids.

Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the BEATLES by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson. (Henry Holt: 2015)


elvisThe language in this picture book biography of Elvis Presley echoes the sound of his music–it’s colloquial, fresh, and not above leaving out a few nouns and verbs here and there. But the meaning still makes it through just fine:

“Shy, shaky Elvis sang his ballad about a dog. Didn’t even have a guitar, just sang straight through with feeling.”

We see Elvis’ early immersion in many different kinds of music and the hardscrabble life he had growing up. We see his frustration with trying to find the right sound until, in a moment of nervy excitement, he hits on it. The moment of breakthrough is signaled in the book by a spread that forces you to turn the book vertically, seeing everything from a new perspective.

The book is an ode to Elvis The timeline in the back matter mentions his “medical and emotional problems,” but the text of the book focuses on his brilliant successes.

Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King by Bonnie Christensen. Christy Ottaviano Books: 2015.

TromboneThis brassy, bold autobiography is a book about New Orleans, about music, and about Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty. The beginning spreads show how music was part of Andrews’ everyday life at home and on the streets of New Orleans. The next spreads show the author trying to make music–at first without even an instrument in hand, “We were making music, and that’s all that mattered”–we see him getting a chance as a tiny child to play with jazz great Bo Didley, and finally, we see him forming his own band. Andrews organizes his story around the repeated refrain of “Where y’at?”

The book is an exuberant tribute to the power of music to enthrall. It will set your toes tapping and send you out to listen to a Trombone Shorty CD.

Trombone Shorty, by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Abrams: 2015.