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Find more Classroom Connections
As schools implement STEM programs and move into hands-on activities and makerspaces, many are discovering a natural alignment with another area of instruction: the arts. Integrating units on topics ranging from architecture to fashion design to photography seems like a natural fit, prompting some programs to morph into a STEAM approach—science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math.
This article provides a list of books on another area of the arts that naturally overlaps: music. Several engaging picture-book biographies and autobiographies of music makers from a wide variety of backgrounds have been published in recent years, and they align perfectly with ELA Common Core Reading Standard 10, which defines expectations for range, quality, and complexity of text types. Biographies and autobiographies are encouraged for informational reading selections for every grade level, kindergarten through grade 5 (www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/standard-10-range-quality-complexity/range-of-text-types-for-k-5/).
Librarians and educators should steer young readers toward these biographies of music makers. They may find a few that are a bit unexpected or unconventional—just like the creative artists who inspired them. Not only are these biographies a fun introduction into STEAM topics but the musicians profiled here represent a variety of cultures and races. For many, music and culture go hand in hand, and the list below, organized by type of music, seeks to acknowledge that relationship and highlight a diverse list of musicians and composers.
The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy Is Enlightening. By Chris Raschka. Illus. by the author. 2014. Candlewick, $15.99 (9780763658069). Gr. 1–3.
The sci-fi biographical details of Sun Ra (born Herman P. Blount) may be more accessible to kids than his music. A self-professed native of Saturn, and an early adopter of musical electronics, his life story is a trip. As a biography, this can be a bit clouded, but as an experience, it definitely swings.
Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist. By Susan Wood. Illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh. 2016. Charlesbridge, $17.95 (9781580896733). K–Gr. 3.
Mexican Juan García Esquivel created out-of-this-world sounds. He taught himself to play the piano, and soon he was conducting orchestras and composing music. Esquivel is revered for his innovative sounds, which transport listeners to other worlds. Sibert Award winner Tonatiuh draws in his well-known style, inspired by the Mixtec codex, where characters are represented in profile.
Odetta: The Queen of Folk. By Stephen Alcorn and Samantha Thornhill. Illus. by Stephen Alcorn. 2010. Scholastic, o.p. Gr. 2–4.
Folk pioneer Odetta’s musical inspirations—backbreaking-work spirituals and chain-gang rhythms—are themes of civil inequality that inform her music. Soulful and uplifting, this tribute introduces an important social activist (often referred to as “the Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”) who opened the eyes and delighted the ears of countless folk singers and music lovers, but will likely be a fresh subject for children.
Talkin’ Guitar: A Story of Young Doc Watson. By Robbin Gourley. Illus. by the author. 2015. Clarion, $16.99 (9780544129887). PreS–Gr. 3.
Arthel Watson, who was blind, had “a heart full of melody and a head full of song.” The text emphasizes how sounds from the boy’s Appalachian childhood inspired him. Lovely watercolor illustrations show the boy listening to his world, framed by mountains and everyday farm life. A lovely tribute to esteemed folk guitarist and singer Doc Watson.
Jay-Z: Hip-Hop Icon. By Jessica Gunderson. Illus. by Pat Kinsella. 2012. Capstone, $29.99 (9781429660174). Gr. 4–7.
This insider-feel offering from the American Graphic series spends little time onstage or amid crowds. Gunderson sets scenes in offices and living rooms as Jay-Z makes deals, founds business ventures, and boycotts the Grammys. Kinsella’s likeness of Jay-Z is strong. (Beyoncé, not so much.) The title hits important historical points, setting up reluctant researchers for further inquiry.
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop. By Laban Carrick Hill. Illus. by Theodore Taylor. 2013. Roaring Brook, $17.99 (9781596435407). Gr. 2–4.
Long before the 1980s, Jamaican-born, Bronx-raised Clive Campbell took up the name Kool Herc and created the innovative techniques behind being a hip-hop DJ. Hip-hop wouldn’t exist without his early flashes of inspiration. Hill highlights the positive social force of hip-hop and the boundless energy of musical joy. It’s all matched by Taylor’s freewheeling artwork. A treat from an underrepresented corner of music history.
Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-and-White Jazz Band in History. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illus. by James E. Ransome. 2014. Holiday, $16.95 (9780823423620). Gr. 2–4.
Benny Goodman played the clarinet; Teddy Wilson was a piano player. Initially, the duo jammed and cut records but never played together onstage: “Audiences weren’t ready for a black-and-white band.” Popular demand finally wore Goodman down. This introduces an important event in a snappy text that swings. James Ransome’s line-and-watercolor pictures flow with movement and color.
Bird and Diz. By Gary Golio. Illus. by Ed Young. 2015. Candlewick, $19.99 (9780763666606). K–Gr. 3.
This is a stirring tribute to celebrated musicians Charlie “Bird” Parker and John “Dizzy” Gillespie, masters of the uniquely American music called bebop. Beautifully designed, with accordion-fold pages that open into lavish double-page spreads with a magnetic closure, the book resembles a keepsake album that, when opened, conjures up musical history.
How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz. By Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Keith Mallett. 2015. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $17.99 (9781596439634). K–Gr. 3.
Lyrical language and simple text conveys the essence of jazz great Jelly Roll Morton. Winter emphasizes Morton’s early years and his musical significance, and Mallett’s expressive illustrations are well suited to the melodic text. The “Voodoo spell / of Jelly Roll magic” soars from the page and will enchant modern readers.
Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illus. by James E. Ransome. 2016. Holiday, $16.95 (9780823434282). Gr. 1–4.
Louis Armstrong, “just a lucky so and so,” lived a life full of optimism, persistence, and resourcefulness. This narrative is dense with biographical details about his rise to fame, plus quotes from Satchmo himself. Bold watercolor illustrations infused with light and movement add the perfect complement to this sweet tale of one of America’s musical treasures.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone. By Katheryn Russell-Brown. Illus. by Frank Morrison. 2014. Lee & Low, $18.95 (9781600608988). Gr. 1–3.
Melba Liston grew up during the Depression in a family home where “notes stirred and rhythms bubbled.” A trombone phenom, Melba wrote tunes, guest-starred on radio shows, and toured the world, with her career and accolades continuing into the 1990s. The oil-paint illustrations are the cat’s pajamas, with brassy colors and jazzy perspectives that slide across the long pages.
The Little Piano Girl. By Ann Ingalls and others. Illus. by Giselle Potter. 2010. HMH, o.p. K–Gr. 3.
This fictionalized biography uses lyrical, rhythmic words and stylized gouache paintings to introduce jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. The swirling images successfully convey her piano-playing style. There is little about Williams’ adult struggles, but a final climactic scene shows the star playing for a dancing crowd. An afterword closes this title about a rare figure in children’s books.
Oscar Lives Next Door: A Story Inspired by Oscar Peterson’s Childhood. By Bonnie Farmer. Illus. by Marie Lafrance. 2015. Owlkids, $16.95 (9781771471046). K–Gr. 3.
Through this fictionalized account of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s life, author Farmer offers a bit of jazz history and a peek into the Montreal neighborhood where both she and Peterson grew up, albeit several decades apart. The digital illustrations have a pleasingly old-fashioned look that pairs delightfully with the 1930s setting, allowing both the neighborhood and the characters to shine.
Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey. By Gary Golio. Illus. by Rudy Gutierrez. 2012. Clarion, $17.99 (9780547239941). Gr. 4–7.
This is an account of John Coltrane’s evolution as a musician. Gutierrez uses acrylic paintings and mixed media to layer bright, vibrant colors across swirling, flowing lines that effectively mirror Coltrane’s legendary “sheets of sound.” Wisely, Golio lets the pictures carry the melody, while his text supplies the backbeat.
Trombone Shorty. By Troy Andrews. Illus. by Bryan Collier. 2015. Abrams, $17.95 (9781419714658). Gr. 3–5.
In this picture-book autobiography, Andrews pays tribute to the New Orleans neighborhood of Tremé and the culture and community that helped turn him into a Grammy Award–nominated musician. Collier’s perfectly aligned illustrations offer sharp panels of color and image, perspective that dips and soars, and layers of mixed-media collage that evoke brass-band music itself.
Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay. By Susan Hood. Illus. by Sally Wern Comport. 2016. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (9781481430951). Gr. 1–3.
In Paraguay’s village of Cateura, one of the poorest areas of South America, Ada joined Favio Chavez’s children’s orchestra, an enterprising group that painstakingly created drums and violins out of landfill refuse. Their fame grew, leading to life-changing opportunities for these poorest of the poor. Mixed-media collages effectively layer images of the orchestra over the landfill and the families that live there. The innovative maker approach and message of perseverance are inspiring.
Drummer Boy of John John. By Mark Greenwood. Illus. by Frane Lessac. 2012. Lee & Low, $18.95 (9781600606526). PreS–Gr. 3.
As a child, Winston “Spree” Simon, a pioneer of the steel drum, created his Calypso beat by banging on recycled junkyard scraps. In this fictionalized account, he and friends form a ragtag crew and join the Carnival parade, where they’re crowned “Best Band.” Lessac’s dynamic gouache-and-collage artwork complements the vibrant text. A final note fills in biographical details.
Hey, Charleston! The True Story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band. By Anne Rockwell. Illus. by Colin Bootman. 2013. Carolrhoda, $16.95 (9780761355656). Gr. 1–4.
This little-known story tells how Charleston, South Carolina, orphans gave America “rag” music. Salvaging old Civil War marching-band musical instruments, the kids (many of Geechee or Gullah descent) played a style of music called rag. Their band soon graduated from playing on street corners to achieving international success. A fascinating piece of history, complemented by Bootman’s hazy full-bleed paintings.
Tito Puente: Mambo King / Rey del mambo. By Monica Brown. Illus. by Rafael López. 2013. Rayo, $17.99 (9780061227837). K–Gr. 3.
Tito’s bilingual biography celebrates this vibrant Latino figure. As a baby, Puente made music with pots and pans, eventually becoming a musician and beloved bandleader. Award-winning illustrator López brings Tito’s journey to life through vibrant acrylic salsa reds and oranges splashed behind every shake of Tito’s hips and wink of his eyes.
The Beatles. By Brita Granström and Mick Manning. Illus. by Mick Manning. 2014. Frances Lincoln, $18.99 (9781847804518). Gr. 4–6.
This slim, cheeky book is a delightful introduction to the Beatles, and the fresh, lively art will attract kids. Spreads are dominated by cartoon-style drawings, with information appearing in illustrated sidebars. Much of the emphasis is on how songs came to be. A bouncy way to meet the Beatles.
The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny). By Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer. Illus. by Stacy Innerst. 2013. HMH, $16.99 (9780547509914). Gr. 2–4.
Yet another book on the Beatles? Here’s a fresh angle: a picture book focusing on the Fab Four’s humor. Innerst’s acrylic-and-ink illustrations do a fine job, turning the mop tops into droll bobble heads. Kids new to the Beatles might wonder what’s all the ado, but put on an LP, and they’ll start bouncing to the beat.
Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King. By Bonnie Christensen. Illus. by the author. 2015. Holt, $17.99 (9780805094473). Gr. 1–3.
The early life of Elvis Presley is presented in lyrical yet sometimes sharp-edged prose. Christensen does a particularly good job of explaining crossover music. The vertical two-page spread of Elvis rocking out will grab kids, though some of the art—simple collage overlaid with oils—has a sketchier look.
Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar. By Keith Richards and others. Illus. by Theodora Richards. 2014. Little, Brown, $18 (9780316320658). K–Grade 3.
Rolling Stones axe man Richards pairs with daughter Theodora to recount the moment he fell in love with guitars, thanks to his grandfather Gus. With its fine-lined doodles atop large washes, the pastel illustrations have a whimsical, sophisticated quality. This rocks—though the effect is more like being rocked in a grandparent’s arms.
Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. By G. Neri. Illus. by A. G. Ford. 2014. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763662455). Gr. 3–6.
This portrait of the Man in Black emphasizes his hardscrabble beginnings and lifelong love of music. Free-verse lines straightforwardly describe pivotal moments in Cash’s life. Working in perfect concert are Ford’s soulful oil paintings. Every spread is titled with the name of a Cash recording that effectively catches the mood, evoking meaningful musical complements.
Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story. By Sebastian Robertson. Illus. by Adam Gustavson. 2014. Holt, $17.99 (9780805094732). Gr. 1–4.
This insightful bio of rocker Robbie Robertson, a contemporary of Bob Dylan and member of the Band, hits all the right notes. Penned by his son, the text occasionally “bends the strings” to work in bits of fascinating detail or esoterica. Gustavson’s realistic watercolors create a perfect earthy, gritty feel.
When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan. By Gary Golio. Illus. by Marc Burckhardt. 2011. Little, Brown, $17.99 (9780316112994). Gr. 3–5.
Growing up in Minnesota, Dylan listened to Muddy Waters and Hank Williams on the radio, but no one spoke to him like folksinger Woody Guthrie. As Guthrie lay sick in a New York hospital, Dylan hitched a ride to see his hero. Burckhardt’s acrylics have a fractured look, full of emotion. A stirring introduction to two music legends.
Kathleen McBroom recently retired from a 40-year career that spanned public, academic, and school library assignments. She currently works as a consultant.
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