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Shake, Rattle, and Role Models

How Children’s Books Transmit Music History

December 15, 2013  |  10:22pm
Shake, Rattle, and Role Models
Holly George-Warren’s Shake, Rattle & Roll: The Founders of Rock & Roll (2001) and its follow-up, Honky-Tonk Heroes and Hillbilly Angels: The Pioneers of Country & Western Music (2006), were aimed at younger readers and focused on a seemingly more innocent era, but both she and illustrator Laura Levine were also determined to expand the canon for kids. “I wanted to throw a few curveballs,” says George-Warren, “like including Wanda Jackson. Eight years later, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For Honky-Tonk Heroes, the idea itself is a curveball because that’s going back to before rock and roll. Kids now don’t know about things before 1997.” For both books, she looked for interesting facts about the artists’ childhoods. For instance, young George Jones used to carry his guitar with him everywhere, hiding it in the woods before he went into school. The text is well matched by Levine’s folk-art portraits, which are decked out in artfully distressed wooden frames.

The tragedy-laced adult years of many pop and rock stars may be another reason why, when they do take up these subjects, children’s-book authors often confine themselves to the early days of their lives. Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, Gary Golio’s 2010 picture book, follows Jimi Hendrix’s youthful progression from a one-string ukulele to an old wooden guitar to the electric guitar’s “colors of sounds.” Only the book’s back matter tells of Hendrix’s performance style, recording history, and death at age 27, with some additional information on drug addiction. Quincy Troupe wrote Little Stevie Wonder (2005) in a lyrical style, featuring the refrain “Isn’t he lovely?” Factual particulars are left to a biographical note at the end of the book.

Not every biographical picture book details hardships overcome; sometimes it’s just about pursuing a different path. Gary Golio zeroed in on Bob Dylan’s preteen and teenage years in When Bob Met Woody (2011), which culminates in his efforts at the age of 19 to meet and perform for Woody Guthrie, who was suffering from Huntington’s disease in a New Jersey hospital.

whenthebeat360.jpgThis past August, forty years after what many say was the start of hip hop, the first picture book about a hip hop pioneer was published. When the Beat Was Born, deftly written by Laban Carrick Hill and vividly illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, describes how Clive Campbell from Kingston, Jamaica became DJ Kool Herc of the Bronx. A longtime hip hop fan, Hill had been thinking about Kool Herc and “wanted to represent the energy and the freshness of hip hop in its early days.” He also wanted to represent the then-emerging art of break-dancing and to tell the story of Herc’s sister’s famous party in their housing project’s rec room on Sedgwick Avenue. Hill loves how Taylor illustrated his text: “It’s completely faithful but not a literal depiction, which is so much more interesting and so much more fun. It took the talent of Theodore to bring this book to life.”

Among the authors cited above, there are several intriguing pop-music children’s books in the works. Quincy Troupe has written a picture book about Ray Charles, with Brian Pinkney signed on as illustrator, called Hallelujah! Troupe would be happy to do another one about Chuck Berry, since he grew up down the street from him and remembers him fondly: “I was a high school basketball star. Like many athletes, I had a very nice-looking girlfriend. But everyone knew Chuck Berry’s reputation – he liked young women – so whenever he came by, I’d grab my girl and go.”

Laban Hill is in the middle of writing a picture book about Quincy Jones to be illustrated by Bryan Collier, with whom he created the exceptional Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave (Collier also painted the inspired illustrations in Doreen Rappaport’s large-scale Lennon picture book.) The Quincy Jones narrative will go up to the age of 18. Why not explore Jones’ mega-multi-faceted career? “You have to focus on what story you can tell in so few words,” Hill says. “You have to narrow it down. It’s also about what a kid is interested in, not what they should know.”

After reading some of these books and listening to many more songs, kids may well be interested in making music of their own. Suzzy Roche’s Want to Be in a Band? answers with a sweet and inspiring version of her own story as the youngest of The Roches. Giselle Potter’s illustrations nicely convey the can-do spirit of all sorts of musical pioneers.

We need more such books that point to and summon up the skill and artistry of the great popular entertainers of our past. We don’t have to admire everything they did to love their best music, movies, TV shows and comic books. And while we’re not expecting to see Little Miss Winehouse or When Bob Dylan Met the Beatles (And Introduced Them to Pot) anytime soon, we do have to remember that kids already know all about wild things.

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BLUFFTON. Copyright © 2013 by Matt Phelan. Reproduced by permission
of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

What about film? As far as film books for kids go, there are plenty of movie tie-ins but not much movie history. The exceptions include Don Brown’s charming picture book Mack Made Movies, which follows Mack Sennett from vaudeville to slapstick-driven cinema; Sir Charlie, Sid Fleischman’s biography of Charlie Chaplin; a gorgeously illustrated picture book about Fred and Adele Astaire called Footwork; and Reel Culture, an introduction for teens to the 20th-century’s most influential films. Compared to the outpouring of books about the last century’s musicians and visual artists, movie makers of the past lag behind. Great directors, actors and actresses seem to take a back seat to the films they make, their own life stories fading behind their various fictional counterparts.

Whatever the cause, this year did witness the publication of a second excellent children’s book about Buster Keaton—a clown for all ages and eras. Like Catherine Brighton’s 2008 picture book Keep Your Eye on the Kid!, Matt Phelan’s graphic novel Bluffton developed out of a deep appreciation for the art and humor of Keaton’s movies. Both books attend to the entertaining tall tales Keaton told of his childhood (like the one about him getting carried away as a toddler by a tornado), but also create distinctive, extremely appealing depictions of Keaton’s era, his amazing physicality and his priceless facial expressions.

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