Shake, Rattle, and Role Models

How Children’s Books Transmit Music History

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Children were once fed a diet of books about explorers, founding fathers, inventors, and other worthies. High culture was explained, achievements were recounted, and young minds were elevated. But over the last two decades, kids’ nonfiction has often dipped into realms less lofty. This year’s best pop-culture books aimed at children engage a heartening variety of subjects, ranging from a celebration of pop-music’s path-breakers to a quirky guide to starting your own band. There’s a tribute to the Beatles’ witty way of surviving Beatlemania and what may be the first picture book about a hip-hop icon. All of them are ingeniously illustrated and, like similar pop-history books before them, each one entailed decisions about what children should be exposed to and how.

Put together by Robbie Robertson (known for his work as the lead guitarist in The Band), his son Sebastian, and two music-biz colleagues, Legends, Icons, and Rebels: Music That Changed the World opens with a bang—a vibrant painting of Chuck Berry, looking spiffy as he duckwalks across a giant vinyl record. The text offers a convincing case for declaring Berry “The Father of Rock and Roll,” and one of the two accompanying CDs features a pristine version of “Johnny B. Goode.” Young listeners can scrutinize the opening guitar riff, well described here as “the clarion call” of rock and roll.

Legends goes on to present a cross-section of 20th-century popular music, from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell. “I didn’t know how to leave out Hank Williams,” says the elder Robertson, citing one example. “When I was very young, I thought boogie-woogie was really good. But when I heard Hank Williams sing ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’ I understood for the first time the exquisite beauty of a sad song. There are threads in today’s music that lead back to all of these artists. These artists cross all boundaries and categories.”

Born out of Sebastian Robertson’s work with children (he saw how responsive kids were when he’d slip in a Johnny Cash or James Brown song amid the “kiddie music”) and his father’s own remarkable musical experiences, this project looks like an easy sell. But Robertson says no: “It seemed like something like this was long overdue. But we talked to different publishing companies who didn’t feel like it was overdue at all. They said things like, ‘Kids like monsters and snowmen.’” Fortunately, Robertson and company found a publisher who packaged it properly, assembling the CDs and commissioning stellar art to go with the fun facts, valuable information, and the elder Robertson’s insider anecdotes.


© Tundra Books, from LEGENDS, ICONS AND REBELS:

The book includes only two bands—the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Might there be a sequel? “I would love that. Originally, we had 28 artists, not 27. I took The Band out because I didn’t want to toot my own horn. If this book does what it should do, we could do volume two.” Robertson seems eager to add artists like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters and, yes, The Band.

Although the Beatles appear to be a natural draw for children, appealing to every new generation with their infectious early songs, there have been few good Beatles books for kids. Husband-and-wife team Paul Brewer and Kathleen Krull had just finished a manuscript about Abraham Lincoln’s sense of humor when they started looking for their next topic. “We remembered how funny the Beatles were,” says Krull, and The Beatles Were Fab (And They Were Funny) was soon sold. Like the amusing and informative text, the book’s illustrations are very entertaining. Stacy Innerst’s acrylic-and-ink images seem to take off from those Beatles cartoons that used to run on TV—affectionate caricatures that dip into surrealism. The Beatles’ early career is pictured as a roller-coaster ride taken on the curves of an oversized guitar case.

Brewer combed through all of the Beatles’ interviews, “finding the lines and the clips that were still funny and that kids could understand without too much explanation.” They had to be careful, however, to avoid inappropriate topics (John Lennon had a tendency to “poke fun” at disabled people). Brewer and Krull don’t foresee writing picture books about other famous musicians in the future, explaining that the Rolling Stones weren’t very funny and Frank Zappa was “too outrageous” for a children’s book.

Older kids welcome various degrees of outrageousness, and writers and publishers have responded with some in-depth, rather scholarly examinations of rock icons. Two recent examples stand out: Elizabeth Partridge’s John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth (2005) and Ann Angel’s Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing (2010).

Partridge delves into Lennon’s Liverpool roots and his creative output, following him in and out of the Beatles years to his shocking murder at the age of 40. She presents Lennon’s talents, faults and foibles evenhandedly. “I didn’t leave out anything that I could verify was true,” says Partridge. “I thought those gritty parts of his personality were really important. For example, he got hooked on heroin. I was fascinated that he was able to kick it, though it was an intense and difficult thing to do. That’s so important for kids and young adults to see the struggle he went through.”

Lennon’s language may have cut into the book’s sales. “He used the F-word a lot in his speech,” Partridge says. “I never used it in the text I wrote, but to quote John is to use the F-word. It’s impossible not to. I suspect that led to the book not being bought by a number of librarians, due to their concerns about their patrons complaining. A pity really, as young adults are certainly very familiar with a number of delightful swear words!”

Angel’s book similarly explores the uneasy existence of Janis Joplin. Angel doesn’t shy away from Joplin’s bouts of unhappiness in high school and beyond, her drinking and drug use, or her unsettled love life. But bolstered by an abundance of memorable photographs, the book also engages in recognizing Joplin’s great musical gifts and groundbreaking public persona. As the Village Voice’s Howard Smith noted in February 1968, “the plumage and the punch” of rock had solely come from men for years. “Now, with Janis, all that is over.”

Both Joplin and Lennon were featured in Kathleen Krull’s thoughtful 2003 compendium, The Book of Rock Stars: 24 Musical Icons That Shine Through History. As with Legends, it was no doubt difficult to exclude certain artists, but Krull’s final lineup contains both range and balance, including Elvis Presley, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, Chrissie Hynde and Kurt Cobain. Although the book’s art (block-print portraits by Stephen Alcorn) and text were compelling, it didn’t sell well and is now out of print. “This business is so unpredictable,” Krull says. She believes parents and librarians may have balked at exposing children to “inappropriate” behavior. “Many of these subjects are not role models as far as their lives go,” says Krull. “There’s so much emphasis now on heroes and values education.”

Hit the page jump to learn: how children’s books address drug addictions, which hip-hip icon made it into a picture book, and what books to read if your kid prefers movies to music.

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