Every young musician deserves to know more about the fascinating talents who came before them, and today’s publishers offer a rich variety of musical biographies designed to captivate and inspire children.
Read on to learn how the recent spate of musician biographies are standing out.
Getting to know great talent in a whole new way
The Who Was/Who Is series of junior biographies makes learning fun with clear, easy-to-read text and illustrations bursting with pizzazz. This series, published by Penguin Workshop, has quickly achieved cult status among elementary-age readers, as well as teachers, librarians, and parents.
While many of the biographies in the series cover presidents, scientists, and explorers, many others focus on noted singers, composers, and instrumentalists.
For example, young readers can explore the life of Aretha Franklin, a gospel singer born in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, who used her talent to go on to become the one and only Queen of Soul. Franklin exerts a cultural and artistic influence that continues to transcend her death in 2018.
Most of the biographies of musicians in this series cover talent from the second half of the 20th century and beyond. Bob Marley, Dolly Parton, Selena, Pete Seeger, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles are only a few of the figures in popular music whose biographies join Franklin’s.
But the series additionally explores a bit of the more-distant musical past with a book on the phenomenal jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who rose to fame in the 1920s. It also transports readers to the world of classical music through its biography of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Each of these titles gives a wide-ranging overview of its subject’s life and work, providing all the basic information a student would need for a beginning report.
An added element of fun in this series comes from the eye-popping cover art—each book’s subject is depicted in caricature with an oversized head set against a colorful, action-packed background. So immediately recognizable are these covers that the books are affectionately known as the “Big Head” biographies.
Learning about composers can be fun
The Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers series, published through Scholastic’s Children’s Press imprint, offers light-hearted but informative looks at some of the great Baroque, classical, and contemporary masters.
Written for the grade-school market, this series combines primary source reproductions of historical documents with engaging, color-packed cartoons. The mix of humor with report-ready information and stirring anecdotes about the composers’ lives makes the entire series a winner.
Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington are only some of the composers represented in this series, each with their own 40-page biography.
Turbulent times unite a young pianist and a president
Books on individual musicians can fascinate both children and adults, as evident by the recent spate of creatively designed, richly illustrated biographies. Many focus on the highly talented black, brown, and female composers, singers, and musicians that were previously neglected by history and who are now receiving much-deserved attention as our understanding of their contributions fills in the gaps in humanity’s diverse musical heritage.
In Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln (Atheneum, 2019), renowned author Margarita Engle teams up with award-winning illustrator Rafael López to present the true story—in lilting free verse and fanciful washes of color—of a child prodigy on piano who became a young composer and a popular performer in her native Venezuela. In 1862 revolution forced her parents to escape with 8-year-old Teresa to the United States, where very few people spoke her language. And this new homeland was fighting its own divisive war.
But Teresa’s love of music sustained her. In the US, people called her “Piano Girl,” and she became famous for her ability to interpret any genre of music. When she was only 10 years old, Teresa received President Abraham Lincoln’s invitation to play at the White House.
The book itself, according to Kirkus Reviews, offers a “concerto for the heart,” as Teresa tries to lighten the burdens of the wartime president through her art.
A sweet voice too soon silenced
In Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills (Random House, 2012), the acclaimed author-illustrator duo of Renée Watson and Christian Robinson bring the story of one of the world’s greatest singers to life.
Florence Mills was the daughter of former slaves. Born just before the turn of the 20th century, she first graced the stage at age 5 and became a celebrated performer in Harlem nightclubs and on Broadway. Known for her sweet, soft voice, she captivated audiences until her untimely death at 31.
In 1926 Florence won a lead role in Blackbirds, a musical that would take her on an international tour and provide her signature tune (“I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird”) and her nickname.
But Florence also experienced the deep racism endemic to the era. During her short life, she fought for the rights and creative freedoms of African-American performers, and generally supported the cause of civil rights. So beloved was she that, after her death from an infection following surgery, tens of thousands of mourners filled the streets of New York City outside the church where her funeral took place.
The book offers a moving and gorgeously illustrated account of how this multi-talented performer pursued her dreams, thrived despite injustice, and touched the lives of millions.
A modern-day personification of New Orleans’ exuberance
“Trombone Shorty” needs no introduction to many contemporary music lovers. A New Orleans-born trombone player, bandleader, singer-songwriter, and New Orleans Jazz Fest headliner, 34-year-old Troy Andrews became a maestro of the horn as a young child. His skills are so renowned that a popular club in his Tremé neighborhood was named Trombone Shorts in his honor when he was just 8.
Andrews picked up his nickname early, when he was still only half the size of his instrument. His nickname serves as the title of his picture book autobiography, illustrated by award-winner Bryan Collier and published in 2015 by Harry N. Abrams.
Andrews’ book welcomes readers with “Where y’at?” in true New Orleans fashion. He details his early life as a budding African-American musician in a family of musicians, as well as how he grew up making and playing his own instruments out of items from junk heaps until he started patiently learning how to play a dilapidated old trombone he found one day.
Andrews’ true story, coupled with Collier’s dynamic pictures that embody the rhythms of New Orleans jazz, will provide plenty of inspiration to children and grown-ups alike.