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Book Reviews: Celebrating the Arts

by CL/R SIG
July 14, 2014

A meaningful appreciation and study of the arts begins with exploration and immersion. Drama, music, art, dance, and creative expression enrich and advance innovative and curricular practices in schools and society. As the arts continue to play a critical role in supporting literacy development, the members of the Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) provide both nonfiction and narrative selections to integrate within the classroom. Each selection can be integrated within a theme and paired with other visual, print, and digital texts to foster a deeper appreciation for the arts and to explore multiple perspectives.

Grade K-3 readers

Ajmera, Maya, Derstine, Elise Hofer, & Pon, Cynthia. (2014). Music Everywhere. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

In the latest Global Fund for Children publication, contributors Maya Ajmera, Elise Hofer Derstine, and Cynthia Pon, provide young readers with an informative photo essay celebrating music around the world. The photographs range from a group of Indonesian boys playing the reyong to a group of Japanese children singing their own song. Within the pages, there are beautifully produced photographs with detailed captions. The brief text demonstrates the inclusiveness and universality of music around the world. The back matter includes a world map and instructions for creating homemade instruments. In addition, there is a glossary and invitations for readers to enjoy music in their own community. This book will spark creativity and curiosity about music and culture around the world. Some classroom connections might include making individual instruments, such as maracas, finding the different countries on an interactive map, and listening to music from around the world.

—Mary Napoli, Penn State Harrisburg

Lachenmeyer, Nathaniel. (2014). Scarlatti’s Cat. Illus. by Carlyn Beccia. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books.

In this historically inspired picture book, readers will learn the tale (no pun intended) about a clever cat named Pulcinella and his owner, the famous 18th century Italian composer, Domenico Scarlatti. Told mostly from Pulcinella’s point of view, the story unfolds with her desire to compose and play beautiful music on the harpsichord. When an unexpected visitor appears in the house Pulcinella instinctively chases the mouse around the room and on top of the harpsichord. Once she lands on the keys, her dream of playing a melody comes to fruition. Amazed, Scarlatti quickly records the notes on his quill and soon after names the one-movement harpsichord sonata Cat’s Fugue (La Fuga del Gatto). The detailed illustrations depict a wide range of emotions and action that provide additional cohesion to the text. Teachers could use this story as a springboard to learn more about the composer, Domenico Scarlatti. In the classroom, listen to Cat’s Fugue and discuss how the sonata resembles the sound of a cat gingerly moving up and down a keyboard.

— Mary Napoli, Penn State Harrisburg

Schofield-Morrison, Connie. (2014). I Got the Rhythm. Illus. by Frank Morrison. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

This beautifully illustrated story begins with a young girl and her mother leaving their home for a walk through their community park. Within the first step of their journey, the little girl begins to think of a rhythm. As her journey continues, the rhythm in her heart and mind slowly escalates to a resounding celebration of music. Using all of her senses, she sees, smells, hears, touches, and moves to embrace the rhythm around her. The author’s text invites call-and-response and dramatic interpretation, with two-word phrases such as: “I caught the rhythm with my hands./ CLAP CLAP” and “I felt the rhythm with my knees./ KNOCK KNOCK.” Young children will enjoy mirroring the action words while the story is read aloud. Educators can also play music to elevate the story and encourage movement through immersion. Read more about the author’s and illustrator’s inspiration behind the book in the Reading Today Online interview.

—Mary Napoli, Penn State Harrisburg

Daly, Cathleen. (2014). Emily’s Blue Period. Illus by Lisa Brown. NY: Roaring Brook Press.

This powerful picture book tells the story of a young girl who identifies as an artist. She is inspired by Picasso as she copes with her parent’s divorce. Her artistic outlet allows her to express her questions, fears, and concerns. She is portrayed as vulnerable, but not a victim. When she is faced with an assignment from school, she uses her understanding of art and Picasso’s work to find a way to make a collage of her house that reflects her evolving understanding that “’home’ doesn't have to be a place; it's a feeling.” The book has five chapters and would be appealing to older readers as well, but primarily functions as a picture book with double-page spreads leading from one chapter to the next. Emily’s fascination with Picasso is reinforced through the watercolor, pencil, and digital collage illustrations. This book is a unique find because divorce is rarely portrayed in such a child-centered and authentic style.

— Lesley Colabucci, Millersville University of Pennsylvania

Grades 4-5

Sutcliffe, Jane. (2014). Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be. Illus by John Shelley. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

From the striking cover image showing eye contact between artist and sculpture, this book draws readers into the process and history of one of the world’s most famous statues. How does a block of marble three times the size of a man get transformed into a piece of art? This book tells the story of that transformation with an emphasis on time and place—and on Michelangelo himself. The detailed description of the artist’s work ethic, frustration, and vision will impress readers (he worked “furiously;” he often was “too tired to undress and slept in his clothes”). The varied page layouts really add to the appeal of this book. The illustrations are colorful but subdued, naturalistic facial expressions help to convey the mood and meaning, and the text is often positioned in circles or boxes. One full frontal image of the David statue is revealed toward the end of the book.

—Lesley Colabucci, Millersville University of Pennsylvania

Cline-Ransome, Lesa. (2014). Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-and-White Jazz Band in History. Illus. by James Ransome. New York, NY: Holiday House.

In this picture book biography, husband and wife team up again with perfect pitch and delivery. Through lyrical text, Lesa Cline Ransome cleverly punctuates each word to produce her own rhythm and beat that matches those of the famous musicians: Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. James Ransome’s bright and crisp illustrations beautifully reflect the time period while the author’s rhythmic text cleverly weaves the lives of Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. Chronicling their lives surrounded by music, the author captures moments of their youth separately and continues to offer a glimpse into the jazz era which intertwines their musical journeys together. In 1936, the Benny Goodman trio performed at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, making history as the first interracial band to perform publicly. Together, their collaboration and musical creativity pioneered the launch of swing. The back matter includes two pages of factual information about Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman along with a timeline. In addition, there is “Who’s Who in Jazz” section which would promote further inquiry about other famous musicians, including Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa. In the classroom, listen to some of their music and collaborate with the music teacher to promote a deeper appreciation for jazz. Additional classroom suggestions can be found at the publisher’s website.

—Mary Napoli, Penn State Harrisburg

Potter, Alicia. (2014). Jubilee: One Man’s Big, Bold and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace. Illus. by Matt. Tavares. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Patrick S. Gilmore will be a new name to many. This picture book biography begins with his childhood in Ireland. His love of music, or “many, many LOUD notes,” endured as he emigrated to America and even during his time as a serviceman in the Civil War. The bulk of the story, however, is focused on Gilmore’s planning of a National Peace Jubilee in 1867 to commemorate the end of the war. Gilmore’s love of music and his passion for this project come through in both the art and the text. The illustrations emphasize the musical elements through the use of perspective and play with text design and placement. Back matter includes an author’s note and bibliography.

—Lesley Colabucci, Millersville University of Pennsylvania

Grades 6-8

Loftin, Nikki. (2014). Nightingale's Nest. New York, NY: Razor Bill/Penguin.

Loftin’s novel for middle grades is brilliant, yet painful. Through her masterful craft and using Hans Christian Andersen's tale, The Nightingale, as a source of inspiration, Loftin provides readers with a contemporary story of heartbreak, betrayal, and forgiveness. Readers will meet 12-year-old, "Little John" whose father works for Mr. King (“The Emperor”), the wealthiest man in a small southern town. John's family is emotionally wounded after the loss of Raelynn, his sister. His family barely manages to pay the rent and worries about being evicted. John's mother is severely depressed and spends much of her time fixing his deceased sister's belongings. His father drinks too much and works long hours. John spends his free time reading bird guides, a gift from his grandmother, and learns about birds, their calls, and behavior. Over the summer, John helps his father with the tree removal business, clearing idle limbs and brush near Mr. King's home. One day, he hears the most enchanting sound and follows the melody to a nearby tree. To his surprise, he does not find a bird, but a young girl, named Gayle, perched atop the tree. Gayle is a foster child who loves to climb trees and claims that her mother and father will fly home. She keeps a nest of treasures and loves to sing. "She's like a ray of sunshine... Like a—little bird.” Mr. King, who collects rare sounds and music, is intrigued by Gayle's voice. Gayle shudders at the thought of being around Mr. King, who reminds her of a crow. She entrusts John and agrees to sing for Mr. King, but is never the same. She loses her “magic” to heal others through her gentle songs. In the classroom, teachers can offer this magical realism novel as a leisure choice, to advanced readers, or use it as part of a literature circle to spark critical discussions.

—Mary Napoli, Penn State Harrisburg

Federle, Tim (2014). Five, Six, Seven Nate. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Last year’s Better Nate Than Ever garnered a Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association. This book continues 13-year-old Nate Foster’s story as he experiences life as a “second understudy” on Broadway. Life in New York City is an adventure compared to Jankburg, Pa. However, Nate’s adventure in the city and his theatrical aspirations are only part of the story. Nate’s family life, his identity development, and friendship dynamics add to the complexity and warmth of this Five, Six, Seven, Nate. While trudging through five weeks of rehearsals, Nate experiences milestones like his first kiss, but also deals with cyber-bullying and being the rookie on the cast. The action of the story is driven by the theater experiences, but Nate’s broader life experiences are conveyed through his relationship with his best friend Libby, the support of his Aunt Heidi (an actress), and his struggles with his parents.

—Lesley Colabucci, Millersville University of Pennsylvania

Sandler, Martin. (2014). How the Beatles changed the world. New York, NY: Walker.

Martin Sander’s latest contribution is an exquisite and informative tribute about how the Beatles did, in fact, “change the world.” He masterfully chronicles the Beatles’ journey and musical talent beginning with their 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. This show shaped the course of what would later become known as Beatlemania. In 13 well-written chapters, complete with period photographs, quotes, and interesting facts, Sandler captures the spirit of the Beatles' contribution to music and popular culture. For example, their impact was felt beyond music and influenced movies, fashion, and religion. Sandler emphasizes how the Beatles' collective creativity transformed music for generations to come. The Beatles wanted to “have both the A side and B side of their records contain songs that were of the highest standards. This practice was never more clearly seen than on their hit record with "Penny Lane" on one side and "Strawberry Fields Forever" on the other." Interesting facts about how the Beatles were pioneers in creating music together and performing it as a group without a lead singer are included. They revolutionized album covers using creative and retro art and were the first band to include song lyrics on the album cover (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967). Sandler highlights information about their 1970s break-up and provides segments about their individual careers and accomplishments. He treats the untimely death and murder of John Lennon with respect. He also addresses George Harrison's talented songwriting abilities, television appearances and success before his death. The bold design elements, bright color borders, pages, and font type sets add another visual layer to the text. The back matter includes tables of the Beatles' U.S. discography and information for further reading, including additional books for young readers. Through impeccable research, Sandler manages to capture the Beatles' universal message of hope, peace, and imagination that will certainly inspire a new generation of fans.

—Mary Napoli, Penn State Harrisburg

Grades 9-12

De Prince, Michaela & Elaine. (2014). Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina.      NY: Random House.

The authors of this book are mother and daughter. Michaela was born Mabinty Bangura in Sierra Leone. When Civil War erupted in 1991, Mabinty’s family was not spared tragedy and eventually she became “girl Number 27” in an orphanage. While there, Mabinty comes across a photograph in a magazine and immediately believes, “Someday I will dance on my toes like this lady. I will be happy too!” Adopted by an American family, Michaela indeed goes on to study dance and become a professional ballerina. This story is clearly told in Michaela’s voice and her recollections are vivid and precise. She writes in a straightforward style and does not shy away from harsh truths related to the conflict in her homeland or her treatment as a black dancer, including blatant racism from peers and authority figures. Readers may question some of the specifics of Michaela’s memory, but the story is riveting and this dancer’s spirit is truly inspiring.

—Lesley Colabucci, Millersville University of Pennsylvania

Reef, Catherine. (2014). Frida & Diego: Art, love, life. Boston, MA: Clarion Books.

In recent years, many biographies of Diego Rivera have been published. Similarly, the life and work of Frida Kahlo have been explored in biographies for children. As recently as 2011 and 2012, biographies of both Kahlo and Rivera won Pura Belpré awards from ALA. This book is unique because it approaches their story as a couple. Their relationship is front-and-center with coverage of their initial meetings and marriage in the first chapter, but broader historical and social context is not diminished. From the Mexican Revolution to World War II, political and social struggles are portrayed alongside the couple’s struggles. The format of this book is appealing as well, paintings and photographs complement the text, as well as a listing of U.S. museums owning works by Kahlo and Rivera, and ample back matter including photo credits.

—Lesley Colabucci, Millersville University of Pennsylvania

These reviews and resources are submitted by members of the International Reading Association’s Children’s Literature and Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Reading Today Online.

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