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Be-bop-a-skoodley!

These new picture-book biographies of African American music pioneers give primary readers something to sing about during Black History Month — and all year long.

russell-brown_little melbaSeven-year-old Melba Liston chose to learn to play the trombone — an unconventional choice for a girl. By age seventeen, she was touring alongside the jazz greats. As a female African American musician traveling through the mid-twentieth-century South, she faced many barriers and challenges. But Melba was highly sought out as a band member, session musician, composer, and arranger. Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, Katheryn Russell-Brown’s account of Melba’s early life, is as smooth and stimulating as a Liston trombone solo. Elongated, angular oil paintings by Frank Morrison (who won a 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award for this book’s illustrations) perfectly convey the jazz scene and, of course, Melba’s amazing horn. (Lee & Low, 5–8 years)

weatherford_leontyne priceBorn in 1927 in Laurel, Mississippi, Leontyne Price started singing in the church choir, then went on to college, then Juilliard, then Broadway; later she “became the first black singer to star at La Scala.” Author Carole Boston Weatherford’s lyrical prose in Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century touches on the prejudice Price faced, but it more strongly emphasizes the opera singer’s voice, her accomplishments, and her elegance, along with the support she received along the way. Raúl Colón’s watercolor, colored-pencil, and lithograph-crayon art depicts musical notes as big splashes of vibrant yellows, blues, oranges, and blue-greens bursting across the pages. (Knopf, 5–8 years)

nolan_mahalia jacksonMahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens, Nina Nolan’s biography of the celebrated “Queen of Gospel,” focuses on Jackson’s youth, her path to stardom, and her steadfast determination to remain true to herself. Throughout, Jackson pursues her dream of singing despite economic and familial obstacles (the obstacle of racism is addressed, albeit briefly, in an appended timeline). John Holyfield’s dramatic acrylic portraiture gives the biography’s subject reverential treatment. The final spread — of Jackson’s performance preceding Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech — is an apt ending to this civil rights icon’s story. (HarperCollins/Amistad, 5–8 years)

golio_bird & dizBird & Diz author Gary Golio distills the “be-bop-a-skoodley” friendship between musical legends John “Dizzy” Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker into a single jam session, expressively detailing the back-and-forth nature of their improvisational synthesis. Ed Young illustrates the encounter with a single uninterrupted accordion-folded frieze. Abstracted musical interpretation — with black spirals and melodious blues and greens clashing against fluorescent oranges and pinks, building to a clamorous climax — is grounded by portraits of Bird and Diz. The resulting combination of words and imagery introduces the unique players and captures the controlled, explosive frenzy of their musical collaboration. (Candlewick, 5–8 years)

From the February 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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