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In our upcoming May/June issue, we review two nonfiction books starring jazz greats from the Big Easy: How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz and Trombone Shorty.

 winter_how jelly roll morton invented jazz  andrew_trombone shorty
Now I’m nostalgic for NOLA, particularly its incredible live music scene! I can’t wait to get back to Frenchmen St.

The annual — and beloved — New Orleans Jazz Festival starts today. If (like me) you can’t make it, put on some jazz and check out How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz, Trombone Shorty, or one of these other toe-tapping picture books recommended by The Horn Book Magazine:



dillon_jazz on a saturday nightThe imaginary octet of Miles Davis, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Stanley Clarke, Ella Fitzgerald, and an unnamed guitarist take their places on stage in Leo and Diane Dillon’s Jazz on a Saturday Night. Music, in the form of patterns resembling African textile art, pours out of the instrumentalists and singer. The authors’ note provides a brief biography of each musician. A CD features the text set to music. (Scholastic/Blue Sky, 2007)

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. 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)

H061_L.tifWhen Daddy puts a record on the turntable in Jazz Baby, everyone gets into the sound, including the baby in his crib. The rhythmic text continues with everyone singing and dancing until finally “snoozy-woozy baby” drops off to sleep. The vitality comes through both in Lisa Wheeler’s lively text and R. Gregory Christie’s jazzy, brightly colored gouache paintings, their curves and angles highlighted in black ink. (Harcourt, 2007)




cline-ransome_benny goodmanBenny Goodman grew up in Chicago, a working-class Jewish boy; Teddy Wilson lived in Tuskegee, Alabama, a middle-class African American boy. Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-and-White Jazz Band in History recounts the story of how the two jazz musicians met and formed the Benny Goodman Trio (the “first interracial band to perform publicly”) in short bursts of text, almost like jazz riffs. James E. Ransome’s pencil and watercolor illustrations capture distinctive moments. (Holiday, 2014)

Spirit Seeker by Gary GolioGary Golio’s Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey, a picture-book biography best suited to older children and young teens, successfully describes Coltrane’s music and what made it distinctive. The sophisticated illustrations by Rudy Gutierrez show faces with almost photographic realism, while the lines depicting the background scenes are intentionally distorted and abstracted into swirling shapes. Thus the art ingeniously gets across the story’s intangibles: Coltrane’s pain, his drug-addled mind, his spirituality, and his music. (Clarion, 2012)

parker_piano starts hereNearly blind from birth, young Art spends most of his time at the piano. In Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum, author-illustrator Robert Andrew Parker pulls off a book’s tricky present-tense narration by infusing it with a brisk and varied jazz-like rhythm, subtle internal rhyme, and well-placed word repetition. The pen and watercolor illustrations are masterfully executed, showing deeply saturated colors in the backgrounds and people drawn with great gestural energy. (Schwartz & Wade, 2008)

raschka_cosmobiography of sun raJazz pioneer and free-spirited iconoclast Sun Ra (he believed he came from Saturn) gets a portrait as bemusing as the man himself in fantastical tribute The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy Is Enlightening. Author-illustrator Chris Raschka’s trademark loose gestural style is effective in reflecting his subject’s untethered spirit and impenetrable persona. The images themselves are dense and dynamic, full of brilliant color and heavy black. List of selected recordings appended. (Candlewick, 2014)

russell-brown_little melbaSeven-year-old Melba Liston chose to play the trombone, an unconventional choice for a girl. By seventeen, she was touring with the greats, including Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones, but — as a female African American musician traveling through the South — faced many challenges. Katheryn Russell-Brown’s text in biography Little Melba and Her Big Trombone is as smooth and stimulating as a Liston trombone solo. Frank Morrison’s elongated, angular oil paintings perfectly convey the jazz scene. (Lee, 2014)

weatherford_before john was a jazz giantIn Carole Boston Weatherford’s Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane, four-line stanzas list the sounds and experiences that made young Coltrane into the great musician he became. Sean Qualls’s paintings show John listening, focusing, soaking it all in. By the end, he’s making his own music, and the collage, acrylic, and pencil illustrations shift from the realistic to shapes and colors evoking music. An appended author’s note includes selected listening. (Holt, 2008)



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.



  1. Anonymous Librarian says:

    I have no doubt that these are all handsome and well-penned books for adults, but my experience has been that books that seek to capture the rhythms and improvisational qualities of jazz fall flat when read to a child audience. I don’t know whether it’s because I don’t myself like jazz very much, or what. I’m not an inexpressive reader, but I’ve tried several of the titles on this list with a class of children, and the children’s faces are blank, and nobody’s hand is up–“Can I check out that book?”–at the end of the story. Have other librarians succeeded with these books, and if so, which ones? I’m getting to the point where I say to myself, “Oh, dear, another book that tries to capture jazz,” and spend my budget on shark books instead.

  2. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    That’s a good question, Anonymous Librarian! We’ll ask the social network.

  3. I agree Anonymous Librarian, they are beautiful books but I haven’t been incredibly successful at Storytime with them – however, when I was looking through the Sun Ra book (an artist I do like) I came across a suggestion to have the kids listen to Sun Ra, color what they hear and then introduce the book to them. I am planning to make a Music/Jazz week next year, using this activity for my 1st or 2nd Graders. If they don’t hear it, how can it mean much to them? Hopefully it will go over better…

  4. This is such an interesting question!
    Full disclosure: I reviewed two of the books in question, so I come to the conversation with some investment.
    I have a couple of thoughts.
    First, I think there’s space in our picture book collections for more than storytime fare. The Bird and Diz book folds out into a continuous long accordion panel that would never work for storytime (for me, anyhow). But it’s easy to imagine it with the right kid/adult pairing, or a child investigating on her own.
    Also, I think there’s space in our storytime repertoire for books that aren’t outwardly delightful. Part of our job in storytime is to engage kids in the moment and give them a marvelous time. But another part of our job is to introduce them to everything the collection, and by extension the library, has in store for them. Rollicking literary entertainment makes for terrific short term payoff. I love it up. But I also like to build in some exposure to stuff that will pay off down the road, seeds that will sprout and grow later. I would hate to think that we’re only sharing picture books that are funny and fun, and suggesting, inadvertently, that that’s the only thing picture books can be.
    Finally, I think a balanced collection needs to have some esoteric, off-the-mainstream-path stuff. Anonymous Librarian’s original question wisely wondered about responsible stewardship of limited budgets. We do have to be careful about how we spend our money. But a collection full of popular titles of broad appeal, with no quirky, more individual fare, runs the risk of conflating children into an average child, and lets down readers of adventurous appetite who may be craving something different and special.
    My $.02.

  5. I recently featured Bird & Diz on my blog and I was wild about it. I also appreciate The Cosmbiography of Sun Ra. While it is very difficult to capture the essence of music in a picture book, it is a worthy effort to try. Being a musician ranks on the creativity scale right up there with any other means of expression, and all kids can relate to music in some way, even though it might not be jazz particularly. The biography of Trombone Shorty (also featured in a blog post), is a fabulous biography about how one boy found his voice and calling in life. Perhaps these books can be integrated into the music teacher’s instruction, but please don’t avoid them because it is a topic you might not relate strongly toward. We talk about writers and artists so often in books because the format of expression is perfectly suited to it. There are many areas of interest that might take a little more effort or knowledge or would be assisted by multimedia experiences to bring a more fully realized appreciation for the subject. The books featured here are written and illustrated by those who are passionate about the topic, and they have all done spectacular work. They are certainly worth our equal attention, and one never knows what will spark inspiration in a child’s learning.

  6. Oh! One more point: these individuals embody the history of American culture. The history of the times in which they lived, the original expressions and evolving of the art form, the challenges that were met to achieve goals are all elements to incorporate related to these stories. #WeNeedDiverseBooks

  7. Maia Cheli-Colando says:

    Jazz is such a varied field, akin to the vast range of “classical” music. Some of it is easily approachable, and some is nearly impenetrable except to the much-trained ear. Jazz song standards can provide one route for kids (and adults!) to connect through to the music, allowing them to become familiar with the style’s chord progressions within the more familiar framework of a song. I would guess that many kids won’t “get” jazz early, but that more will come to it over time if the opportunity is frequently offered. I’d try playing a jazz recording in the library, or bring in a musician or singer, if you really want to put these books over. (And, it’s much easier than bringing in a shark! 😉 )

    Also, I’ve noticed that music-based picture books in general these days have very bold, engaging art – but also art that isn’t fully taken in by a quick glance. This makes the books appealing for a parent-to-child read, but harder in library story-time, perhaps?

    Do you find that your audience appreciates other music books? And if so, what is the hook that helps them connect there?

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