Celebrate Women's History Month with a Dozen Great Children's Book about Women and Girls in Music
If you had taken your daughter to an orchestra concert fifty years ago, almost all of the musicians she would see on stage would have been men. Not anymore.
Although men still outnumber women in professional orchestras, more women than ever before are appearing on orchestra rosters, at the front of the stage as soloists and on the podium. And that trend is also taking shape among players of specific instruments. A recent article in The Telegraph reported that women concert violinists now outnumber their male counterparts on the global stage.
That resonant crackling sound? That's the glass ceiling shattering in the concert hall.
Still, a girl can't have too many women role models, too many examples of women musicians demonstrating that her possibilities in life are, in the end, limited only by what she really believes is possible for herself.
To mark Women's History Month, I've compiled a list of inspiring children's books featuring women musicians. All tell the real-life stories of women who persevered against gender and sometimes also racial bias to maximize their potential and achieve fulfillment. It is my hope that the women in these stories will capture girls' imaginations and inspire them to live their best lives.
Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle and Rafael López (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – The book’s title character, based on the Chinese-African-Cuban jazz drummer Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, likely will be a hero to girls the world over. Author Margarita Engle’s light and lovely prose tells us that the girl lives on “an island of music” and dreams of learning how to play the drums she hears in the music all around her. When people tell her that only boys should learn to play the drums, she keeps her drumming dreams to herself – until she just can’t contain them any longer. Then “the brave drum dream girl” dares to play all the different drums she can find. Flouting convention, the girl’s father finds the would-be drummer girl a drum teacher, a man who helps her hone her skills and fans the flames of her passion for the drum. I won’t give away the ending, but it contains a message that everyone – girls and boys, women and men – need to hear. Throughout, the text I leavened by Rafael López’s electrifying illustrations.
Edda: A Little Valkyrie's First Day of School by Adam Auerbach(Christy Ottaviano Books) - Adam Auerbach created Edda the Valkyrie on the inspiration of Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs cycle, but don't worry - it won't take you 18 hours to get through it, and it won't bury you beneath a (fire-encircled) mountain of Leitmotiven.
Edda, the forest-dwelling, winged-helmet-wearing Valkyrie is a delight as she strives to make friends her own age at a new school, away from her home in the magical land of Asgard. The story is a swift read leavened with the heartwarming and message that, rather than dividing us, different backgrounds can be doors to discovery and powerful engines for friendship.
Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers (G. P. Putnam’s Sons)
Misty Copeland’s meteoric rise through the elite ranks of the ballet world has been the stuff of headlines for nearly two decades.
Since joining the American Ballet Theatre in 2000, Copeland has ascended through the ranks of the corps de ballet to become a soloist then, in June 2015, the first African American to be appointed one of the company’s principal dancers.
But things weren’t always so rosy for Copeland. In Firebird, she shares her own early struggles with self-doubt and how she overcame them with the help of a mentor who believed in her.
Firebird is cleverly written from the perspectives of a young girl – understood as Copeland’s younger self – with little confidence who dreams big dreams of dancing, and Copeland’s own adult perspective, encouraging the girl to follow her dream and persevere.
“Me? I am gray as rain,” says the girl, “heavy as naptime, low as a storm pressing on rooftops.” Copeland reassures her, “You will soar – become a swan, a beauty, a firebird for sure – soon with the same practice you’ll join me in this dancing dream.”
Christopher Myers’ decoupage-inspired illustrations show Copeland and her young mentee soaring to the heights in brilliant color.
This book has the power to make children think there’s nothing they can’t do.
For the Love of Music: The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart by Elizabeth Rusch, Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Tricycle Press) – Whether or not the “Mozart effect” has introduced them to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, children should know about the phenomenal life of Mozart’s older sister, Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart. Elizabeth Rusch’s text tells Nannerl’s life story from her earliest days as a musical prodigy, to her later years performing and teaching in Salzburg. Two sadnesses in particular mark Nannerl’s adult years: her father’s abandoning her potentially phenomenal musical career once she approached marriageable age, and her eventual loss of contact with her brother, with whom she had been extremely close in childhood. Rusch tells the painful realities of Nannerl’s story with a nimble touch suitable for young readers. Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher’sdécoupage illustrations envelope Nannerl’s life story in a tapestry of vibrant hues and rich textures.
Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson and Christian Robinson (Random House)
Renée Watson’s text gives voice to the life story of singer and dancer Florence Mills, best known for her performances in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds vaudeville revues.
The story traces Mills’ life from her birth to former slaves, to international stardom during the energetic days of the Harlem Renaissance.
Christian Robinson’s delightful mixed-media illustrations take young minds into the “teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy house” where Mills grew up, across the color line and into a “whites-only” theater in Washington, D.C., onto the stages of Harlem’s vibrant theaters and Broadway itself and to the theaters and cabarets of Europe.
The story’s message to young readers is best summarized in the book’s final lines: “Florence’s dream lives on in the singers and dancers who came after her. It lives on in the heart of every boy and girl from a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy place who dreams of doing great big, gigantic, enormous things” – as every child should.
Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell and Cristian Robinson (Chronicle Books)
A Coretta Scott King Book Award winner for illustrations. Winner of other awards, including the Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award and the Robert F. Sibert Informational book Award.
The extraordinary life and career of the African American singer and dancer Josephine Baker comes to life in snappy poetry and dazzling illustrations.
Josephine traces Baker’s life from her humble beginnings in St. Louis, where she fell in love with ragtime and dreamed of dancing in vaudeville shows, to her touring as a dancer with the Dixie Steppers vaudeville troupe, to her hamming it up on Broadway and her eventual move to Paris, where her now iconic banana dance at the Folies Bergère made her an international star.
The trajectory of Baker’s career is placed soberly in the context of the unfortunate realities – including racial violence and full-out segregation – that swirled around her. Baker’s life story has an important message for children: Let your spirit be free, no matter how unusual it may be.
Baker’s story also has an important message for adults: Her much-celebrated comeback at age 67, which launched the second phase of an already extraordinary career, proves that you’re never too old to be who you really are.
Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherford and Raul Colón (Alfred A. Knopf)
Weatherford’s book tells the story of one of opera’s most remarkable talents.
Encouraged by her parents and inspired by hearing radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, Price moved from her native Mississippi and beyond the race barriers of the cotton belt and again crossed the color line to become one of the Metropolitan Opera’s principal soloists.
Weatherford’s prose and Colón’s illustrations are as comely and elegant as Price herself.
This book will inspire children and adults with Price’s life story, and it may well win over more than a few hearts to opera, as well.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison (Lee & Low Books)
The jazz trombonist Melba Liston was not only a great musician; as the first woman trombonist to go big time with the great 1940s big bands, Liston was also a pioneer.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone is a beautifully written chronicle of the self-taught Liston’s rise from a modest Kansas City neighborhood to the touring big bands of Dizzie Gillespie, Count Basie and Billie Holiday.
Frank Morrison’s illustrations bebop in bold lines and crackle with commanding color.
This book will help preserve the legacy of Liston’s remarkable contributions – her phenomenal playing, her chipping away at the jazz world’s glass ceiling, her advancing the cause of African American musicians – for children and adults alike.
The Little Piano Girl by Ann Ingalls, Maryann Macdonald and Giselle Potter (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children)
Mary Lou Williams was one of the great jazz pianists of all time, but possibly by virtue of her sex, her name is eclipsed by those of Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk and Jelly Roll Morton.
The Little Piano Girl makes Williams’ life story and accomplishments mainstream reading for children.
The book also carries an inspiring message: Be yourself, embrace your talent and follow your dreams. Those dreams might someday take you around the world!
Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her by Amy Novesky and Vanessa Brantley Newton (Harcourt Children’s Books)
The turbulent life of jazz singer Billie Holiday might not, at first blush, seem like great fodder for a children’s book.
But Holiday’s remarkable musical contributions stand on their own merit, and her love affair with dogs – perhaps the only loves that never wound up in the blues she sang – is a fun excuse to introduce children to an extraordinary, if troubled, artist.
Through Novesky’s text we learn of Holiday’s many canine companions – a poodle, a beagle, two Chihuahuas, a Great Dane, a wire-haired terrier, a mutt – and Mister, the boxer who walked with Holiday, protected her, watched her performances from the wings and waited loyally for her return from a year in prison for drug possession.
Novesky is right to omit from her narrative the details of the dark side of Holiday’s life. But the story of Holiday’s walking every step of her career path – all the way up to Carnegie Hall – with Fido by her side is delightful, as are Newton’s illustrations.
Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald by Roxanne Orgill and Sean Qualls (Candlewick Press)
Singer Ella Fitzgerald’s rise from childhood homelessness to jazz legend is given voice in this gorgeously illustrated book.
Orgill’s detailed text will challenge some young readers, even as it captivates with Fitzgerald’s inspiring rags-to-riches story.
Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat is a great foray into the world of jazz and to into the work of one of the art form’s greatest legends.
When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press) - Every children's book is called to open the minds and vistas of its young readers. Pam Muñoz Ryan's children's biography of the trailblazing African American contralto Marian Anderson has the potential to inspire a love for classical music and to plant the seeds of tolerance and acceptance in a single bound.
Illustrated throughout by Brian Selznick's sumptuous pictures, Ryan's text tells the story of Anderson's childhood in south Philadelphia, where her supportive church family fostered her early confidence in her gift, and of her later life navigating the roadblocks of racial prejudice she encountered at every stage of her career. At the end of the book are personal notes by Ryan and Selznick, a list of notable dates in Marian Anderson's career and a selective discography of Anderson's recordings. This is a book that has the power to change lives.