Review: Biographies of a musician and a painter succeed admirably in conveying the arts to young children

If you have children with an artistic or musical inclination, here are two biographical picture books to enrich their world.

King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin by Stephen Costanza. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 56 pages. Age: 4-8. $17.99

What’s the deal with the Maine Islands? They seem to produce children’s book authors like other places produce potatoes. Vinalhaven was the summer home of Margaret Wise Brown (“Goodnight Moon”). Peaks Island alone has given us Anne Sibley O’Brien, Scott Nash and Kevin Hawkes. In the last 12 months alone, I’ve reviewed books by Jamie Hogan (also Peaks), Lisa Jahn-Clough (Monhegan), and Annica Mrose Rissi (Deer Isle, also home of Cynthia Voigt). And of course there’s the late, amazing Ashley Bryan of Little Cranberry Island.

The latest picture book from an islander, North Haven native Stephen Costanza, is dedicated to Bryan, “my friend and mentor.” King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin is an ambitious book. It’s one thing to write or illustrate a children’s story about, say, a mischievous child or a lonely mouse. It’s something completely different to write about music. How do you capture the sounds of something as special as ragtime and convey it in a way that a child can understand?

Costanza meets this challenge through the use of rhythmic prose, occasional rhymes, and plenty of alliteration and onomatopoeia. From its opening movement, the writing itself is musical:

“In the Red River Valley, where the soil was as rich as most people were poor, four states lay side by side like colors on a quilt…” Young Scott played the piano in the house where his mother was a cleaner, “made up a ditty to the dusting a wall; a waltz for washing.” And when he got to the idiosyncratic rags: “The left hand kept the beat, OOM-pah, OOM-pah! The right hand soared free like a bird: syncopated, excited, exuberant and proud!”

Costanza, himself a pianist and author of several children’s books on composers, captures Scott’s precocious early life in a music-infused household and community where singing and dancing were important strands of life. He highlights Scott’s mother’s commitment to not only raising and feeding her family, but also to Scott’s musical talent, saving for a piano and eventually trading her cleaning services for some life-changing piano lessons. Joplin’s later career spanned many songs, ballets and even an opera, but he will always be known for rags, particularly Maple Leaf Rag, an irrepressibly infectious tune that became the ragtime gold standard and a worldwide bestseller, and is still played and studied today by piano students desperate for something more exciting than Au Clair de la Lune.

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Costanza’s writing is equally infectious, although the book’s length and advanced language suggest it may appeal to children beyond the recommended age range (4 to 8). His rich and vivid illustrations in earth tones bring the story beautifully to life, and the wealth of information contained in the author’s note will captivate any child eager to learn more about the world of this gifted African American , who began his life as the child of a former enslaved man and ended up being a world-renowned composer and entertainer.

Breaking Waves: Winslow Homer Paints the Sea by Robert Burleigh, by Wendell Minor. Cottage, 40 pages. Age: 4-8. $18.99

If you’re having a hard time writing about music, ask yourself: how do you paint the waves? Even harder, how do you paint someone painting the waves? Especially when that someone is Winslow Homer? How do you avoid comparisons with the master himself?

In Breaking Waves, Wendell Minor solicits this comparison, describing himself on the jacket as “painting by…” rather than the more usual “illustrations by…”. His watercolors capture the changing moods of the ocean, from glowing sunsets to explosive waves. He continues to play, but does not slavishly reproduce any of Homer’s best-known seascapes, knowing full well that his watercolors could never equal Homer’s. The final, culminating and artfully designed spread has real impact as you have to look closely to find out where Homer’s sea painting ends and Minor’s sea painting begins. Hats off.

Roger Burleigh’s lyrics are also artistically rendered. Each chapter begins with a short, impressionistic intro and a single word that describes the quality of the ocean: “Shimmer!” “Calm!” “Roar!” It ends with an exhortation central to any artistic endeavor: “Look!”

“Quiet. Coal lines merging into a distant horizon. Rapid blue beats vibrating in the depths. Search!”

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The intro is followed by descriptions of Homer’s life in Prout’s Neck (the focal point of this book). Burleigh is at his best when he gives us glimpses (or guesses) of Homer’s artistic process: gradually building up a painting, losing yourself in his work, scraping things out and starting over, putting up signs to deter visitors. Similarly, Minor’s paintings are also at their best when centered on the studio, where Homer is always depicted in the elegant attire he favored, with his trusty terrier nearby.

Burleigh cleverly ends each chapter with a few relevant lines from (I assume) Homer’s own writings. These are actually my favorite pieces:

“Everything is beautiful outside of my house and in my house and myself.”

“The sun will neither rise nor set without my notification and thanks.”

And the last, inspiring lines: “I can paint a good picture at any time.”

In my opinion, anyone who feels this way is someone worth spending time with, no matter their age.

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Amy MacDonald is a freelance writer and children’s book author. She lives in Portland and Vinalhaven and can be reached at [email protected]


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