Read On!

Mrs. Farquharson’s musings about books for children and young adults

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band


Fifty years ago The Beatles released their groundbreaking album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band”.

There are some interesting children’s and young adult’s books that introduce the Fab Four to today’s audience.

How the Beatles Changed the World by Martin W. Sandler (Walker) is jam packed with information and photos of the group’s evolution. My two favorite picture book biographies to share with intermediate readers are Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became The Beatles by Susanna Reich (Henry Holt) and The Beatles Were Fab ( and They Were Funny) by Kathleen Krull (HMH Books for Young Readers). These two books bring the musicians to life by chronicling the early years of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.




Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay


The world sends us garbage. We send back music. – Favio Chávez

Ada’s Violin by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Simon & Schuster) vividly narrates the story of the “Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay”.

Ada Ríos lives in one of the most impoverished towns in Paraguay. Cateura is one of the worst slums in South America because it houses the main garbage dump for Asunción. Most of the residents live on less than two dollars a day. Ada’s life and the lives of many children changed when Favio Chávez was sent to Cateura to teach safety practices to the gancheros who picked through trash at the dump. This environmental engineer was also a musician, and Favio grew to care for the pickers and their children. When he decided to offer music lessons to the children, there were few instruments for them to use. Chávez began to improvise with materials that he scavenged from the dump, and an orchestra was born.

The Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay now performs concerts all over the world. Favio Chávez began with ten children. His program now has more than twenty-five instructors teaching over two hundred young musicians. The proceeds from their concerts are returned to Cateura to help families build homes.

Ella Fitzgerald


It isn’t where you came from; it’s where you’re going that counts. – Ella Fitzgerald

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most popular female jazz singers in the U.S. Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, VA. Shortly after her birth, Ella’s parents separated, and her mother, Tempie, moved to Yonkers, NY with Ella. Her early years were difficult, but Ella was always dancing and listening to the music that spread out into the streets. Tempie died when Ella was a teenager, and her life spiraled out of control. She dropped out of school and was homeless.

In 1934, when Ella heard that the new Apollo Theater on 125th Street had an Amateur Night on Wednesdays, she decided to try out. Wearing a pair of men’s boots that she had gotten at the Baptist church, she showed up for her tryout with the intention of dancing. The Edward Sisters auditioned ahead of her, and they danced in sequined dresses and high heels. Elle got on stage, knowing that she couldn’t compete with them, and after hesitating, she began to sing. She earned a spot, but when she went on stage to perform, Ella froze. As the audience began to get restless, the emcee prompted them to give the nervous girl a chance. Ella wowed the crowd with her rendition of “The Object of My Affection”. While she won first prize, Ella was given ten dollars, but not the chance to sing with the band for a week because of her raggedy appearance. Giving herself another chance, Ella then performed at Amateur Night at The Harlem Opera House. This time she won first prize and her week to sing with the band, and those who heard her were impressed.

Ella was singing and dancing for tips on 125th Street when she was noticed by a stranger. This man knew that Chick Webb was looking for a singer for his band. Even though Webb did not want to listen to Ella because of her raggedy appearance, he was impressed by her voice. Cleaned up, Ella sang with the band for three years. Her career took off, and she recorded over 200 albums and performed all over the world.

Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald (Candlewick) by Roxane Orgill is a picture book biography about Ella, and it is illustrated by Sean Qualls.
There will be a year of events celebrating Ella Fitzgerald. Do check out the official website.

Jazz Day


On August 12, 1958, Art Kane, a graphic designer took a picture in front of a brownstone on 126th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. Kane was a jazz buff, but he wasn’t a professional photographer when he suggested his idea to an editor at Esquire magazine. Esquire was preparing “The Golden Age of Jazz” as a special supplement in the magazine. Since New York City was a mecca for jazz at that time, Kane wanted to gather as many jazz musicians as possible for a photograph. While those working at Esquire assumed that the photographer would use a studio for his picture, he wanted it to be more authentic. By roaming the streets, Kane came up with a location that had the light that he envisioned.

After borrowing a camera, Kane needed to figure out how to bring together jazz musicians. After all, these musicians perform during the night, and he was planning his picture for 10:00am. By contacting recording studios, music composers, managers, nightclub owners, and Local 802 of the musician’s union, he asked that they tell any jazz musicians that they knew about his idea. The musicians were instructed to just show up without any instruments, and show up they did. Some who came were already famous in their field, others were rising stars, and still others hadn’t yet made a name for themselves. The picture captured a unique time in the history of jazz.

Author Roxane Orgill’s book of poems, Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph (Candlewick), is inspired by that famous photograph. Francis Vallejo’s acrylic and pastel illustrations suggest the light and vitality of that special day. The first poem is about Art Kane.

Art Kane, photographer

nobody here yet
it’s only nine
look right
where they come from the train
look left
where they exit a taxi
where to put them all
what if only four come
or five
“The Golden Age of Jazz”
with five guys
look right
look left
a crazy request
what if nobody shows
look up will it rain
will they wilt
when the sun beats
head out for a cold beer
look right
is that somebody
a group from the train
Lester Young cigarette dangling
that funny squashed hat
man with an umbrella rolled tight
Milt Hinton, hardly know him
without his bass
look left
guy in a striped tie
it’s happening

The Beatles


…But tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun.   – The Beatles

As a baby boomer, I enjoy sharing my memories of growing up and the music that I enjoyed and still enjoy with children. They have a vague concept of a band named The Beatles, but few know anything about the “Fab Four” or their songs.

fabTwo recent additions to our collection should intrigue intermediate and middle school readers. Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Henry Holt) is a picture book biography and a fine introduction to the early lives of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The young men had much in common, growing up in Liverpool, England and finding escape in music.

beatlesA more sophisticated and more comprehensive title is How the Beatles Changed the World by Martin W. Sandler (Bloomsbury). There are many black and white and color photographs throughout the book that chronicles the rise of one of the most influential musical groups in history.

Melba and Josephine


In recent years, publishers have featured many picture book biographies that bring to life historical characters that are unknown to today’s children. Two fine examples of these feature women of color who faced hardship and prejudice because of their race and gender. Both women had extraordinary talent.

melbaLittle Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison (Lee & Low) introduces young readers to Melba Doretta Liston (1926-1999). Melba’s story is so inspiring that it seems to be fiction. When she was seven, Melba wanted to sign up for music class at school. Music was already a part of her soul, as she listened to the radio and dreamed of rhythms. She convinced her mother to buy her a trombone at the traveling music store, and Melba went home and began to practice. Even though her arms were barely long enough, Melba taught herself how to play the large and difficult instrument. By the time she was eight, she played a solo on a local radio station. When Melba and her mother moved to Los Angeles, she played with a famous after-school music club, The Melodic Dots. Her talent continued to grow, and after high school, Melba wrote her own music and joined touring bands. When she traveled to perform in the South, as a person of color, Melba faced the prevailing conditions of racism. Band members were denied hotel rooms and couldn’t eat in restaurants. Undaunted, Melba kept performing, and by the 1950s, she and her music were in high demand by jazz musicians worldwide.

josephineJosephine Baker  (1906-1975) was a talented singer and dancer who also battled prejudice that was almost insurmountable. Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Chronicle) chronicles this amazing woman’s struggles in the United States and triumphs in France. Even though she became one of the highest paid performers on Broadway, Josephine played roles that fit a stereotype for performers of color. She was feted so widely in Europe that 20,000 mourners lined the streets of Paris for her funeral procession.

Josephine Baker

“Genius draws no color line.”


When Marian SangWe cannot live alone… And the thing that made this moment possible for you and for me, has been brought about by many people whom we will never know.
Marian Anderson

On April 9, 1939, seventy-five years ago this week, Marian Anderson performed an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Her concert was there because she was banned by the Daughters of the American Republic (DAR) from performing at Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin. There was a “white-artist-only” clause in the contracts presented by the DAR. While there was a segregated section for black audience members, only whites could appear on stage.

The news of Anderson’s situation became public, and Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization. However, the public outcry did not change the policy. The executive secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, proposed that Marian Anderson should perform at the Lincoln Memorial. Franklin Roosevelt assigned his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to oversee the logistics of the concert. Few could have guessed that 75,000 people would attend the concert, and millions of Americans would listen to it on the radio.

Genius draws no color line. She has endowed Marian Anderson with such voice as lifts any individual above his fellows, as is a matter of exultant pride to any race.
Harold Ickes

The first song that Marian sang was “America”. In the third line, she changed the words, “of thee I sing”, and she replaced them with “to thee we sing”.

In 1942, Marian Anderson did receive an invitation from the DAR to perform at Constitution Hall. On January 7, 1943, she sang to an integrated audience at a benefit for the American Red Cross.

VoiceWhile much has been written about this event, there are two books that I highly recommend for our students. When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2002) is a sophisticated picture book biography. Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights by Russell Freedman (Clarion, 2004) is a title that I would suggest for grades 5 and up. Freedman included many photographs to support his work.

Beatlemania Anniversary


A plausible mission of artists is to make people
appreciate being alive at least a little bit.
(When) asked if I know of any artists who pulled
that off, I reply, “The Beatles did.”
–    writer Kurt Vonnegut
Quote from The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny)

BeatlesFor those of us who were around when The Beatles first performed in the United States, it seems impossible to comprehend that happened 50 years ago. Beatlemania overtook the nation, and there was no looking back for Paul, George, John and Ringo.I remember watching The Fab Four with my extended family in 1964, during their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. All of our reactions were different as we watched the group perform; my grandparents were shocked, my mother and aunt sat quietly, but my uncle, my brother and I were enthralled.
Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer’s delightful picture book biography, The Beatles Were Fab (And They Were Funny), illustrated by Stacy Innerst (Harcourt, 2013), chronicles the rise of this influential group of musicians. A new world opened with their music.

Harlem’s Little Blackbird


Once again, two picture book biographies about the same person were released within months of each other by different authors and publishers. The subject of these two stellar creations is Florence Mills, a star of the Harlem Renaissance.

There are no known recordings of Florence’s voice, nor are there any films of her performances. Yet, this entertainer influenced talented musicians with her talent and spirit. Duke Ellington’s composition, “Black Beauty”, is a tribute to her.

Florence began performing at a very young age for pleasure, and it was a bonus that the money she made helped to support her financially struggling family. Through her dedication and work ethic, she honed her musical skills and became much sought after as a performer. Despite the injustices of segregation, Florence went on to gain international success.  When she died in 1927, at the age of 31, five thousand people were in the church and thousands stood outside to pay tribute to this remarkable woman. Baby Flo is still remembered as “Harlem’s Little Blackbird”.

(Image from

Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills




Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage by Alan Schroeder, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Lee & Low, 2012)

Passing the Music Down


A picture book that we recently added to our school library collection is Passing the Music Down by Sarah Sullivan, illustrated by Barry Root (Candlewick Press, 2010). I read the story and admired the watercolor and gouache illustrations. It is a gentle tale of a young boy who travels with his parents to Appalachia to hear old-time fiddle players. The boy forms a friendship with an older fiddler, and he eventually moves to live near him and be mentored by him. The book became even more intriguing when I read the Author’s Note in the back of the book. She based her story on a true friendship, that of Melvin Wine (the old-time fiddler) and Jake Krack (the young boy).

On the endflap, Sarah Sullivan described Melvin Wine.

 “There was something timeless about him, like the ancient sage who passes on essential knowledge to a chosen apprentice, not for pay but out of an abundant reverence for his art and an abiding love for the world.”

After reading this, I had to go on YouTube to find clips of both Melvin Wine and Jake Krack fiddling. What a pleasure to enjoy this charming book and then listen to the musicians!

Melvin Wine

Jake Krack

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