By Cyrisse Jaffee
Two fine books for children that draw on music to deliver inspiring messages.
Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. Innovation Press, 40 pages, $17.99.
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Wild Symphony by Dan Brown. Random House, 44 pages, $18.99.
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Some of us have experienced the embarrassment of having our first or last name mispronounced or garbled by a teacher. Growing up in the ’50s, when “unusual” names were just that — unusual — I would cringe any time a teacher came to my name and couldn’t say it. I yearned for an “ordinary” name like Alice or Susan.
Well, the same problem confronts Kora-Jalimuso on her first day at school in Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Luisa Uribe. Not only can no one say her name, she is teased by other kids (a culturally diverse group) that her name is weird, scary, or made up.
Walking home from school, Kora-Jalimuso’s mother explains that all names are a song, and the sound of the name evokes a mood or a meaning. Together they say various African, Asian, Black-American (the term used in the book), Latinx, and Middle-Eastern names and sing their songs. The next day, empowered, Kora-Jalimuso demonstrates to her teacher, Ms. Anderson, and the class, how to “sing” names, even those that might be more familiar, such as Bob or Olivia. At last, everyone can say her name. Enhanced by warm, appealing illustrations, the text is poetic and descriptive. A glossary gives fuller definitions of the names and their origins, noting that Kora-Jalimuso’s name is of Mandinka/West African origin and is in fact made up for the story.
Although most classrooms today feature a wider diversity of names, spellings, and pronunciations — and hopefully teachers are more aware than the one in this story — this is a terrific way to help kids understand and celebrate different cultures and traditions.
A very different kind of music is celebrated in Dan Brown’s Wild Symphony, illustrated by Susan Batori. The reader joins Maestro Mouse to meet a variety of animals, described with a rhyming poem that reveals the animal’s traits and habits. Each colorful, lively spread also contains little aphorisms, such as “Being a good listener will always help you find your way.” These are great conversation starters, and the rhymes and the illustrations are fun, too. The endpapers feature drawings of classical music instruments that kids can learn about.
But wait, there’s more! The book comes with a free music app, featuring a score composed by none other than the author (who was a composer before he wrote the bestselling The Da Vinci Code books). The music attempts to evoke the animal itself — bouncy for the kangaroo, a bit mysterious for the spider. You don’t need to use the app or the book’s website, but the latter does contain a helpful guide for teachers, which clued me into the “hidden message” contained in the drawings, which is mentioned in the book but not explained anywhere. This is a boon for music teachers and a lovely addition to any family’s picture book library.
Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for the Education Department of WGBH. She holds a Master’s in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.