Children’s Book Reviews: Two Superb Looks at Musical Innovators

By Cyrisse Jaffee

These picture books explore music history and an avant-garde composer who challenged convention.

Lesa Cline-Ransome, The Story of the Saxophone. Illustrated by James E. Ransome. Holiday House.

Lisa Rogers, Beautiful Noise: The Music of John Cage. Illustrated by Il Sung Na. Random House Children’s Books.

Did you know that the saxophone — an instrument now closely associated with African American musicians, jazz, and swing — was invented by a bored, restless young man in Belgium in the 1840s? The surprising story of this soulful instrument is told in an excellent new picture book biography by husband-and-wife team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome. The couple have produced many well-known books and this newest one is a worthy addition to their catalog.

Readers old and new will be intrigued by Joseph-Antoine Adolphe Sax’s life and work. The child of two instrument makers, he lived a rather extraordinary life. Not only was he a brilliant inventor and a multitalented musician, he also survived a series of childhood mishaps, including poisoning (three times!), a coma, a near-drowning, a serious fall down a flight of stairs, and more. Adolphe, as he was known, also had bad luck as an adult, encountering financial and health problems as well as the initial rejection of his new creation—le saxophone, as the French composer Hector Berlioz named it. The instrument was originally designed by Adolphe to be played in military bands. But in 1884, Florencio Ramos, who played one in the Mexican Cavalry Band, brought his saxophone to New Orleans. There the saxophone, which “played the high, sweet notes of a clarinet with the deep, low tones of a trumpet and the delicacy of a violin,” took hold “on street corners and in juke joints, at funerals, and in jazz clubs.”

Cline-Ransome’s text flows nicely (despite one awkward transition) and Ransome’s watercolor illustrations are rich and vibrant, capturing both the people and places in the story. As his wife commented in an interview on NPR, “He creates worlds for young readers that … are just magical.”* The saxophones on each page are images cut out from magazines and photographs. Cline-Ransome adds, “Using collage for the saxophone … replicates the idea of this boy who pieced together this brand-new instrument.” The end covers feature famous jazz saxophonists and the dust cover doubles as a poster with mini-bios of some of them.

Lisa Rogers’s gorgeous new picture book invites children to consider what music is — or could be. For instance, could it be ordinary sounds like “a garbage truck screeching/feet skipping/pigeons scattering/tire whispering…?” If you agree, she says, “Then you’d be like John Cage.”

Instead of a chronological look at Cage’s life, Rogers focuses on the unconventional way he approached sound, music, and performance. He invited musicians and audiences to think outside the box, always pushing boundaries: writing curlicues, dots, and squiggles instead of musical notes; offering a “piano” concert in a barn which turned into 4-minutes and 33-seconds of silence (“and the only sounds were the sound of the wind and the rain and people grumbling…); holding a concert of blenders, juicers, washing machines, and more. Even when disgruntled audiences “stormed out,” Cage kept experimenting.

Most kids, of course, generally concur with Cage’s philosophy that “any noise could be beautiful,” whether they’re banging pots and pans as toddlers, raising a ruckus on the playground, or delighting in a train whistle. The poetic flow of the text makes this a great read-aloud, and the Korean-born illustrator Il Sung Na saturates the pages with color, movement, and the zaniness that Cage deserves. This is an excellent choice for educators, parents, and musicians alike.

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 WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.

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