10 More Great Children's Books About Classical Music

Aug 28, 2018

It's been a few years since my first list of "10 Great Children’s Books About Classical Music." Just in time for the new school year, here's a list of 10 more engaging illustrated children’s books about classical music.

'Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America'
Credit Creston Books / crestonbooks.co

I've chosen some new titles that have emerged during the last three years, along with some older books that, I believe, deserve a fresh look.

Creative, delightful, colorful and, above all, bursting at the seams with the sounds, imagery and joy of music, these books have the power to enchant and awaken the inner music-lover — and maybe even the inner musician — in just about everyone.

Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing  

If any story stands as an archetype for America, it may well be that of the immigrant experience.

Coming to America with dreams of freedom and little else is a recurring narrative that's defined generations of Americans, transforming the U.S. into The Great Melting Pot and living on in today's New Americans.

Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing (Creston Books) puts the face of one of America's best-loved songwriters on the American immigrant story.

The rags-to-riches story of the composer of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "White Christmas," "Puttin' on the Ritz" and "God Bless America" brims with the heartache of a youth spent in abject poverty and resounds with the triumph of untold success despite all odds.

Author Nancy Churnin's prose is clear, and James Rey Sanchez's illustrations are snappy and richly invoke the chiaroscuro of the past. That this biography ends with a phenomenal act of gratitude and philanthropy from the once-impoverished Berlin makes this children's book a must-read.

'The Philharmonic Gets Dressed'
Credit Harper Collins / harpercollins.com

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed

It takes a while for a book to become a classic, and the time has come for The Philharmonic Gets Dressed.

Published in 1982 and nominated for the National Book Award for Children's Books, among other awards, this book bares more than just the souls of the musicians in the title's "Philharmonic" — a fictitious orchestra in a city that, judging from Marc Simont's delightful illustrations, looks suspiciously like The Big Apple.

Karla Kuskin's text and Simont's illustrations show Philharmonic musicians bathing and getting dressed — from skivvies to concert black — and making their way to "Philharmonic Hall" to perform a concert.

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed introduces young readers to the unique world of a professional orchestra, laying its people bare (literally!) as folks just like us.

'The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay'
Credit Simon & Schuster / simonandschuster.com

Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay 

A broken drum repaired with a discarded x-ray film. An empty oil drum transformed into a cello. A violin made from a tossed-out paint can, a fork and a baking tray.

These are some of the instruments in the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura.

You might have seen news coverage of this orchestra which, through ingenuity, elbow grease, hard work and love, emerged from the tons of trash dumped each day in the slums of Cateura, giving the town's children the chance to play music and to experience a whole world of possibilities they never dared to dream of.

In Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, author Susan Hood and illustrator Sally Wern Comport bring this extraordinary story to children the same age as the Recycled Orchestra's members.

From its arresting first sentence — "Ada Ríos grew up in a town made of trash" — to its redemptive conclusion, Ada's Violin is a reminder that obstacles are only as limiting as our imaginations allow them to be.

'The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano'
Credit Simon & Schuster / simonandschuster.com

The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano

"The instrument maker yearns to create a new keyboard, one that can be played as softly as gentle rain and as loudly as a booming thunderstorm. But how?"

In these two sentences, author Elizabeth Rusch summarizes the life's work of Bartolomeo Cristofori, the harpsichord and clavichord maker and restorer credited with inventing the progenitor of the present-day piano — and the man whose invention opened the door for nothing short of a revolution in keyboard music and performance technique.

The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano bursts at the seams with Marjorie Priceman's brilliant-hued illustrations.

But in the end, it is Rusch's musical prose that tells the book's real story.

It's the story of sound, the story of Cristofori's obsession with expanding beyond the dynamic limitations of the harpsichord and clavichord, and the story of the clanking hammers of metalsmiths and sculptors around Medici Florence that gave Cristofori the idea to use hammers to create a new keyboard instrument that could play both softly and loudly — in Italian, piano e forte.

Cristofori's new instrument, the pianoforte, would eventually come to be called the "piano," would capture the attention and imaginations of Haydn, Mozart and other composers of genius, and would become the keyboard instrument of choice for composers throughout Europe.

The Italian musical terms — crescendo, fortissimo, mezzo forte, etc. — and the quotations from letters and other primary sources of Cristofori's period peppered throughout the book open the back door to other lessons in music and music history. It's an enchanting and strikingly well-done book about a monumentally important event in the history of Western music.

'The Music in George's Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue'
Credit Calkins Creek / penguinrandomhouse.com

The Music in George's Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue

"It was a musical kaleidoscope of America’s melting pot," so author Suzanne Slade describes Gershwin's masterwork Rhapsody in Blue.

The Music in George’s Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue tells the story of the work's origins in the "rattle-ty-bang" (Gershwin's own description) rhythms of the train on which he conceived the first inklings of Rhapsody in Blue, and its unveiling to the world as an "experiment in modern music."

An entirely novel blend of classical music and jazz at the time of its creation, Rhapsody in Blue is a distinctly American contribution to the classical music canon and remains one of the world's most beloved musical works.

Stacy Innerst's illustrations in blue – sometimes many shades of it – on every page is alive with the forms of musicians and instruments whose edges blur, shade and twist into each other, much the way classical music and jazz mix and mingle in Rhapsody in Blue itself.

Even the design of Slade's prose jumps and jitterbugs across the pages in electrifying swoops and arcs and, sometimes, in lively and squiggly script, bringing even more vim and vigor to the colorful story of Gershwin's greatest hit.

'I, Vivaldi'
Credit Eerdmans Books for Young Readers / eerdmans.com

I, Vivaldi

Some great films begin with a literal or proverbial car crash in the first scene. I, Vivaldi opens with composer Antonio Vivaldi's birth in the midst of an earthquake.

From there, author Janice Shefelman tells the story of how Vivaldi became one of the Baroque era's most important composers — from his earliest violin studies with his father, to his ordination as a priest, his installation as a music teacher at a Venetian orphanage and his composition of one of classical music's most famous works, The Four Seasons.

Tom Shefelman's illustrations put human faces on the very human story of a tremendous heart and will for music. These visuals also offer a jaw-droppingly beautiful opening boasting a view of Venice's Piazza San Marco almost as stunning as the real thing.

'Strange Mr. Satie: Composer of the Absurd'
Credit Viking Press / penguinrandomhouse.com

Strange Mr. Satie: Composer of the Absurd 

How to convey the quirky weirdness of Satie's mind, music and world of artists and freethinkers to children without utterly confusing them?

That was the challenge that author M.T. Anderson and illustrator Petra Mathers faced in creating Strange Mr. Satie.

M.T. Anderson's clear and measured prose and Petra Mathers' charming illustrations convey some of the outlandish anecdotes in the life of the eccentric French composer Erik Satie, while avoiding the overload that might have come from a more flamboyant approach.

The author and illustrator made some daring decisions in choosing some of the particular anecdotes they included in the book, handling them with the lightest touch.

While Strange Mr. Satie doesn't reveal the full extent of Satie's strangeness — what children’s book could? — it does give young readers a delightful glimpse into the world of modernist and absurdist culture in the heady, absinthe-kissed days of fin-de-siècle and early 20th-century Paris.

'I Know a Shy Fellow Who Swallowed a Cello'
Credit Boyds Mills Press / boydsmillspress.com

I Know a Shy Fellow Who Swallowed a Cello

A musical reimagining of the children's song "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly," I know a Shy Fellow Who Swallowed a Cello has rhymes as fresh as any in the picture book literature, such as:

"I know a shy fellow who swallowed a sax. Hard to relax, when you swallow a sax."

Barbara S. Garriel's text hoots and squeaks with a happy musical clangor, and John O'Brien's bold jitter-lined illustrations turn the story into a delightful cacophony of rhyme meets music meets rhythm for the eye.

This book might well make kids think that playing a musical instrument could be as fun as — it actually is!

'Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin'
Credit Simon & Schuster / simonandschuster.com

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin

How does an orchestra come together? One instrument at a time.

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin shows readers how the various instruments' unique ways of making sound add up to the magic and majesty of the orchestra.

In fresh and musical rhyming verse, Lloyd Moss reveals the distinct personality of many of the instruments in the orchestra, bringing them together one by one into a duo, then a trio, quartet, quintet and so on, until a large ensemble plays a concert in a grand concert hall.

Marjorie Priceman's colorful illustrations swoop and curve, glide and bounce, conveying a visual measure of the liveliness of playing music.

'Mole Music'
Credit Henry Holt and Co. / us.macmillan.com

Mole Music 

A person is neither an army, nor an island. But the effects of what we do can be vast and powerful, even though, often, we're not aware of it.

These lessons are big ones to absorb at any age, and especially in our tender years.

Mole Music tells the story of a Mole who practices the violin for years in his underground lair, dreaming that other people — maybe even presidents and queens — might someday hear his music and be changed by it for the better.

Maybe, just maybe, his music could even change the world!

In the text of author-illustrator David McPhail's story, Mole loses heart. But McPhail's comforting illustrations have the last word, giving the book an enchanting ending with an important message for readers of all ages.