10 Great Children's Books about Classical Music

May 7, 2015

This Mother's Day, why not put a little music in your life at Classical 101's Youth & Family Day?

Sunday, May 10, WOSU Public Media and the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus present the second-annual Youth & Family Day, starting at 12:30 pm at WOSU@COSI. It's a free event celebrating children and music with hands-on musical activities, crafts and a 3 pm concert by ProMusica.

Children love music and they love stories. So in the run-up to Youth & Family Day, here's a list of 10 of my favorite children's books about classical music.

Each book is engagingly written and magnificently illustrated with an eye for opening young minds to the beautiful world of music and the colorful and inspiring stories of music's most important people and events.

When Marian Sang
Credit Scholastic Press

  When Marian Sang (Scholastic Press) - Every children's book is called to open the minds and vistas of its young readers. Pam Muñoz Ryan's children's biography of the trailblazing African American contralto Marian Anderson has the potential to inspire a love for classical music and to plant the seeds of tolerance and acceptance in a single bound. 

Illustrated throughout by Brian Selznick's sumptuous pictures, Ryan's text tells the story of Anderson's childhood in south Philadelphia, where her supportive church family fostered her early confidence in her gift, and of her later life navigating the roadblocks of racial prejudice she encountered at every stage of her career. At the end of the book are personal notes by Ryan and Selznick, a list of notable dates in Marian Anderson's career and a selective discography of Anderson's recordings. This is a book that has the power to change lives.

Edda: A Little Valkyrie's First Day of School
Credit Christy Ottaviano Books

Edda: A Little Valkyrie's First Day of School (Christy Ottaviano Books)- Illustrator Adam Auerbach created Edda the Valkyrie on the inspiration of Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs cycle, but don't worry - it won't take you 18 hours to get through it, and it won't bury you beneath a (fire-encircled) mountain of Leitmotiven.

Edda, the forest-dwelling, winged-helmet-wearing Valkyrie is a delight as she strives to make friends her own age at a new school, away from her home in the magical land of Asgard. The story is a swift read leavened with the heartwarming and message that, rather than dividing us, different backgrounds can be doors to discovery and powerful engines for friendship.

When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary Riot
Credit Harcourt Children's Books

 When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary Riot (Harcourt Children's Books) - The riot that upended the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring is truly the stuff of classical music legend. Author and illustrator Lauren Stringer's picture book adaptation of that story distils the complex narratives of the genesis of The Rite of Spring in the collaboration between Stravinsky and dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky.

The book tells the story of uproar at the work's world premiere into a truly gripping story of creativity and courage told in incisive language and vibrant illustrations. Perhaps most impressive is that, in a mere 28 pages, Stringer is able to convey something of the revolutionary significance The Rite of Spring would have on the worlds of dance and music.

Two pages of author's notes at the end of the book offer further historical details and great fodder for discussion. This is a fabulous book about a moment that forever changed the art of music.

Do Re Mi
Credit Houghton Mifflin

Do Re Mi: If You Can Read Music, Thank Guido d'Arezzo (Houghton Mifflin) - In collaboration with musicologist Angelo Malfucci, illustrator and writer Susan L. Roth has brought the world of Gregorian chant out of the mists of time and into the pages of an enchanting children's book that lays bare the medieval origins of modern musical notation.

It might seem an unlikely subject for a picture book, but Roth's storytelling is so engaging that at the end of the book, we feel we know who Guido of Arezzo - the "inventor" of musical notation - really was, and we are inspired by his perseverance in the face of naysayers who thought he was crazy for believing that the ephemeral art of music could be written down.

A nifty glossary at the back of the book lists definitions for musical terms in language children and parents can understand. Perhaps the book's niftiest touch is the facsimile of a manuscript page written in Guido's own hand. The design work throughout is stunning. This book is an incredibly fun and classy read.

Credit Candlewick Press

Jubilee!: One Man's Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace (Candlewick Press) - It's a pity that most people probably have never heard the name Patrick S. Gilmore. Good thing, then, that Author Alicia Potter and illustrator Matt Tavares have unearthed the amazing and inspiring true story of how Gilmore turned his childhood passion for music into something big and meaningful for the world.

The Irish-born Gilmore moved to America in the early 1800s and became a band leader, serving during the Civil War as a regimental band leader in the Union Army, and eventually returning to Boston and leading a band there to welcome home Union soldiers at the war's end.

But Gilmore dreamed of something more and came up with the idea to assemble the largest band ever assembled and conduct it in a concert to celebrate peace. The National Peace Jubilee took place over the span of four days in Boston in 1867, in a pavilion - the "Temple of Peace" - built for the occasion.

Potter's text brings excitement to every page, and Tavares' illustrations beautifully immerse readers in the visual ambience of the nineteenth century. This book is a winner for opening children's minds to music and history through one man's captivating story.

Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought)
Credit (Sandpiper

Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought) (Sandpiper) - This book puts the "story" into music history by putting giving flesh and personalities to composers we tend to think of as marble busts atop pristine pedestals.

An installment in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's "Lives of ..." series, Lives of the Musicians is dedicated to some of the world's most significant musicians and rubs shoulders with volumes that cover history's writers, artists, athletes, presidents and "extraordinary women."

Each five-page chapter paints a child-friendly portrait of a different composer or performer - including Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Clara Schumann and others - in clear and engaging text by Kathleen Krull and delightful illustrations by Kathryn Hewitt. The lists of "Musical Notes" at the end of each chapter provide a bit more historical context with a few facts and figures about the featured musician.

Beethoven for Kids: His Life and Music
Credit Chicago Review Press

Beethoven for Kids: His Life and Music (Chicago Review Press) - Beethoven is such a towering figure in music that children deserve to learn about him, as they say, early and often. Helen Bauer's book is packed with information about the composer's life, conveyed in fun language, impressive graphics and fabulous design work.

The book's 10 chapters deal with some of the major issues and happenings in Beethoven's life, including the Heiligenstadt Testament, Napoleon and the"Eroica" Symphony, Fidelio and Beethoven's family problems.

Text boxes contain tremendous enrichment information about the Hapsburgs, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, medicine in the nineteenth century, the women Beethoven loved and Beethoven's doctors.

The book is also packed with terrifically imaginative learning activities that guide readers to create their own dioramas of the dungeon scene in Fidelio, to draw pictures inspired by Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony and even to create plaster life masks of themselves in imitation of Beethoven's iconic death mask.

Some great added-extras include a short list of CDs and DVDs, a list of Beethoven-related places to visit, a glossary of musical terms and a bibliography.

Who Was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
Credit Grosset & Dunlap

Who Was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? (Grosset & Dunlap) - An installment in Grosset & Dunlap's "Who Was ..." series, this book about one of music's all-time greatest boy geniuses will certainly appeal to young readers.

Author Yona Zeldis McDonough's text recounts the basic outline of Mozart's life, including his tour of the courts of Europe as a child prodigy, the beginnings - and ignominious demise - of his professional career in the service of the Salzburg court, his life as a family man in Vienna and his untimely death.

Carrie Robbins' black-and-white illustrations portray Mozart and his family and associates in vibrant line and shading. Timelines of Mozart's life and of major world events offer a concise opportunity for children and parents to understand Mozart's life in a broader historical context. 

Getting to Know the World's Greatest Composers
Credit Children's Press

  Getting to Know the World's Greatest Composers (Children's Press) - The 14 titles in writer and illustrator Mike Venezia's classic series explore the lives and work of many of the big-name composers - Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin, Handel, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky among them.

The books are written with an eye for bringing out the composers' human stories and are also peppered with a sizeable number of references to notable musical works. The photographs and illustrations in multiple styles bring great depth and an extra dash of fun to the storytelling. this series will add fuel to a young reader's fire for music. 

Meet the Orchestra
Credit Voyager Books

  Meet the Orchestra (Voyager Books) - Children have natural affinities for music and animals, so what could be better than a children's book about music featuring animals who play the instruments of the orchestra?

Author Ann Hayes and illustrator Karmen Thompson have created a delightful musical menagerie that sweetly and cleverly draws children into that otherwise potentially scary-looking gang of black-tuxedoed adults called the orchestra.

In this book, a walrus thumps a double bass, a polar bear plays the bassoon, a wart hog plays the tuba and - naturally - a lion conducts in illustrations that bring out the personalities of each instrument through the personalities of the animals who play them. Through delightful personifications, Hayes' text makes each instrument a friend every young reader would like to have and the orchestra not such a scary thing after all.

May 10 is Youth & Family Day at WOSU@COSI. Activities start at 12:30pm. A concert by the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra begins at 3 pm.