Mr. Mergler, Beethoven, and Me by David Gutnick

Mr. Mergler, Beethoven, and Me

David Gutnick, Author

Mathilde Cinq-Mars, Illustrator

Second Story Press, Fiction, Apr. 18, 2018

Suitable for Ages:5-8

Themes: Music, Piano teacher, Intergenerational relationships, Friendship, Loss

Opening: Not long after my family arrived from China, I went to the park with my father, whom I call Baba. Lots of people went there to play…it is where I met someone I will always remember.

Synopsis: Shortly after a girl and her family arrive from China, she and her father (Baba) meet an older gentleman in a park. They learn that Mr. Mergler has taught piano lessons to hundreds of students for over 50 years. Baba proudly shares that his daughter plays the piano at their church. Mr. Mergler asks her to sing her favorite song. He closes his eyes as he listens.  He hears music in a way that most of us can’t. When she finishes, Mr. Mergler recognizes the girl’s talent and offers to give her piano lessons. Their bond grows as she studies with him.  Her fingers fly over the ivory keys and she becomes lost in the magic of her music.  After many months of study, the girl learns that Mr. Mergler is ill. Mr. Mergler sends her a letter and a special gift.

Why I like this book:

This is a heartwarming multicultural and intergenerational story about a girl and her elderly music teacher. The author beautifully captures the affection and bond between teacher and student — and all of the hundreds of students who lives he’s touched. His walls are adorned with their photographs.

This story is inspired by the life of the wonderful and generous musician Daniel Mergler, who loved to teach children. It is a story that will inspire many classically trained young musicians. It is also a tribute to a quiet and kind man who was adored by his students. His story brought tears to my eyes as I reminisced about many of my favorite piano teachers as a child, teen and young adult. I am sure many adults reading this story with their children will recall their memories of favorite teachers.

Mathilde Cinq-Mars soft and whimsical illustrations carry their own melody with musical symbols woven into the delicate composition. They are exquisite and compliment the text.

Resources: Make sure you read the material about the lives of Daniel Mergler and Beethoven at the end of the story. They give insight into Mr. Mergler and are a good way to address music with children. Music can be made with many items. If you don’t have a piano, give children a harmonica, kazoo, bells, pots and pans to play with to encourage rhythm and fun.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

Daddy Played the Blues by Michael Garland

Daddy Played the Blues

Michael Garland, Author and Illustrator

Tilbury House Publishers, Fiction, Sep. 8, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Music, The Blues,  Family Relationships, The Great Migration, Jim Crow South

Opening: I was six years old in 1936 the day we left the farm in Mississippi. 

Book Jacket Synopsis: Cassie was six years old when her family left the farm, the boll weevils, the floods, and the landlord.  They could no longer scratch our a living there anymore. They journeyed north in search of a better life.

Cassie’s family joined the Great Migration from the Deep South to Chicago, where there was work to be had in the stockyards. Across the kids’ laps in the back seat of their old jalopy lay Daddy’s six-string guitar. Daddy worked hard to put food on the table, but what he loved doing most was playing the blues.

Daddy Played the Blues is a tribute to the long, ongoing African-American struggle for social and economic justice and a homage to the rich, yearning strain of American music that was born in the cotton fields and bayous of the South and transformed popular music around the world.

Why I like this book:

Garland’s story evokes the heartache for Cassie and her family who were tenant farmers in the sharecropper system during the segregated Jim Crow South. The raw pain of their hard lives is heard in the songs her father and other family members sing. The music becomes an important part of Cassie and her brother’s memories of their trip and new lives in Chicago. Garland’s story is fictional, but historically correct.

Garland’s text is as fluid as the songs Cassie’s Daddy and Uncle Vernon play on the porch steps each night after a day working in the stockyards. If they weren’t playing, they were talking about the WC Handy and Blind Lemon Jefferson or Bessie Smith. Garland highlights the lyrics from four blues songs like “The Little Red Rooster.”

Dogs begin to bark now

And the hounds begin to howl, 

Dogs begin to bark now

And the hounds begin to howl,

Watch out stray cat,

The little red rooster’s on the prowl.

Garland’s illustrations are exquisite and transport readers to this bygone era. They compliment the mood  of Garland’s compassionate storytelling. He pioneered a beautiful medium of digital woodcut technique that really makes this a stand-out picture book about how the blues influenced music around the globe.

Resources: Garland shares how he first heard and fell in love with blues music, becoming a lifelong fan. He  has included Song Credits of some of the great artists. An eight-page Author’s Note gives con­text to the story and provides information about blues history and its influence on generations of popular musicians.  There is also a Map of the Great Migration from 1910-1970, and a double-page spread of the eleven leading blues artists with photos and blurbs about their contribution to the musical history. This is great resource information for older students.

Michael Garland is the illustrator of 75 children’s picture books, half of which he also wrote. Miss Smith and the Haunted Library is a New York Times bestseller. His other recent books include Lost Dog, Tugboat, Car Goes Far, Fish Had a Wish, Where’s My Homework?, and Grandpa’s Tractor.  Michael has been in love with blues music since first hearing it decades ago, and Daddy Played the Blues is his reverent salute to Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins, B.B. Kind and the other bluest greats.  Stop by his website.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

A Band of Babies by Carole Gerber

A Band of Babies

Carole Gerber, Author

Jane Dyer, Illustrator

Harper Collins, Fiction, Jun. 6, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 2-5

Themes: Toddlers, Music, Social Skills, Rhyme

Opening: “Play-group morning. Babies fret — not sure what to do just yet. In struts Benny — new in town. Babies’ frowns turn upside down.”

Synopsis: It was just an ordinary day at daycare…until Benny arrived. Benny is ready for action. He spies a box with drums and sticks. With a flute in hand, the fun begins as babies follow Benny out the door beating on their drums as they march down the street. He teaches all the babies how to put on a show. Toot! Whee! This is one musical band of babies you’ll have to see! This musical journey will have readers of all ages snapping their fingers and tapping their toes!

Why I like this book:

Carole Gerber has written a lively and humorous story for toddlers. Her rhyming and minimal text flows nicely and mimics toddler gibberish!  Babies hungry, want to eat. / “Walk!” says Benny. / “Find a treat.” She also uses a lot of fun words and sounds, that give Jane Dyer’s joyful color-pencil illustrations time to deliver their funny response.  The facial expressions are priceless. This band of babies will charm you from the first spread to the last — and create a little mayhem in between.  This book is the perfect bedtime read, as parents and toddlers giggle at the antics of this fun-loving band of musical babies.

Carole Gerber is a poet and author of nearly two dozen books for children.  Carole has also spent time as an English teacher, a journalism professor, a marketing director, a magazine editor, and a creative ad agency team member.  She lives in Columbus, Ohio, To learn more about Carole Gerber, visit her website.

Resources: Children love to play with musical instruments. Put a tub with drums, a flutophone, a kazoo, a harmonica, old pots and pans, and spoons.  It may get noisy, but your kids will enjoy expressing themselves as the dance and march around the room.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

*The author provided me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Playing from the Heart

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Peter H. Reynolds, Author and Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Apr. 12, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4 – 99

Themes: Music, Piano lessons, Creativity, Family relationships, Father and son, Love

Opening: “The piano stood quietly in the living room for years. Until the day Raj first plunked and pushed the keys, delighted by every sound.”

Synopsis: A boy discovers the beautiful sounds he can make when he thumps the keys of the family piano. His father notices his son, Raj, has a gift for playing from his heart and signs him up for lessons. Raj begins to read notes, learn scales, studies hard and plays classical music. He practices  hard and becomes an excellent pianist over the years. One day he realizes that he doesn’t experience the joy he used to feel and stops playing. Years pass and Raj takes a job in the city. When he receives a call that his father is ill, he hurries home. His father makes a special request for Raj to play the music that first brought him joy.

Why I like this book:

Peter H. Reynolds’ newest treasure, Playing from the Heart, is a timeless story for both children and adults. He hopes that as children become more involved with a musical instrument, “they won’t forget their original joy” and learn to “bend a few rules.” The lyrical text sings from the pages. Reynolds’ illustrations are joyful, serious, emotive and lovingly rendered in black ink with splashes of color. His ample use of white space gives one a sense of freedom.

Playing from the Heart will touch a chord in both young and old who have played an instrument and given it up. I played the piano for years, took a break because of burn out, and returned to my lessons with  renewed enthusiasm. When my husband read Reynolds’ story it stirred up memories of giving up his trumpet in college.

The ending is endearing as Raj sits down to the piano and hopes his heart will remember the joyful melodies he played with such abandonment as a child. There’s heart, there’s love, and there’s a deep connection between father and son. Playing from the Heart is a winner!

Resources: Introduce your child to a musical instrument. It can be a simple as a kazoo, harmonica, drums or xylophone. Encourage your children to be creative and make their own music. If you have a piano, let them play without teaching them. According to  Reynolds, “Creativity thrives on bravery and originality. Let that flow and see where you go.” Visit the award-winning author and illustrator at his website.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

Drum Dream Girl

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Margarita Engle, Author

Rafael Lopez, Illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mar. 31, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes: Drummers, Music, Cuba, Gender equality, Diversity

Opening: “On and island of music / in a city of drumbeats / the drum dream girl / dreamed…”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Girls cannot be drummers. Long ago on an island filled with music and rhythm, no one questioned that rule — until the drum dream girl. She longed to play tall congas and small bongos and silvery, moon-bright timbales. She had to keep her dream quiet. She had to practice in secret. But when at last her music was heard, everyone sang and danced and decided that boys and girls should be free to drum and dream.

Why I like this book: Margarita Engle’s Drum Dream Girl is an inspirational and beautiful work of free-verse historical fiction. As you read this melodic poem out loud, you are drawn to the rhythmic beat of the text about a girl who made a difference. Millo Castro Zaldarriaga is so infused by the music and sounds around her, she can’t help herself.  When she walked under / wind-wavy palm trees / in a flower-bright park / she heard the whir of parrot wings / the clack of woodpeckers breaks / the dancing tap / of her own footsteps / and the comforting pat / of her own / heartbeat. When her sisters hear her drumming, they invite her to join their dance band. Her father says only boys can play drums, but relents and takes her to a teacher.

I applaud Engle for focusing on Zaldarriaga’s young life instead of her career. It is important for children to see how a 10-year-old girl dares to make a difference in 1932 and paves the way for Cuban women to become drummers. There is a historical note about Zaldarriaga and her musical career at the end of the book. Rafael Lopez’s creates his own magic with his vibrant, colorful and dreamy illustrations. His artwork beautifully compliments the story.

Resources: Children love music as much as they enjoy making things.  Make a drum or other musical instruments to encourage creativity and play. Visit the Kinder Art site for steps to make a variety of easy homemade drums.

Author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books (PPB) Fridays will be on hiatus this summer. This will be the last PPB review until September, although you will still be able to visit the link. I will continue to review books throughout the summer.