Author: Muriel Harris Weinstein
Illustrator: Frank Morrison
Age Range: 7-10
Cover Score: ****
Overall Grade: ****
I'm always a sucker for biographies, especially of the picture book or short chapter book variety. I love that you can get a chunk of a story or glimpse into someone's life and learn so much in just a few pages. Make it the biography of someone I grew up with (not literally of course) and I'm sold!
I don't remember a time when I didn't know who Louis Armstrong was. His unique voice is as powerful a memory device for me as certain smells can be. Closing my eyes and listening to him sing and wail away on his trumpet can instantly take me back to my grandpa's living room or a long car ride with my family or a dozen other places. He and Ella Fitzgerald (whom he partnered with extensively in his later career) are as much a part of my family as any of my blood relatives, I just haven't had a chance to meet them...yet!
So, this little gem of a book is a brief and simplified introduction to Louis' life, told from the viewpoint of his horn. Watching a small, eager boy from his perch in the pawn shop window he sees him scrabble to make a few meager coins to help support his single mother and baby sister. He watches Louis mimic the musicians in the parades that traipse through the streets of New Orleans on a constant basis. He mourns when Louis is sent to a correctional facility after a misunderstanding and rejoices when Louis returns home and is finally able to scrape together enough money to make the horn his own.
The book is filled with words and phrases that paint pictures of the time and place as well as the music, the voice of the horn carrying just enough slang to flavor the text but not so much that it will confuse young readers. Here are a couple of samples:
Louis soft-shoed up to the counter. He put the five bucks down. When Louis picked me up, I wanted to blow so darn loud that all the horn players in New Orleans would cry, "Now that's what I call a horn"
Louis looked at my old, stained body and said he could shine me up so good I'd make everybody squint. Then--without ever reading a note, without ever taking a lesson--Little Louis picked me up, puckered his lips, and blew "Home, Sweet Home" as if it were born on his tongue. (pg. 43)
Louis walked to the front of the stage. They had no mics then. Louis tilted his head back and blew a new kind of blues, blowing notes higher than anyone had ever heard, holding them longer than anyone else--notes that moaned, then turned sugar sweet and soared so high they touched the moon. One by one each note turned colors: first blue, then lazy purple, then spinning round like pink molasses and cotton candy, then into swirls of rainbow-colored ribbons. All floated down as soft as velvet, turning in the air, curling into your ears. (pg. 74-75)
Good stuff, eh?
The story leaves off just as Louis is rising to fame and fortune but there is an afterword that gives the reader some additional information about jazz music in general, his influence on musicians everywhere and the rest of his life. There's also a glossary for some of the lesser-known and slang phrases and a nice list of references (including two autobiographies which have landed on my ever-growing TBR list!)
There are also some illustrations that nicely complement the text. The black and white charcoaly sketches lend themselves to the feel of the time period and will encourage any reluctant readers who will only read books with pictures!
Louis Armstrong had a rough start but his effervescent spirit and his willingness to work hard saw him through the tough spots and helped him succeed. A great lesson for all of us! Highly recommended for anyone interested in African American history, jazz music, or a host of other topics.
(*sigh* One day I will learn to play the trumpet!)